KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the decision transpired, the one his head coach deemed improbable and teammates dared not hope for, Marcus Smart became the season’s biggest comeback story before the season even started.
Bona fide NBA lottery picks, much less top-five prospects, don’t typically stick around to become college sophomores. Yet there was the lion-hearted point guard last April, emerging from a two-week period of soul-scouring and self-conflict to spurn the draft and remain at Oklahoma State. Why postpone the paycheck? Why delay the dream?
Because winners like Smart don’t blow off 13-point NCAA upset losses to Oregon. They don’t treat college basketball as a mere rung on the ladder to riches.
We sensed Smart was special when he became only the third freshman to earn Big 12 Player of the Year. He confirmed it by becoming the only one to return for Year 2.
“He had some unfinished business here that he needed to get handled,” said OSU forward Michael Cobbins.
In that elimination ouster to Oregon, Smart was a cold-shooting, turnover-prone player with an injured wrist and a bruised ego. Hardly the legacy he wanted to leave at Oklahoma State.
“If we had made a deeper run I probably wouldn’t be here,” he said Tuesday during Big 12 media day. “But I don’t think me nor the team gave it our all against Oregon. It left a disgusting taste in our mouths.”
So disgusting that coach Travis Ford hasn’t reviewed the game video with his team. “He knows how hyped it’s going to get us,” Smart surmised.
And hype is already in rich supply for these Cowboys, so jammed with talent that league coaches are split on their chances of dethroning right-time defending champ Kansas. History sides with the Jayhawks, but from the moment Smart defied conventional wisdom by returning to school, OSU possessed the best starting five.
“Making history,” replied Smart when asked about this season’s mission at Oklahoma State. “We have everybody coming back and a great group of guys coming in, so why not?”
The kid is charismatic beyond his years, yet still inclined to embrace the fun side of college athletics. The same player who runs Ford’s team with bird-dog intensity on the court, keeps morale soaring off of it.
“I see him playing jokes on teammates and dancing in the locker room,” Ford said. “I think he understood it’s not quite like that in the NBA.
Multiple conversations with family and Ford preceded decision day in April, when the coach said Smart came to realize, “I can experience college for one more year and still play 15 years in the NBA.” It’s like having his cake and eating it too.”
Though OSU’s chance to be elite hinged upon his star’s return, Ford claimed to play devil’s advocate, reiterating what a prized draft spot Smart was forgoing.
“Marcus was a guaranteed top-three pick,” the coach said. “If money was the most important thing to him, he wouldn’t be here today.”
Smart wound up getting a taste of NBA competition anyway when he became one of two college players invited to the Team USA mini-camp this summer. That’s when Ford lobbied general managers to re-invest in Smart come 2014.
“He will change the atmosphere of your team,” said Ford. “You don’t want to be the guy five years down the road who passed on him.”