As AAU Coach, Team USA’s Marcus Smart Advances NBA Players’ Takeover of Youth Basketball
LOS ANGELES -- As a player, Marcus Smart is tenacious, if not downright pestilent; passionate, often to the point of fury; persistent, or, more accurately, unrelenting.
But as a coach, the defensive menace for the Boston Celtics and USA Basketball brings a decidedly less destructive approach to the hardwood. Marcus Smart the coach is “different from Marcus Smart the player,” he tells CloseUp360 with a laugh after a Team USA practice in Los Angeles in August. “He's more laid-back.”
Admittedly, that’s a low bar to clear. Even a raging inferno has more chill than Marcus does when he’s squeaking his sneakers and shutting down elite scorers between those 94 feet.
Still, for a basketball firebrand like Marcus, stalking the sidelines is as much a reprieve as an opportunity. Without NBA games to get his competitive juices flowing during the summer, the 25-year-old can find fun and purpose in teaching the next generation how to be “YounGameChangers”—and, in the process, chasing wins on an AAU scene that’s ever more crowded with clubs founded by NBA stars.
Marcus Smart started his own AAU program, YGC36, in 2016. (Amir Ebrahimi)
The phrase “player empowerment” deserves its own place in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, especially after the NBA’s summer of 2019. From Anthony Davis agitating his way to the Los Angeles Lakers, to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joining forces with the Brooklyn Nets, to Kawhi Leonard coordinating the coup that landed him and Paul George with the Los Angeles Clippers, the world’s best basketball players are now the masters of their own destinies more so than they’ve ever been.
But that power isn’t limited to their respective professional fates. In recent years, many of those same players have wrested away slices of control over the youth hoops scene from the coaches and program directors of yesteryear by starting their own clubs.
KD (Team Durant), Russell Westbrook (Team WhyNot), Chris Paul (Team CP3), Carmelo Anthony (Team Melo) and Bradley Beal (Bradley Beal Elite) all started their own squads that play in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) during the spring and summer. James Harden (Team Harden), Damian Lillard (Team Lillard), Derrick Rose (Team Rose), Kyle Lowry (K-Low Elite) and John Wall (Team Wall) back programs on the adidas Gauntlet circuit.
But one needn’t be a perennial NBA All-Star—or even an active one—to have a foothold on the AAU scene.
This year, the Under Armour Association featured outfits supported by Emmanuel Mudiay (Mudiay Elite), Raymond Felton (Team Felton), Will Barton (Team Thrill) and Thaddeus Young (Team Thad), none of whom has earned a major individual accolade as a pro. The same goes for DeMarre Carroll (Team Carroll), Zach LaVine (Team Zach LaVine), Kevon Looney (Kevon Looney Elite) and Chuck Hayes (Chuck Hayes Basketball) under adidas’ umbrella.
Neither Chauncey Billups nor Jerry Stackhouse has appeared in the NBA since at least 2014, but each still lends his name to a club (Chauncey Billups Elite and Stackhouse Elite, respectively) within the Three Stripes’ purview. Kenneth Faried hasn’t made award-worthy waves since his rookie season in 2011-12, though that hasn’t deterred Manimal Elite from furthering its namesake’s mission.
In truth, then, Marcus didn’t need the validation of his first All-Defensive selection in 2018-19 to justify the establishment of YGC36 Basketball during his second season with the Celtics. By then, he was already a 2014 draft lottery pick out of Oklahoma State University and an All-Rookie second-teamer in Boston.
But Marcus didn’t draw inspiration for his AAU program from his own accomplishments, much less the successes of his peers at the grassroots level. Instead, he’s looked to imbue kids in and around Dallas—including his hometown of Flower Mound, Texas—with the same toughness, tenacity and defensive intelligence that’s helped him to reach the pinnacles of professional and international competition in the NBA and FIBA Basketball World Cup, respectively.
“It was really about me,” he says. “My team is everything that I embody as a player and as a person, so we come out and we play as hard as we can every day.”
As a teenager in Flower Mound, Marcus became accustomed to winning on the court. When he wasn’t captaining Edward S. Marcus High School to consecutive state championships, he was busy leading his Texas Assault AAU team to titles at the prestigious adidas Super 64 tournament in back-to-back summers.
For Marcus, YGC36 is a way to expose kids to similar experiences while teaching them what it means to be a “YounGameChanger.”
NBA Players with AAU Teams
Some featured teams backed by brands:
- Bradley Beal
- Carmelo Anthony
- Chris Paul
- Kevin Durant
- Russell Westbrook
- Chauncey Billups
- Chuck Hayes
- Damian Lillard
- DeMarre Carroll
- Derrick Rose
- James Harden
- Jerry Stackhouse
- John Wall
- Kenneth Faried
- Kevon Looney
- Kyle Lowry
- Marcus Smart
- Zach LaVine
- Emmanuel Mudiay
- Raymond Felton
- Thaddeus Young
- Will Barton
“YounGameChanger is doing the little things, doing things that you’re probably not going to get rewarded for, doing the things that you're supposed to do when nobody's looking," he says. "You know, just really being true to yourself. You can lie to everybody else, but when you look yourself in the mirror, you can't lie to yourself, and that's what it's really about—just owning up to everything and going out there and no excuses.”
