What is hustle worth? Heart? Competitiveness and leadership? These traits — known as “intangibles” — often seem like bonuses, tacked on toward the end of player evaluations that open with gushing remarks about size and athleticism, skill and talent.
But more than anything, these are the traits that define Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, who is projected as a top-10 pick in next week’s NBA Draft.
“He just has every intangible you’d ever want,” said one Eastern Conference scout.
Said a Western Conference scout, “Many coaches say, ‘He’s as good a leader as I’ve ever been around.’ ”
Said another Western Conference scout, “You’re drafting a guy because of his intangibles, because of his toughness, because of the winning mentality, the winning desire.”
Said another Eastern Conference scout: “Phenomenal, phenomenal competitor. That’s why he can play. He’s had to make himself into a basketball player, because he’s just an incredible competitor. He truly cares about winning the most.
“It’s all the intangibles that make him — his grit, his toughness.”
Smart, a native of Flower Mound, Texas, was considered a potential lottery pick after his freshman season, but he opted to return to school.
Then, toward the end of this past season — in which he averaged 18.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.8 assists — Smart was in the spotlight for the wrong reason. In February, late in a game against Texas Tech, Smart shoved a fan in the stands after a verbal altercation.
Smart was suspended three games for the incident, which NBA teams brought up during interviews with Smart at the Chicago draft combine in May.
“I told them that’s something that happened that’s in the past,” Smart said at the combine. “I’m not proud of it. But I’m trying to move on from that. I’ve got bigger and better things I’m looking forward to in my life. If I’m too busy looking in the past, how can I see what’s in front of me with the future?”
Not one scout or executive interviewed by the Globe said that the fan-shoving incident was a red flag.
“That wasn’t the first time that a player has got involved with a fan,” said a Western Conference executive. “It was unfortunate for him, because I think his character is outstanding. That doesn’t change a thing with me as far as his character. That was just kind of an isolated incident where he was lost for a moment. And who knows what was said, except him? I don’t hold that against him at all — at all.”
Said an Eastern Conference scout, “I don’t think that character stuff bothers me at all. I think the kid was just feeling the pressure a little bit this year and broke down a little bit with second-guessing his decision to come back when they were losing and it all kind of boiled over.
“I look at it more so like, yeah, that’s a sign of what could happen when things get rough in the NBA. Is he going to snap? Yeah, there’s that side of it. But at the same time . . . if things weren’t going my way when I’m 19 years old, I’m probably sure to snap on somebody too, especially if they’re calling me names or something like that. And if the racist comment was true, I know for certain, me, I’m not confrontational but I would’ve punched the guy.”
Said a Western Conference scout: “I just wonder if it’s frustration when things started going south with the team. I never, ever once got the impression that he was a bad guy.”
Smart boasts an NBA-ready body, powerfully built at 6 feet 3 inches, 227 pounds.
“He’s a big, strong guard,” said an Eastern Conference executive. “He has a physicality in our league.”
Said a league source familiar with Smart, “He’s a bull-in-a-china-shop-type guy — hits people, kind of an old throwback.”
But what position will he play? That’s up for debate. Some say point guard, others shooting guard.
“He’s not a point guard,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “He’s not really an off-guard because he can’t shoot. So you basically put him out there because he competes and he wants to win so badly. He’s maybe a better Eric Snow or Willie Green — guys that have made it because they’re just so mentally and physically tough. I see that with Marcus.”
A Western Conference scout disagreed.
“A lot of people question whether he’s a point guard, I think he’s absolutely a point guard,” the scout said. “He defends. He can score in a lot of ways. He can guard multiple positions. He’s strong, competitive. I love him. To me, he should be the first quote-unquote point guard off the board.”
An Eastern Conference scout said Smart needs to play point guard to be effective.
“I think he’s a [point guard], more so for the fact that I don’t think he can play [shooting guard],” the scout said. “You can’t have an undersized [shooting guard] who can’t shoot, and he’s dominated the ball his whole life, so the last thing [you want to do is], you get to this level and you know one thing, but now we’re going to teach you something completely different — learn how to play off the ball. It just wouldn’t work. But I think he can play [point]. I think he’ll be good just because he’ll figure it out.”
As mentioned, Smart’s shooting is suspect. He shot 42.2 percent from the floor and just 29.9 percent from 3-point range last season.
“He can’t shoot at the moment,” the league source said. “I guess his shooting is improving, but it’s kind of hard to play people at [shooting guard] who can’t shoot.”
Others have also questioned his court vision, a skill natural to most point guards, but with Smart, it comes back to intangibles.
“His numbers are good, but the thing with him that I think is his strength is his leadership. He’s a tough, tough leader and he’s not afraid,” said a Western Conference executive.
“Again, his size, he’s going to have to be a point guard. He’s got really good length, as well. I think he’s going to be a real good defender in the NBA. He needs to work on his shooting and his range. But other than that, I think he’s going to be a real solid player for whatever team gets him. I think he’s going to have a real good career. He’s physically tough and he has leadership. You don’t see that a lot in guys coming out.”
Still, it’s not often that a player’s intangibles appear to be his greatest strength.
“I think for the most part it’s easier to identify strengths and weaknesses based on what you see on the floor, and then if those are so outstanding, they’ll overcome [other things], like if the guy doesn’t have a high basketball IQ or his character is kind of low or, hey, he’ll never be a leader,” a Western Conference scout said.
“Their talent overrides their lack of leadership or their lack of toughness or whatever they’re lacking. I think what helps [Smart] more than anybody is, you’re hoping that his intangibles help him. Like, he’s a hard worker and he’s tough, so he’ll become a better shooter, or that his leadership and those qualities will let him lead a team even when he’s maybe Derek Fisher.
“Maybe he’s not a great 3-point shooter, but he’s stocky. And now he becomes Derek Fisher, who was a second-round pick and has become a tremendous NBA playoff player. So you’re taking the character and hoping that those qualities help him build up his deficiencies, because the deficiencies, to me, make him an average NBA player.
“But if his intangibles can raise him to a level that makes him an overachiever, then I think I’ll take that guy. At least I know that I’ll have a good guy in the locker room that I live with what I see, and hoping that maybe there’s a little bit more there.”