Versatility is the key for NBA draft’s potent point guards

The player whom many consider the best point guard in the 2014 NBA draft might not be a point guard at all.

At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Marcus Smart, who left Oklahoma State after his sophomore year, is somewhat of an imposing figure at the position. But some see him as a combo guard or a shooting guard who is playing point guard.

Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said such speculation is what makes Smart such an alluring prospect.

“His strength is his versatility,” said Ford, who turned Smart from a high school shooting guard into a college point guard. “With his size, he can play multiple positions. I think he is a great point guard because of his leadership ability, and he understands the game and has a great feel for the game.”

Smart led Oklahoma State in scoring (18.0), assists (4.8) and steals (2.9), ranking third in the nation. He is part of a class this year that seems atypical of the position.

Some draft analysts rate athletic Australian Dante Exum, who’s 6-6 and excellent at driving to the basket and finding open teammates, as having the best point guard skills. Others point to his scoring mentality and say, like Smart, he also is more of a shooting guard. That he left his sports academy and its team and hasn’t played in eight months adds to the confusion.

“We have an interesting group,” said Ryan Blake, the NBA’s director of scouting. “We’ve got small scoring points. We’ve got (shooting) guards who can play two positions that are considered points.”

Louisiana-Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton, long and athletic in the 6-3 to 6-4 range and adept at driving to the basket and distributing the ball, appears to be the best traditional point guard in the lot. He has been ranked consistently among the position’s top four prospects.

“He’s an unselfish player,” Blake said. “That’s important. When you’re trying to create a culture on a team, a guy can defend, pass — that’s what you want. He can have an almost immediate impact.”

Other top prospects are Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis, Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier and Semaj Christon of Xavier.

Ennis, also more of a traditional point guard, burst onto the scene with an impressive freshman year to springboard himself into early draft consciousness. But at 6-1 and 180 pounds, he is not considered a high-level athlete, and that in part makes his defense suspect.

“But he can get into the lane and create scoring opportunities for teammates,” Blake said.

Christon, 6-3 and the only sophomore in Xavier history to reach the 1,000-point mark, is said to have polished skills and good quickness for his size. But he often looks to shoot.

Napier helped UConn to the NCAA title in April as a senior. The first-team All-American is known for his leadership. That’s one of Smart’s calling cards, along with his unrelenting drives to the basket, but Ford said his will to win trumps even that.

“What he brings to the court is an extreme competitive nature, somebody who is going to bring it every day,” Ford said. “I don’t think many people have his competitive nature and his winning attitude, along with his skill set, at 6-4.”

Sean Ford, director of the U.S. men’s national team, saw Smart’s determination during last summer’s run to the goal medal at the world championships by the Under-19 team. Payton was Smart’s starting backcourtmate on that team.

“He’s very strong at driving to the basket,” Sean Ford said. “He’s very physical.”

The knock on Smart, as is the case with many young players, is that he has not been a consistent shooter. He knows that an improved perimeter jumper would help provide even more opportunities for drives.

“I’ve been working on becoming a more consistent outside shooter, and I’m getting better at it,” he said.

The Boston Celtics are said to covet Smart with the No. 6 pick; he could replace veteran Rajon Rondo as a starter on a rebuilding team. But if Smart isn’t ready to play point guard, he could pair with Rondo at shooting guard.

Versatility does have its benefits.