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Years before drafting him, Celtics eyed Marcus Smart

For Danny Ainge and his staff, a three-year process finally found a fruitful end.

“Even as a 17- or 18-year-old, he was a man,” Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge said of Marcus Smart (above). “And his toughness and competitiveness just leapt off the page.”
“Even as a 17- or 18-year-old, he was a man,” Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge said of Marcus Smart (above). “And his toughness and competitiveness just leapt off the page.”Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File 2015/Globe Staff

After Marcus Smart was selected by the Celtics with the sixth overall pick of last June’s NBA draft, the guard had dinner at a posh Italian restaurant in Manhattan with fellow draft picks such as Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid. Then Smart and his family continued the fete at a quiet rooftop lounge.

It was, on the surface, a simple and happy end to a simple and happy time. Smart had been one of the draft’s top options, and the Celtics’ decision seemed logical, if not obvious.

In reality, though, the choice was the result of an exhaustive evaluation process. Smart did not know it on that warm June night, but the Celtics had been working toward the moment for several years.

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President of basketball operations Danny Ainge is known as one of the league’s more active and omnipresent lead executives. He travels constantly because he finds great value in seeing players in person rather than on television or highlight films.

Ainge maintains a small and fiercely loyal scouting department. His son, Austin, is the director of player personnel, and director of scouting Dave Lewin oversees scouts Remy Cofield and Jake Eastman. And that, essentially, is it. Fewer voices means less clutter, but it also brings urgency to their roles.

When Smart was attending high school in Flower Mound, Texas, Lewin was a scout for the Cavaliers. He’d heard glowing reviews about Smart, particularly from Dave Telep, who was then a national recruiting analyst and is now the scouting coordinator for the Spurs.

So in early April 2012, Lewin traveled to Louisville, Ky., where Smart was playing in the Derby Festival Classic, a second-tier national all-star game for high school seniors. The game included future stars such as Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker and eventual Oklahoma City Thunder lottery pick Steven Adams. But Smart stood out.

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“He was the most exciting player there,” Lewin said. “Just how hard he played, how quick he was getting to loose balls, how physical he was.”

Smart won the event’s dunk contest by doing a front flip before gathering a pass off the backboard for a reverse dunk. His muscular frame belied his age.

Later that month, Smart caught Austin Ainge’s attention at the McDonald’s All-American Game.

“Even as a 17- or 18-year-old, he was a man,” Ainge said. “And his toughness and competitiveness just leapt off the page.”

Celtics executives kept tabs on Smart when he played for USA Basketball’s U18 national team that summer. There was no way to know what he would become, or if Boston would ever be in position to draft him. But Smart had piqued the franchise’s interest, and those feelings swelled when he began playing for Oklahoma State.

“He had stretches in games that I thought were just spectacular from a competitive standpoint,” Danny Ainge said. “He was an unpolished product, but I liked his spirit and just how he approached each game. I liked that fire.”

Smart was named the Big 12 Player of the Year as a freshman, and Ainge would have pursued him had he declared for the NBA that year. But Smart returned to school as a sophomore.

Lewin, who joined the Celtics in August 2012, went to Orlando early in the 2013-14 season and saw Smart play three games in the Old Spice Classic. The previous year that event had helped him identify another future Celtics first-round pick, Kelly Olynyk. Maybe history would repeat itself.

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Smart poured in 30 points in the opening game against Purdue, and Lewin was rapt.

“I talked to Danny about Marcus probably every day I was down there, how he was doing, what I was seeing,” Lewin said. “I knew Marcus was a guy who exemplified the characteristics that Danny values, so over time we had a constant dialogue about what he brought to the table and how he fit with the team we were trying to build.”

Lewin began to gather intelligence from Oklahoma State sources, visiting with coaches, graduate assistants, and managers. Some college coaches tout their players to NBA scouts regardless of reality, but flimsy praise reveals itself in time. Others tell the truth even if the truth hurts. Lewin had built a trust with the Cowboys’ staff, so their admiration of Smart was significant.

Four days before Christmas, Cofield went to Las Vegas to watch Oklahoma State face Colorado at the MGM Grand. When he returned to Boston and filed his report, Cofield noted Smart’s defensive versatility and intensity, traits that coach Brad Stevens highly values.

Warning sign?

On Feb. 8, though, there was a setback. In the final seconds of Oklahoma State’s loss at Texas Tech, Smart tumbled into the crowd after being fouled on a fast break. When he stood, a man in the crowd said something that led Smart to shove him. Smart was suspended for three games and there were new questions about his temperament.

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The Celtics’ brass had initial concerns, but through their research they determined it was an isolated and unfortunate moment, not a warning sign. Yes, Marcus Smart was fiery, but it typically just came across in his play.

“Every coach, every teammate that Marcus has ever had just thought the guy was a warrior,” Austin Ainge said.

As the season unfolded, though, it was unclear if the Celtics would have a pick high enough to acquire Smart. The staff believed they would finish with a choice close to No. 10, and they thought Smart could be taken as high as second or third overall. So they were careful to expand their evaluations of other prospects.

But by the time Smart declared for the draft on April 7, the Celtics were finishing a frustrating 25-57 season that would put them in the thick of the draft lottery. They then intensified their pursuit of Smart.

