BOSTON – It was an otherwise nondescript afternoon last summer at a small gymnasium in Southern California, as many of the NBA players were hopping through off-season workouts.
But when 26-year-old basketball coach Ryan Razuki had a conversation with Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart, he immediately sensed something unusual was happening. When Smart started with a temporary monologue about the art of ball defense, Razuki signaled his apprentice, Ryan Arevalo, to take a handheld video camera and record everything Smart shared.
The result was an 18-minute video that has since been viewed on YouTube more than 540,000 times, a window into the mindset of an elite defender illustrating the hard work that goes into preventing high-octane scorers like Stephen Curry and Damien Lillard from doing what they want to do, It is putting the ball into the basket from almost every conceivable angle.
It’s tough,” Smart said in a recent interview. “It’s hard to sit in a position for 24 seconds and guard some of the best players in the league.”
It’s been a tough season for the Celtics, who were 18-21 after a 25-point lead over the Knicks on Thursday. But Smart, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound wrecking ball, ranks again among the league leaders in steals, averaging 1.9 per game. Finding players who can defend – and defend multiple positions – has rarely been more sought after as players of all shapes and sizes continue to expand their offensive skills.
Consider the evolution of the game since Smart entered the league in the 2014-15 season, when teams averaged 7.8 three-pointers per game while averaging 100 points, according to the Basketball Reference. Last season, teams averaged 12.7 three-pointers and 112.1 points per game, notable increases that helped motivate the league to amend some rules before the start of this season that were aimed at reducing advantages for offensive players. No more rushing forward on shot attempts to create contact and fouls? Smart said he was all for it. But there are still nightly challenges.
“It’s a thankful job,” Razzouqi said. “It’s like being an offensive lineman.”
There is something of a mutual admiration in the community for NBA defenders. Smart, for example, praised the Bucks’ Jrue Holiday and the 76ers’ Matisse Thybulle, who has unique abilities as an perimeter defender.
“It blocks 3-point shots, which is something I don’t do,” Smart said.
However, Smart has long been known for his defensive prowess. At Marcus High School, just outside of Dallas, his coach, Kenny Boren, realized Smart’s ball-piercing instincts and had him guard the opposing team’s worst player so he could roam the field as a free safety, catching passes and drawing counts as an assistant defender. It was an unconventional philosophy. The team won back-to-back state championships.
“He had a free pass to the defense to do whatever he wanted,” said Boren, who now coaches at Boswell High School in Fort Worth and helps run Smart Youth Camps. “But you can trust him to do the right thing.”
Razooky had never met Smart until that day last summer when Razooky approached him after a workout.
“I was joking with some of the coaches who were helping us, and they were asking me about defense and how I can protect some players and if I had any tips,” Smart said.
Smart, in fact, has tips. It was like asking Neil deGrasse Tyson about the solar system. And for 40 minutes, Smart was a fire hose of insight, prosecuting subjects dear to him.
He showed how to click the steal when the opposing player’s dribbling is about to land. He stressed the importance of lateral speed, noting the fast hips he developed when growing up on the Texas soccer team. Provide pointers on fighting through screens (grab the screen worker’s ankle and work your way through it), and on how to make sure opponents become less inclined to put them first (making strong contact).
“I’m going to hit you one good time,” Smart said in the video. “The referee will call him or not. But I bet you won’t put up any screens.”
Not that Smart was immune to the physical demands of his job: In 2019, he tore a muscle in his lower abdomen after colliding with Orlando Magic’s Nikola Vucevic.
“Your hips are taking a beating,” Smart said in an interview. He used to wear the lining when he was younger, “But now, they’re heavier with sweat and they’re weighing me down.”
He also highlighted the challenge of defending back jumpers, the kind of offensive move that James Harden of the Nets and Luka Doncic of the Mavericks have worked to perfect. Smart mentioned how he studied Muay Thai martial arts to improve his balance and core strength, and how he stays on the balls of his feet “like a boxer” to avoid swaying due to cross dribbling.
It took about a full year to develop the movement needed to defend backward jumpers, Smart said.
“It sounds weird, but as a defender you have to go out there and practice the things you’re trying to do, and I do that constantly,” he said. “I say to my friends in training, ‘Okay, that’s what I want you to do with the ball, and I want you to try to beat me because I have something I want to try. “
Smart said the thing is, he was somewhat oblivious to being portrayed by Arevalo, the intern. (“You can see his passion,” Razzouqi said.) Smart generally does not want its trade secrets to be made public. He never understood why so many NBA players share their off-season training on social media, because he knows rival players – like him – dig through those clips for information.
“If you want to show me what you’re working on so I can prepare for that, that’s fine,” Smart said.
But at the same time he really enjoys talking about defense. He eventually agreed to let Razooky post the video.
“When you’re good at what you do, it doesn’t matter who knows,” Smart said. “They still have to go out and compete.”
Razooky ended up editing the full 40 minutes into about 18 minutes.
“It’s something he can clearly do,” Razzouqi said. “But I’m not sure it’s something we necessarily want to teach other players.”
Smart was capable of his familiar ball-playing tricks against the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday. In the first quarter, that meant a deflection of the entry path that was intended for Jock Landale, a 6-foot-11 post that Smart was standing in front of in the paint. Smart later came back with two more steals in the final minutes of the game – first, when he stripped the ball after Spurs caught a defensive rebound, and then when he stole a pass. In their regular season, the Celtics still lost by 2.
Two weeks before Razooky uploaded the video in August, he shared a 15-second preview on social media. He caught the attention of Davion Mitchell, a defensive-minded guard who was recruited by the Sacramento Kings. Razuki said Mitchell was eager to learn more before the start of his first season in the NBA: Could he have a copy of everything?
Now, everyone has access. Smart knows that the crowd likely included fans, coaches, young players and even some players he had to defend.
“I’m sure a lot of these guys are watching this video and trying to figure out, ‘Well, when he does, how do I create something else to stick around?'” “And as they think about all that stuff, I think of what I can modify to counter the counter. It’s a chess match.”