The strangest thing Marcus Smart said Wednesday when he announced he would forego the NBA Draft and take his talents back to Stillwater came at the end of his explanation.
“I’m aware of how much money I’m giving up.”
A strange business decision for a guy whose business is basketball.
Assuming Smart, who last month won Big 12 Player of the Year honors as a freshman guard at Oklahoma State, leaves after his sophomore season and his drafted in the same area as he would have been this year, he will have cost himself around $2 million. He was projected as a high lottery pick, and the NBA’s rookie pay scale pays the No. 5 pick $2.9 million and slides down to $1.8 million for the 10th pick, $1.4 million for the 15th pick, and so on. Any sports agent alive would have advised Smart to declare, and most players in his position would already be fitted for their weird suit for draft night.
But there is another consideration, too; one that is often difficult for teenage basketball stars to see. The first NBA contract will make you rich, but the second and third contracts make you wealthy. Smart is making a bet that another year of college basketball will better prepare him for that second NBA contract, four years down the road. The implication is that he doesn’t (really) believe his so-called “stock” has peaked, and even if it has, it’s still not the point. The point is to enter the NBA ready not just to get paid by an NBA team, but to contribute to an NBA rotation. To add something other than potential. To be an “asset,” as some general managers put it.
Plenty of players have made the mistake Smart is not making. Athletic freshmen without any skills, juniors who had a great NCAA tournament, and boney 7-footers more than a few protein shakes away from successfully boxing out Dwight Howard have jumped the minute somebody assured them they’d be a first-round pick. It’s a fear thing. These are men who hit the genetic lottery and are afraid the ticket will expire if not redeemed as soon as their number is called. They fear they are not in control. But they also fear practical things like the knee injury that happened to Nerlens Noel or the year-to-year fluctuations in the talent available at a given position. It must be awfully anxious, especially for those who need the money.
But Smart does not have these fears.
“I’ve been bashed and criticized that I probably made a mistake of coming back here, the NBA will be there, I should have took it, and this year’s draft class is much weaker than next year’s,” said Smart, who averaged 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists last season. “But I think I made the right decision. All that was telling me, from those people that said that, is they don’t have confidence in my ability and my game to compete with those players next year.”
It always comes back to some kind of chip on a shoulder with athletes, and that will be Smart’s. He’ll go out there burning to prove wrong all those people he perceives as believing he cannot compete with next year’s draft class. But those people are mostly just theoretical, figments of Smart’s imagination. Nobody thinks Marcus Smart can’t play. They just think it’s weird that a guy who intends to make his living playing basketball is not doing so as soon as possible.
And I agree. It is weird. It is not what I would do, because I’d be afraid of the unknown. A bird in the hand, you know?
But maybe it’s not about the money for Smart. No, really. Maybe it’s not. He will lead a team that probably will be picked to win the Big 12 next season.
“All my life, I’ve been a winner, you know, back-to-back state championships and then to come in and finally make the NCAA tournament,” he said. “Just all my life I’ve been winning. But this team, I felt like we had a lot more to accomplish.”
Yeah, that’s what they all say. But why shouldn’t we believe this one?