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Marcus Smart is marveling at the Grizzlies’ defensive mindset. He thinks they can be NBA’s best

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Marcus Smart sees no reason why the Grizzlies can’t be the NBA’s best defensive team this season.

It’s not just bold talk from a brash player. Smart knows exactly why Memphis traded for him in June.

Not only did the Grizzlies rank third in the NBA in defensive rating last season behind the play of Jaren Jackson Jr., the 2023 Defensive Player of the Year, but Smart won that same award in 2022. That makes Memphis the first NBA team to pair back-to-back defensive players of the year since the award was first handed out in 1983.

It has Smart marveling at the possibilities that could be on the horizon.

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“As a defensive guy coming on a team who thinks just like you and has guys such as Jaren in the same boat (that) understand the defense and how important it is … they’ll take you to a new level,” Smart said.

Even as good as the Grizzlies have been on defense, this is an upgrade.

They traded Dillon Brooks, who was named to the NBA All-Defense second team, to Houston after he wore out his welcome in Memphis. During the offseason, the Grizzlies had a short shopping list to fill the void — headed by Smart and 2011 MVP Derrick Rose.

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General manager Zach Kleiman didn’t think Boston would part with Smart, the first guard to win NBA Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton in 1996.

Smart was an integral contributor to the success of the Celtics, who ranked a spot ahead of Memphis for defensive rating. Smart also is a three-time NBA All-Defensive First Team selection and has won the NBA Hustle Award three times, including last season. The Grizzlies acquired Smart in a three-team trade.

“There’s one goal, and that goal is to win the championship,” Kleiman said. “That hasn’t changed. We haven’t wavered on that. We feel really good about the group that we have.”

Jackson embodies Memphis’ defensive focus.

He set franchise records averaging a league-best 3 blocks a game while blocking 189 shots last season. Jackson joined Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Ben Wallace — all NBA Defensive Players of the Year — as the only players to average 3 blocks and a steal a game.

The fourth overall pick in 2018 out of Michigan State spent his summer with the U.S. team in the FIBA World Cup, playing center. Jackson, who turned 24 last month, knows he needs to be “that guy” going into his sixth season with Memphis.

“I got to be able to use it the right way,” Jackson said of his 6-foot-11, 242-pound frame. “There’s really no more talk about me growing into my body. … That’s how it’s got to be now. You’re grown completely.”

Asked how he can help Jackson, Smart joked he can keep his new teammate out of foul trouble. Though it’s no laughing matter; Jackson too often finds himself sitting out crucial minutes trying to avoid a final sixth foul — though he fouled out only four times last season.

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“That comes with it as a defensive guy,” said Smart, adding you have “to be able to manage that.”

With two-time All-Star Ja Morant suspended for the first 25 games, Smart is expected to pull double-duty: running Memphis’ offense while helping on defense. Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said he’s talked repeatedly with Smart about simply being himself and expects the veteran to make a seamless transition.

“Marcus experienced it at the highest level, playing in numerous conference finals, All-Defensive player, played in the NBA Finals,” Jenkins said. “None of our guys have been there, you know, So we’ve got to learn from him.”

Smart cautions anyone questioning his abilities or whether he adds much to a team that earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference each of the past two seasons only to lose early in the postseason. He said he hasn’t lost his chameleon-like skills and is more than capable of doing whatever is asked of him.

“I’m still me,” Smart said. “My arm length still the same, wingspan still the same, you know, my hair’s still long, so it’s fine. That’s fine. Let them do the talking. We’ll see at the end of the year and a couple months if they still talking.”