There aren't many people who can say they turned down millions of dollars, but Oklahoma State Cowboys guard Marcus Smart became a member of that small group on Tuesday.
As originally reported by Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the Oklahoma State guard had decided to forgo the 2013 NBA draft and return to school for his sophomore season:
Adrian Wojnarowski @WojVerticalNBA
Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart will return for his sophomore season, sources tell Y! Sports. He could've been a top 5 pick in NBA Draft.2013-4-17 02:09:02
For most, this is a move that came completely out of left field. Smart was considered a top-three pick in June's upcoming draft, with the possibility of moving even higher depending on how the lottery played out. ESPN's Chad Ford, who had Smart second on his Top 100 players list, noted how rare the young guard's decision was:
Chad Ford @chadfordinsider
If Woj report is true, first players since Blake Griffin to turn down a Top 3 pick to return to school ...2013-4-17 02:21:00
Puzzling as the decision may be, it's impossible to criticize Smart with any fervor. We so often vilify this one-and-done system, which essentially boils down to the NCAA acting as a feeder system for the NBA. It's a one-year minor league, and there have been countless pounding-on-the-table talking heads who have made such a point.
So Smart returning to the school is commendable. He gets to work another calendar year toward his degree, which is a positive. He returns to play with fellow Oklahoma State guard and best friend Phil Forte. And let's not forget Smart returns to Stillwater as a hero, a player who will be deified for his decision to turn down NBA millions in pursuit of a national championship.
What is undeniable, though, is that Smart has also placed a ton of pressure on his young shoulders. As Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress points out, NBA scouts are going to be expecting an awful lot of Smart upon his return to Oklahoma State:
Jonathan Givony @DraftExpress
A very high, some would say impossible, bar has been set for what NBA scouts expect Smart to look like next year. I doubt he lives up it.2013-4-17 03:56:14
More specifically, scouts will expect Smart to come back with a vastly improved offensive game. Though he was projected as a top-three lock, there were few who saw Smart as anything resembling an instant contributor on offense. He shot only 40.4 percent from the field, including 29 percent from distance, and averaged about one more assist per game than turnover.
Scouts were enamored, though, with Smart's toughness on defense, his willingness to do anything to win and his potential as an NBA-style point guard. Smart doesn't have the size issues of Trey Burke, the National Player of the Year who will ascend to top-dog status among point guards in June. Nor does Smart have the massive injury cloud hanging over him like Nerlens Noel, the likely No. 1 pick who tore his ACL in February.
Had things fallen the right way on lottery night—with the Orlando Magic winning—it's possible that Smart could have gone No. 1 overall. Orlando needs a long-term replacement for Jameer Nelson, has a center already in place and could use someone with Smart's toughness and career projection.
While most never saw Smart as a perennial All-Star, he's the type of player who will never get a general manager fired. He's ridiculously hardworking, a smart kid who can penetrate a defense and has the physicality and motor to compete at an elite level. There were almost no scouts who even considered the word "bust" with Smart—his low-level projection was a replacement-level starter.
That projection won't change in 12 months. Barring injury, Marcus Smart will still be Marcus Smart, and he'll likely be a readier version for the NBA at that.
The question, though, is whether general managers and owners will be as gung-ho about using a top-five pick on Smart 12 months from now.
It's widely accepted that the 2013 draft is potentially the worst in recent memory. Comparisons have consistently been made to the 2000 class, which produced just three All-Stars (Kenyon Martin, Jamaal Magloire and Michael Redd) and only one All-NBA selection (Redd, who was a second-round pick). There were other players like Jamal Crawford who have had nice careers, but far more who busted on their first contract.
Knowing the similar lack of guarantees in 2013, translatable skills will be at a premium this June. Smart was viewed as one of a select few locks to have a solid NBA career.
If all goes as expected, that won't be the case for Smart 12 months from now. The high school class of 2013 is one of the most loaded in recent history, adorned with two different players who have been called the best prospect since LeBron James. Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker are those two players, and Julius Randle and a bevy of other projected future NBA stars join them.
If the 2013 draft class is the worst since 2000, then the 2014 class may be the best since 2003.
Givony isn't wrong when he says the bar will be higher—by sheer virtue of the talent pool alone. And recent history is littered with players who stayed too long, thinking an extra year would boost their draft stock. Jared Sullinger and Cody Zeller are recent examples of the "stayed too long" phenomenon.
So what would it take for Smart to stick inside the top five? That's a difficult question. It's hard to expect Oklahoma State to defeat Kansas for a Big 12 title, even with Smart returning. Bill Self has built an institution of nonstop winning with the Jayhawks and boasts another strong recruiting class in 2013.
But a repeat of 2012-13 certainly won't be good enough. Smart will at least be expected to show massive improvements offensively—specifically with his shot—and prove himself on the NCAA tournament stage. Getting upset by a No. 12 seed the way Oklahoma State did this March won't cut it, especially if freshman point guard Andrew Harrison helps lead a juggernaut Kentucky recruiting class deep in the dance.
There will be some who point to these factors as a reason Smart is making a mistake—that he's taking an unnecessary risk with millions of dollars flying out the window like littered soda cans. Others will praise Smart's decision, citing him as a bastion of what college athletics is supposed to be about—a banner example that the student-athlete does exist.
It doesn't matter which side of the coin you or I fall on. Smart made his decision and deserves to be commended for being mature enough to stick to his convictions.
He just needs to know this decision doesn't come without consequences. And for Marcus Smart, that consequence is having one of the biggest spotlights in the nation shined on his face next season.