For years, Marcus Smart watched his game get scrutinized and criticized by a Celtics fan base that didn’t quite know what to expect from the burly guard from Oklahoma State.
It’s taken a few years, but Smart has refined his game, turning himself into an indispensable part of the Celtics franchise as a relentless defender, a vastly-improved point guard, and soul of a team that captured the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
What Smart didn’t really think was possible was being voted NBA Defensive Player of the Year, an award not presented to a guard since Seattle’s Gary Payton in 1996.
Fast forward to Monday afternoon when Smart was the last one invited to an informal workout at Auerbach Center. When Smart arrived, Payton was there to present him with the honor he has sought but eluded him for years.
Smart became the first Celtic since Kevin Garnett in 2008 to win Defensive Player of the Year and the first Boston guard in the 40-year history of the award. Smart received 257 points and 37 of the 100 first-place votes and edged out Phoenix guard Mikal Bridges (202 points, 22 first-place votes) and three-time winner Rudy Gobert (136 points, 12 first-place votes) for his first major NBA award.
Overwhelmed by the honor as he was cheered by his teammates, Smart grasped the glass ball presented by Payton and smiled brightly. It was Smart’s day, a time to appreciate his accomplishments, improvement and progress over eight years.
“This is an honor and, literally, me and my teammates and the whole Celtics organization, we’ve been really working and trying to see if [a guard winning] will be changed today,” he said. “Today was the day.
“When I came out and saw [Payton] things kind of clicked, and I started to put two and two together.”
Smart helped the Celtics become the NBA’s No. 1 ranked defense after a rough first two months. He finished tied for third in the NBA in steals with 1.7 per game and, at times, was called upon to guard all five positions in coach Ime Udoka’s switching defense.
Defensive Player of the Year, of late, had become an award that strictly recognized big men because of their rim protection and blocked shots. Guards were left out of the voting because of lingering questions about their defensive impact. Smart and Bridges helped revive consideration for defensive-minded guards.
Smart even posted a Tweet last month of several examples how different the world was 26 years ago, as a means of showing his followers how long it had been since a guard won the award.
“It’s understandable why it was such a big man [dominated] award, they do so much and help their team on that end,” he said. “Guards have been working. We’re the front line. You’ve got to get past us first. That’s how we guards feel. It just shows that it can be done. The way the game is changing, guards are being more recognized to do certain things we shouldn’t be able to do at our size.”
For Smart, Boston’s sixth overall pick in 2014, the award recognized his laborious journey to the NBA that included the personal strife of losing his older brother, Todd Westbrook, to leukemia in 2004 and his mother, Camellia, to cancer in 2018.
“I would say I wish my mom was still here, but she’s here looking down on me,” he said. “I think she helped me continue to strive and actually win this award because each and every day I’m thinking of her and my brother, and I come into work every day and lay it all out on the line.
“There’s a lot of emotions, but I’m definitely excited right now to be able to share this with all my loved ones.”
Celtics center Robert Williams was sixth in voting with one first-place vote and one second-place vote. Al Horford received a second-place vote.
Smart never has been one to shy away from his critics or detractors. Over the years, he’s long been the subject of trade rumors, or calls to come off the bench. When Udoka took the job in June and insisted Smart was his starting point guard, there were doubts as to whether Smart was capable of handling such an immense responsibility.
“I’ve always said without those naysayers, without those what we like to call ‘haters,’ I wouldn’t be able to go out there and do what I do,” he said. “They inspire me to strive to be the greatest I can be. What I have to say to them is ‘Thank you, keep it up.’”