Celtics guard Marcus Smart at No. 22

The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over the next week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 players under the age of 25.

Throughout Marcus Smart’s first three NBA seasons, he has played an integral role in Brad Stevens’ rotation for the Celtics. Next season, that role should only expand, as the former Oklahoma State guard will be counted on more than ever before.

Coming off a career-high 78 games played at an average of 30.4 minutes per contest, Smart enters a critical 2017-18 campaign. Defensive stalwarts Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are no longer playing for the Celtics, a team that returns just three players other than Smart. That’s a mere four guys returning from last season’s roster. Granted, after winning a conference-best 53 games, the team managed to add Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in the offseason. Nonetheless, the team’s lack of continuity figures to pose certain challenges, at least in the season’s early weeks, if not months. Believe it or not, Smart is currently the longest tenured Celtic. And yet he won’t even turn 24 until March.

Much of Smart’s value, as his name suggests, is derived from his high basketball IQ, particularly when it comes to the defensive end as well as court and situational awareness. Time and again, Smart has been able to force a critical jump ball, grab a timely steal or call a timeout when his team desperately needed one. He embodies the cliché of an intelligent yet gritty player whom teammates love to play alongside almost as much as opponents dislike matching up against.

Smart’s 2.6 steal percentage just missed cracking the league’s top 10 in 2016-17. But anyone who’s watched Smart knows that he’s not out there gambling for takeaways. Rather, he retains good body position, using disciplined footwork and that aforementioned awareness. Smart’s 24 drawn charges are illustrative. In that category, he ranked fourth in the NBA last season, trailing just two big men (Ersan Ilyasova and Marreese Speights) and Kemba Walker. With many more opportunities for big men to draw a charge, it’s impressive that Smart ranks so high on such a list.

As was the case when playing next to Isaiah Thomas, Smart will be relied upon to help overcome Irving’s defensive deficiencies. On most nights, expect Smart to defend the opposing team’s point guard with Irving drawing the other guard. That approach should help allow Irving to conserve more of his energy for the offensive end.

Smart claims to have trimmed down to 219 pounds, telling reporters in early September that he “lost 20 pounds in the last two months” by eating well and working hard in the gym. This picture appears to corroborate Smart’s report, with the 6-foot-4 guard looking to be in terrific shape:

His weight advantage against smaller guards often seemed to help Smart outmuscle his opponents on both sides of the ball. While it remains to be seen if Smart will see any strength drop-off after shedding those pounds, he told the media he was excited to be more explosive on the court.

The young guard continues to try to improve his shooting consistency but still has a long way to go. Despite his fairly good decision-making with defense and facilitation, Smart’s shot selection leaves much to be desired. He’s a career 29.1 percent 3-point shooter, yet more than 44.0 percent of his 2016-17 field-goal attempts came from beyond the arc. To make matters worse, he continues to be a poor 3-point shooter despite NBA.com categorizing nearly 80 percent of those 3-point tries last season as uncontested shots.

Advising Smart not to try so many treys can be a tricky thing. Smart is an ultra-confident player who carries with him a constant swagger. There’s also his streakiness. Last postseason, in 18 games, Smart hit 39.7 percent of his long-range attempts, while launching nearly five 3-pointers per contest. When he’s feeling it, he’s feeling it. Few question his ability to catch fire; it’s just that it doesn’t happen often enough. Moving forward, the Celtics will hope Smart’s rough shooting patches become much more infrequent. Consistency will be the key, which is much easier said than done.

However, Smart’s progressively improving free-throw percentage is a promising sign for his shooting. By his third pro season, he increased his charity-stripe success rate to upwards of 81 percent, not to mention having boasted a solid 77.7 percent the season before. A guard — or really any player — shooting around 80 percent from the line should not be hitting such a low percentage of his 2-point shots. Irving’s expected dribble penetration could result in better looks for Smart this season. Then again, it could also clog the paint and require him to venture farther from the basket. Last season, just 22.4 percent of his shot attempts came inside of 3-feet, a precipitous decline from 29.1 percent just a season earlier. Unsurprisingly, Smart is most efficient offensively when he’s getting to the rim.

Smart’s passing ability will likely fit nicely yet again with fellow skilled passer Al Horford, as the Celtics aim to counteract Irving’s ball-stopping tendencies. Of course, it is often preferable for him to isolate, but when he’s not, Smart and Horford should be helping to move the ball around in a quick but careful manner. Smart’s assist percentage rose by a sizable 6.2 points last season.

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