NEW YORK — The lone Celtic to participate in All-Star Weekend really didn’t. Kelly Olynyk did not play in Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge because of a sprained right ankle. He took part in pregame interviews Thursday and that was all.
The Celtic who garnered the most attention during Friday’s All-Star media session is currently resting in Flower Mound, Texas, after a rigorous first half of his rookie season.
Even though Marcus Smart missed 14 games because of a badly sprained left ankle, many of the NBA’s top players are fully aware of his potential. Smart is only 20, but his eventual inheritance of the Celtics’ leadership mantle is unquestioned.
The fact Smart already has a defensive mind-set and his improved 3-point shooting and aggression have reverberated throughout the league.
“He’s going to be good,” said Houston Rockets guard James Harden, who shot 4 for 21 against the Celtics Jan. 30, mostly against Smart’s defense. “Good hands. Good feet. Starting to shoot the ball a lot better. He’s getting a lot better. I’m sure he works extremely hard. I saw him this past summer with USA Basketball and he looked really good.”
The adjustment, the All-Stars say, will be gradual in defending the NBA’s better guards. Like Smart, most of these elite players were thrust into starting or primary roles early in their careers.
“It’s a grind, it’s not going to be easy,” Harden said. “You’re going to have some times when you’re struggling but you’ve got to find a way to push through those times. Just be consistent. My coach [Scott Brooks with Oklahoma City] told me when I got in [the NBA] it’s all about consistency and with my work ethic and my focus, just always being prepared.”
East starter John Wall has been the lead man with the Washington Wizards since his rookie season in 2010-11. At age 20, Wall was the point guard of a veteran team that had to accept his on-court orders. The adjustment from being a private to being a sergeant is difficult.
“I came in right away and had a lot of guys on my team, everybody expected me to do so great right away and I had to adjust to it,” Wall said. “I kind of had to lead by example because I didn’t want to say too much to the veteran guys. I didn’t want people to say, ‘Well, he thinks he’s already all that.’
“You’ve got to find a way to fit in but I think [Smart] has great veterans over there and guys that want to teach him the right way. [Leadership] had to come with time. I dealt with injuries early on, coaching changes and guys getting traded from my team, so I dealt with the stuff when it wasn’t success and [now] I’m able to deal with success.”
The Wizards have faced the Celtics three times this season and Wall came away impressed with Smart.
“I think he’s good,” Wall said. “He’s one of the young guys that comes in and does it like [Celtics teammate] Avery Bradley. He comes in being a defensive-minded guy and when you show coaches you’re committed to that side of the ball first, you let your offensive game catch up and figure out the other things. But he’s doing it the right way, taking on the defensive challenges and not backing down from nobody.”
The most noticeable aspect of Smart’s mental makeup is his refusal to relent to more experienced opponents. He developed a mini-rivalry with Toronto’s Kyle Lowry during the preseason. Lowry, a first-time All-Star and one of the league’s most tenacious guards, admires Smart’s guile.
“That kid’s good, man,” Lowry said. “I think he has the ability to really grow and be a lead guard and be a leader. He has toughness and that mentality to be a leader. I think he’s really going to keep growing and just developing. The big thing with him is just keep continuing to work, no matter what the situation. Get better. Don’t worry about the things that’s going on [around you]. Grow as an individual.”
Lowry took five years to become a full-time starting point guard and Toronto is his third team.
“It’s real tough because when you first come into the league, you want to fit in,” Lowry said. “Once you’re a leader, it will come back around and your teammates will respect you and it kind of falls on to you just by the way you work and the way you approach the game.”
The consensus among the All-Star guards is that it will take Smart time to command his team and become the face of the franchise.
“I think I had the oldest team in the league when I first started [at point guard],” Atlanta’s Jeff Teague said. “I had Tracy McGrady on my team and Jerry Stackhouse. To tell those guys to go somewhere and to follow your lead is really tough. But [Smart] has that personality and that demeanor that he can probably lead a team.”