The incredible depth of top-end talent is clear when you look at where Marcus Smart is ranked this year compared to last. In this past year’s draft class, he would have no doubt been the number one prospect, and it really wouldn’t have even been a question. Unfortunately, since he surprisingly decided to stay in school for another year, he has fallen down the board a little bit because of the strong freshman class coming in that includes Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, and Jabari Parker, among others. In fact, some are saying that Smart might not even be the best point guard, and they point to Dante Exum from Australia as the top dog. I feel like this will be one of the more interesting battles to see play out, even though the two will never play each other, given that Exum is staying in Australia.
To start this comparison, let’s take a look at the physical measurements of each of these two. Obviously, this is where Exum takes the early lead, as his 6’6 frame with a 6’9 wingspan will have scouts drooling. This kind of size gives him a massive advantage over the rest of the point guards in the NBA, save for someone like Michael Carter-Williams. He’s only around 190 pounds, however, so he’s going to need to put on a little bit of muscle before he declares for the draft. Though Exum has the advantage, Smart is by no means undersized. In fact, at 6’4, 220 pounds, he’s also great in that area. To put it simply, he’s built like a truck, and because of that, he has the ability to bully smaller point guards. You won’t find a lot of point guards around the NBA with the same build as Smart, and he might not even be done growing yet.
Moving on to the defensive side of the ball, I believe that Smart has a little bit of an edge, for the time being. He has great anticipation on that side of the ball, and he just seems to know where the ball is going before it gets there. That is evidenced by his 3 steals per game during his freshman season at Oklahoma State. While some may dismiss steals because many of them can just be from a player gambling on that end (see: Ellis, Monta), that is not the case with Smart. He’s very solid on the ball, and he knows what to do when he is away from it. Because of his high basketball IQ, he just never seems to be out of place, and that’s impressive for someone of his age.
As for Exum, his quickness allows him to make up for any shortcomings he may have on that end. This quickness translates laterally, too, as he’s one of the best on-ball defenders in the entire draft class, and he’ll almost never get blown by off the dribble. His wingspan really comes into play here, as he can disrupt passing lanes with ease. The problems that he runs into on defense is because of a lack of strength (which I already touched on). This causes him to be pretty easily contained by screens, as he’s just not strong enough to fight through them.
On offense, both of these players have high upsides, but also need to work out some kinks. Smart is great at overpowering his way to the rim, but he has a problem with the consistency of his jump shot, as well as his offensive game in general. You’ll see games like his 9-15 against Iowa State of 7-11 against Kansas State, but then they’ll be offset by performances like his 4-21 against Baylor or 2-14 against Kansas. The positive part about him, though, is that even when his shot isn’t falling, he’ll still find a way to score (mainly by getting to the free throw line). He’ll also look for teammates when he’s struggling with his shot, too, as evidenced by his 7 assists in that same game against Baylor.
Another one of his downsides on that side of the ball is his tendency to turn the ball over. He may have averaged 4.2 assists, but nearly all of that was offset with his 3.4 turnovers per game. It’s normal for players to have trouble adjusting to the point guard position at a high level of basketball, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that. If it continues into this year, though, it may be a sign that he’s destined to be a combo-guard, rather than a point guard.
Now onto Exum’s offense. He has many of the same characteristics of Smart, actually. Rather than using his size to bully his way to the rim, Exum just happens to be faster than just about any opponent he faces, so he can usually get to the rim pretty easily. When the defense guards against this and he’s forced to shoot from mid-range or deep is where he starts to get into trouble. He’s incredibly raw with his shot, but it is slowly improving. If you ever watch any of his games, the first thing that you’ll notice about his shot is that it doesn’t have nearly enough arc on it. When you shoot it flat like he does, you’re putting yourself at an immediate disadvantage. He’s already been hard at work with that, though, so I don’t see that as something that will follow him to the next level.
His consistency is also a problem. Like with Smart, Exum will have games like 4-7 against Brazil and 9-18 against Spain, but he’ll counteract that with showings of 5-14 and 7-19 against Serbia. That’s something that will likely come with age for Exum, though. Also like Smart, his skills as a pure point guard are lacking at this point. He averaged around 3 turnovers per game, too, and he hasn’t put it all together there, to say the least.
The last category I’ll look at, athleticism, really isn’t even close, and I won’t take much time discussing it. As I’ve mentioned with Exum’s offense and defense, his speed is just incredible, and it looks like he’s moving in fast forward compared to everyone else on the court. Smart, on the other hand, really won’t blow you away at all.
So now we get to the moment of truth. After reviewing all of the categories, which one of these two standouts is the better point guard prospect? For me, I’m going to have to go with Marcus Smart, at least for now. Exum is very raw, and scouts seem to have fallen in love with his size and athleticism, but I’m siding with the production of Smart. When the NBA draft rolls around next year, there’s really not going to be a wrong answer between these two.
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