“Sometimes we dig as deep as talking to a player’s high school teachers and college professors,” Danny Ainge said. “Suffice it to say we talked to dozens of people that were close to Marcus.”

The questions were rarely related to the guard’s obvious physical skills. They knew he could attack the rim. They knew he could smother an opponent. They knew all of that.

“We’re asking about things that are harder to see, like what kind of teammate he is, how coachable he is, what his work habits are,” Lewin said. “Is this a player who has committed himself to improving his weaknesses?”

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The answer, resoundingly, was yes.

Showcasing himself

Smart signed with the Wasserman Media Group soon after entering the draft. As a favor to friends in the sports agency, Darren Erman, who had just been fired as an assistant coach with the Warriors, agreed to put Smart through a few workouts in Los Angeles.

Individual sessions did not play to Smart’s strengths, though, because there was no one for him to defeat. Erman thought back to the first time he worked out Warriors rookie Klay Thompson in 2011. He told Thompson to go around the 3-point arc and make as many shots in a row as he could. Erman said Thompson made 13 in a row from the left corner, eight from the left arc, 10 from the top of the key, 11 from the right wing, and eight from the right corner.

This workout was not like that one.

“Marcus was good when we did defensive drills, but I just couldn’t tell about his offense,” Erman said. “I couldn’t. He’d just left college, and he’s not a knockdown shooter yet. And I’d just got done working with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.”

About two weeks later, Erman was hired by the Celtics. He told Danny Ainge about the workouts with Smart. Although he liked his intangibles, Erman was uncertain about his offensive skills.

Cowboy up
Marcus Smart in two seasons at Oklahoma State.
Season PPG FG% 3P% FT% APG
2012-13 15.4 .404 .290 .777 4.2
2013-14 18.0 .422 .299 .728 4.8

“But Danny wasn’t worried,” said Erman, who is now the New Orleans Pelicans’ associate head coach. “He loved his toughness. He loved him from Day One. And that’s why Danny is great at what he does.”

The draft lottery was held May 20 and the Celtics ended up with the sixth pick. They condensed their list, with Smart and Arizona forward Aaron Gordon rising to the top.

The staff again watched Smart’s key college games and reached out to additional sources. They decided that Smart’s instincts, toughness, and physicality made him NBA-ready. They thought his shooting and pick-and-roll abilities could improve with coaching.

“About two weeks before the draft,” Lewin said, “it became clear to me that out of the players who had the potential to be available to us, Danny was most comfortable with and most excited about Marcus.”

Smart visited the Celtics’ training facility in Waltham on June 23 for a stacked six-player workout that included eventual first-round picks Elfrid Payton, Nik Stauskas, Gary Harris, and Zach LaVine, and second-round pick Jordan Clarkson.

Smart was the group’s headliner. Players in his situation often avoid competition because there is little to gain and plenty to lose. Kentucky forward Julius Randle, for example, completed a solo workout for the Celtics that morning. But that was not Smart’s style.

“Whoever you put in front of me, I’m not going to back down,” he said that day. “I’ve never backed down from a challenge.”

Early in the session, Smart leaped to block a shot and twisted his ankle when he landed awkwardly on LaVine’s foot. He did not reveal his pain, because he did not want to show weakness. But now, he acknowledges, that injury flustered him. He missed shot after shot.

Danny Ainge’s opinion did not change, but the lukewarm showing ignited some concerns among others on the staff.

“We were like, ‘Wow, that was bad,’ ” Austin Ainge said.

So the Celtics made an unusual request: They wanted Smart to return for a second workout.

“I’m going to come back better this time than I was last time,” Smart told his agents at Wasserman. “And if they want me to come back a third time, I’m gonna be even better.”

In Smart’s second workout, his competitive fire was apparent. He had something to prove.

“I was getting to the rim, making shots, playing defense,” he said. “I made my dominance known.”

Said Danny Ainge: “Our staff was not on the same page before that. His second workout allowed us to collectively and unanimously be on the same page.”

Plan comes together

A week before the draft, Ainge asks his staff to compile their individual rankings of prospects. The information is a reference point, but ultimately this is not a democracy. Ainge decided he wanted Smart; now he had to see if he could get him.

Smart’s agent, Josh Ketroser, said the Orlando Magic — picking fourth — had once been very high on him. But Orlando selected Gordon. Then Dante Exum, a guard from Australia, was taken fifth overall by the Utah Jazz.

The Celtics’ staff sat in their war room at TD Garden and briefly gauged trade activity, and Danny Ainge recalls it being mostly quiet. There were about two minutes left to make the pick when the Celtics called Smart as he sat at a table with his family at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

“You’re just kind of like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ ’’ Smart said. “This is really happening.”

Smart’s family was ecstatic, and Smart asked them to stay calm because he wouldn’t truly believe it until he heard commissioner Adam Silver read his name. Then Smart looked over at his mother and saw the joy on her face, and the reality set in.

For Ainge and his staff, a process that had been in motion for nearly three years had finally found a fruitful end. Marcus Smart, who would go on to become a second-team All-Rookie selection this past season, was a Boston Celtic.

But for the team’s scouting department, the relief after the draft was fleeting. When the night ended, Lewin went home and slept for nearly 12 hours. The next day he was on a plane to Washington to attend a high school all-star showcase run by Kevin Durant. The cycle had begun once more.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.