Those “little things” have become Marcus’ calling card in Boston. According to NBA.com, he ranked in the top 25 in deflections, charges drawn and contested three-point shots among players who appeared in at least 20 games during the 2018-19 season. His prolific production across those categories earned him the NBA’s third-annual Hustle Award, following in the footsteps of Patrick Beverley (2017) and Amir Johnson (2018).
Marcus tries to impart the importance of those qualities to the youngsters himself whenever he can, though his professional and personal obligations often intervene. He’s competed in the NBA playoffs during each of his five seasons with the Celtics, which has kept him apart from YGC36 during the heart of the AAU campaign. And when his mother, Camellia, was diagnosed with a rare form of bone marrow cancer known as myelodysplastic syndrome in April 2018, he spent much of his spare time during the spring and summer by her side before she passed away that September.
Even when his circumstances allow him to play a more hands-on role with YGC36, Marcus prefers not to smother the kids the way he would with his defensive assignments. He trusts the program’s coaching staff—led by Vonzell Thomas, who coached Marcus with Texas Assault nearly a decade ago—to teach the game to them the same way they did to him.
“Whenever I'm there, I try to give the kids their space,” Marcus says, “but at the same time, try to help them and coach them to the best of my ability in things that I've learned and things that I know, and try to pass my wisdom on to those guys.”
When it comes to his own coaching chops, Marcus has no shortage of greats to emulate. Since August, he’s gotten to study under the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr, Atlanta Hawks’ Lloyd Pierce and Villanova University’s Jay Wright as a member of USA Basketball’s roster for the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China.
“They all have their own little ways, their own coaching style, and it's different from what everybody here is seeing,” Marcus says. “So I just take bits and pieces.”
His most poignant lessons, though, have come from Brad Stevens. The 42-year-old wunderkind, who previously led Butler University to back-to-back NCAA Final Fours, has been Marcus’ only head coach in the NBA to date and, as such, his most frequent role model. So what, then, has the pupil picked up from the young teacher?
“To stay cool, calm and collected,” Marcus says with a laugh. “Brad isn't the one to get up and yell too much. He really keeps his poise, no matter the circumstances.”
As a player, that hasn’t always been Marcus’ forte. But as the longest-tenured Celtic and a coach in his own right, he’s learned to keep a more even keel and understand the curve that his understudies must overcome.
“I expect guys to know certain things, but you just got to realize that they don't,” he says. “And you've got to be patient with them and you've got to keep your poise. So for me, it's just about being poised and calm.”
Marcus has used his own coaching experience to help mentor his younger USA Basketball teammates. (Amir Ebrahimi)
Marcus has made significant strides towards projecting that kind of cool confidence. So, too, has he seemingly figured out how to navigate the politics of youth hoops with his own brand of relentless positivity. When asked which kids on YGC36 people should look out for in the years to come, he declined to highlight anyone by name, choosing instead to support the collective.
“I could go down here and name every player, but I'ma say the whole team just because I've seen these guys work, and I've seen the progress that these kids have made from summer to summer,” he says. “So I can't just single out a few guys or one. You've got to watch out for everybody because they're young, and they keep growing and they keep learning.”
In his defense, YGC36 has helped to author more success stories than one might easily be able to recall in a single sitting. Last fall, Isaac Likekele, a 6’4” guard out of Mansfield, Texas, matriculated from Marcus’ AAU program to his alma mater at Oklahoma State, while John Scully, a 6’2” guard from Flower Mound, made his debut on the Army basketball team at West Point. This fall, Jalen Wilson, a 6’7” forward from Denton, Texas, will jump from YGC36 to the University of Kansas, and Grant Sherfield, a 6’2” point guard from Arlington, will make the same leap to Wichita State University.
The list only extends further, from Bryce Cook at Southern Methodist University and Isaiah Lewis at Northern Arizona University, to Julius Marble at Michigan State University and Zion Richardson at Wofford College, with several more still mulling offers from scores of schools across the country.
Seeing so many kids use his program as a springboard to the next level has only lent further credence to Marcus’ decision to join the growing wave of NBA players taking part in an AAU system that isn’t short on pitfalls.
“I think it's great to have these guys in organized ball, summer ball, and just getting their face out and getting the recognition that they deserve,” he says. “They put in a lot of hard work and sometimes we don't get what we deserve out of it. So for them to get the recognition and to be able to be seen by coaches is outstanding.”
For Marcus the Coach, though, there’s plenty of fulfillment to be found on the court. This past July, YGC36’s 16-and-under and 17-and-under squads came out on top at the adidas Gauntlet Finale in Ladera Ranch, California, with the older boys topping the vaunted Compton Magic program for their title.
“That was huge for us, especially because we knew coming in that nobody knew or really wanted to see us win. We wasn't a big-time name or we weren't somebody's favorite player's team and things that like,” he says. “But that just goes to show how hard we worked and the whole point of YGC. We don't care, we're always the underdogs and we love being it.”
Nonetheless, as much as Marcus has enjoyed the results that YGC36 has produced, and as much as he’s grown personally from the time he’s spent guiding his club in person, don’t expect to see him coaching full time when his playing days are done. Though he may well wind up with the temperament for it, even a consummate grinder like Marcus knows better than to subject himself to the insane demands of elite coaching.
“I see what coaches go through,” he says. “But I definitely have found respect for coaches and what they're doing, especially at the professional level.”
With any luck for kids from Dallas, that will leave the door open for Marcus to make more coaching cameos in his quest to train future crops of YGCs.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.