Danny Ainge has always been a fan of players who have the right mix of fire, passion, intensity and physical intimidation. After all, three of those four qualities defined his NBA career. Last year, he didn't see enough of those intangibles in his Celtics throughout a miserable 25-win season. Thursday night, he took action.
When you draft a pair of early-entry players out of college, you're usually not looking to instill leadership and toughness in your NBA team.
But the Celtics president of basketball operations has a reputation for thinking outside the box, and what he saw in 20-year-old Marcus Smart at Oklahoma State was an intangible he really could see helping the Celtics immediately.
"As a freshman," Ainge said when asked when Smart first caught his eye in 2013. "He was a very, very interesting player. He was just a fun player to watch. Just that competitive [spirit]. He gets the juices going. He's one of the great competitors. He's a very passionate player."
There were scouts and NBA draft insiders who thought Smart should've entered the NBA pool in 2013 instead of going back for a dip in college for his sophomore season.
During his freshman year at Oklahoma State, Smart led the Cowboys to a 24-8 record and a third-place finish in the Big 12 behind Kansas and Kansas State. Smart averaged 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists and led the Big 12 in steals with 99 (3.0 per game). Smart and the Cowboys earned a trip to the NCAA tournament that year, receiving a No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region.
But this is a kid for whom life hasn't come easy. His story has been well documented. He lost one brother to cancer and almost lost another to cocaine addiction. He was nearly shot to death when he threw rocks at a bicyclist near his home in Dallas.
He decided to come back and prove something in his sophomore year in Stillwater.
"I admire guys that go back to school," Ainge said. "Yeah, these kids are under a microscope and there's a lot of pressure on a lot of them and some of them have unrealistic expectations. I thought Marcus came out of the gates great this year. Then he had a little slump in the middle of the season, had the suspension and ended up coming back and helping his team win."
The suspension. Everyone is going to wonder about Smart's ability to contain himself after he went into the stands at Texas Tech and shoved a fan on Feb. 8. That's just part of the deal with drafting a player like Smart. But to Ainge's credit, he looked far beyond that when drafting him. He looked at the way Smart came back from not only the suspension but a midseason slump.
Oklahoma State lost all three games during Smart's suspension, the final three of a seven-game losing skid. When Smart returned, the Cowboys rallied around him and won four straight, getting into the NCAA tournament, where they lost in the first round to Gonzaga. Smart finished with 23 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and six steals in the loss, making history in the process. He became the first player in tournament history to record 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in a game.
That's what Ainge noticed the most. Not the suspension, but how Smart responded. That's why Ainge brought him in for two workouts and saw him in a third.
Ainge went back to the future last season. Like he did in 2007, he suffered through a dismal season, winning just 25 games and winding up with the sixth overall pick in Thursday night's draft. But unlike 2007, there was no draft-night deal to help reshape the franchise.
"Not so much tonight," Ainge said. "There's been a lot of conversation over the last month. There were a few tempting opportunities but nothing exciting, nothing better than what we were able to accomplish in the draft."
What Ainge feels he was able to accomplish Thursday night was to lay the groundwork for a tougher, meaner team. There are nice players in place for the Celtics going forward if, of course, that doesn't change with a summer trade. Kelly Olynyk proved to be a nice piece obtained in last summer's draft. There's Avery Bradley, Phil Pressey, Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger. And, of course, there's Rajon Rondo. Of that group, only Rondo is a name that inspires intimidation, with Bradley and Sullinger showing mere glimpses at this stage of their careers.
What was missing last year for the first time in a decade was the leadership of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Sure, they were getting up in age and Ainge did well to unload them and begin rebuilding. But what Ainge also conceded were the intangibles that both brought with them. The Celtics missed them sorely in countless games lost in the fourth quarter. With no Pierce and Garnett, there was a void of physical and mental leadership. How many games did the Celtics win with Pierce and Garnett on "grit and balls" alone?
What Ainge didn't see enough of last year was a physical presence. Ainge knows that you win on many nights in the NBA with physical intimidation. Rondo is the toughest player on the team, by far. He can intimidate in many ways -- passing, driving, staring. But, at 28, he's getting older and starting to show wear and tear on his slight frame. And there's the little detail that he's entering the final year of his five-year, $55 million extension, likely looking for a near-max contract next season.
If Ainge does deal Rondo, he wants a tough-minded player who someday could step in and fill his shoes. In Smart he not only has a big point guard but a physical one, too.
"Marcus is a hard guy not to like," Ainge said. "He plays with great fire and is one of the top competitors that I've seen all the around the world, watching basketball. I think that's the first thing that caught my eye. We studied him and he plays extremely hard. He's very physical. He gets to the free throw line. We feel like his shooting has really improved in this offseason and I think he has a real bright future as a point guard. But I also think he can play off the ball as well."
Does this mean Ainge thinks Smart can coexist with Rondo if Rondo sticks around to start the season?
"Absolutely, no question," Ainge said. "And [Smart] and Avery. [Smart is] a very versatile player. He can play off the ball. He can handle the ball. With his length and size, he can probably play against a lot of small forwards. At 6-3 and a long wingspan and 230 pounds, he's a very versatile player. Easily, those guys could play together. I think they would really thrive playing together, all of them.
"I think it's been happening for quite a long time. I don't think it's anything new. Especially off the bench, most teams don't start two point guards but they play with two point guards on the court a lot."
So, barring a trade that nets Kevin Love or another established and proven scorer, Ainge appears willing to accept another year of rebuilding.
"We'll see what happens the rest of the summer," Ainge said. "I'm not sure yet. It's too early to say that. I mean, it's an emphasis always, right, to develop young players, so we're always trying to do that, but how many of them we have and what our final roster is, I don't know. But we're very excited about these two guys and the young core right now."
That doesn't mean Ainge wasn't happy about Thursday night. Just the opposite. He feels in Smart and James Young, he and the Celtics executed their game plan perfectly.
"I think it went great. I'm very excited, yes," Ainge said. "Time will tell. I don't want to do that, [reveal] how high we had them rated. We really liked them. Before the day started, if we could've come away with these [players] we would've been really happy. We were fortunate enough to have that happen, so we're good."