LAS VEGAS — Naturally, Marcus Smart didn’t jump to basketball memories when asked to reflect on his nine seasons in Boston. He joined the Celtics after two years at Oklahoma State and has spent nearly a third of his life so far with the team. For him, the connection to the city and the people of the organization goes beyond the basketball court.
“When I got to Boston,” Smart said Friday, “I was a (young) kid from Dallas, Texas. It was a culture shock. It was a social shock. It was the shock of my whole life. Never before I could go to the East Coast or something like that so it was weird for me. But I grew up. I met some amazing people in my time there.
“My experiences while in Boston, I lost my mom, my fiancee lost her dad while we were in Boston. I’ve been through a lot, and it’s all in Boston. Boston is my second home. . So it’s hard. They’ll always have a place in my heart.”
At his introductory news conference with the Grizzlies, Smart still wore his hair dyed green. It’s a small sign of how much he has to change after the Celtics moved him to Memphis in a three-team trade that netted Kristaps Porziņģis and two first-round picks. Eventually, when it’s time for a new hairstyle, Smart said he plans to switch to blue. In less trivial matters, he is already thinking about how he will fit in next to Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and other Grizzlies. Since the trade, Smart has also had some time to process his tenure with the Celtics.
“Everything I did, I left everything I wore in that jersey on that court,” said Smart. “Even though we didn’t win a championship in the grand scheme of things I don’t consider my time there a failure. I helped rebuild that team when I came in. And I better leave it. So I really enjoyed my time there but I’m excited for the future and what it holds.
Head coach Taylor Jenkins and general manager Zach Kleiman, who sat next to Smart throughout the news conference, expressed concern about the addition. They believe the guard should provide the kind of impact the Grizzlies need on the court and in the locker room.
When Memphis initially landed Smart, Jenkins said he thought, “Yeah, let’s blanking go” — and it’s easy to guess what word should fill in the blank. Although the trade didn’t materialize until June, Jenkins said Memphis had discussed the idea of bringing in Smart in previous seasons. This offseason, the Grizzlies made a list of potential targets and put Smart at the top of it, according to Kleiman. When Boston’s potential trade of Malcolm Brogdon for Porziņģis fell through, the Celtics moved to another version of the deal that gave the Grizzlies what they wanted.
“When you get out of time, you take a step back and you start putting things on the board,” Kleiman said. “What are the aspirational best-case scenarios that we can add to this team? How can we elevate the approach we’re taking? Who are the individuals who can really drive winning and fit in a meaningful way to our team?
“When we started putting names on the board, no one was taller than Marcus. And it’s, early on, it’s pie in the sky if something happens that’s a way for Boston to get involved. And obviously, there was a transaction that didn’t happen earlier in the day before the trade was agreed upon in Boston. And you never know what could happen if that possibility doesn’t come together, but we’ve expressed a high level of interest and Boston knows that Marcus is someone we feel passionately about.’ g will be brought to our group.
Marcus Smart, player of the Memphis Grizzlies pic.twitter.com/j0a3rKbDe2
— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) July 7, 2023
The Grizzles are high on Smart for all the reasons the Celtics might miss him.
“Every year, we always try to continue to surround our group with great people, great competitors, people with high IQ, super unselfish,” Jenkins said. “That’s what Marcus meant. Ultimate competitor. He has the highest basketball IQ, super selfless. He showed that on the court but off the court.
Even in a relaxed atmosphere on Friday, Smart’s competitive spirit came through. At one point, asked about bringing his ability to draw charges to a team that rarely does so, Smart launched into an impassioned, minute description of why the charges are “the most important game in the game.” After Smart was done, Jenkins jumped in to say he hoped Smart would lead the Grizzlies through charge drills during practices. The idea helped illuminate the leadership Memphis expected from Smart.
“If this guy over here to my left (Smart) says, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something a little different’ and he leads by example, that sets a tone for us,” Jenkins said. “Because when we do, the little time we have the charges, you feel the impact, you feel the momentum, you feel the excitement that the bank does. And obviously it made the film the next day and we talked about how important an unselfish, winning game is.
“And that’s what Marcus Smart embodies every time he steps on the floor. And when we sat down a few weeks ago, he said, ‘Coach, I’m going to put it on the line every time I step on the court.’ … If he comes in and embodies that and shows that and guides that with our team, it’s going to take our team to the next level. And hopefully, we’ll get some more charges next year.
Smart should help in that way. Kleiman believes he should help the Grizzlies in several ways.
“When we came back this offseason and said, ‘What are the things we’re looking to add to this group?’ Kleiman said. “And you put the boxes we’re trying to check. And we’re looking for someone to be a lockdown defender, versatile in those positions. We’re looking for more playmaking, we’re looking for someone battle-tested at the highest level in the NBA. I don’t think there are many players in the NBA — and I think Marcus is the best of them — who check all the boxes.
“To bring that type of player, that type of person, into this organization but more importantly someone who just passed the gut test. Marcus is someone who is just a flat-out winner, someone who who wants his team in a playoff series, has been to the (NBA) Finals, been to the Eastern Conference finals multiple times. This is the type of person that we believe will help us really elevate the team and get to where we want to be, which is won Memphis’ first championship.
Although the Grizzlies want Smart to step into a leadership position, he cautioned that he will have to figure out how to navigate his new locker room.
“At this point, I don’t know,” Smart said. “I have to earn the trust of these people. Boston, I was there, I was the longest person. I grew up with those guys. Here, I am the new face coming in. Although I have experience, when you see a new guy come in, you don’t just give him your attention right away, they have to get it. And that’s what I look forward to doing.”
For the first time since his rookie season, Smart had to adjust to a new team.
“For me, just to start something new, start again,” said Smart, “and get back to the grind.”
(Photo of Marcus Smart and Taylor Jenkins: David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)