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Jalen Smith hasn’t played for the Phoenix Suns since February, and he’s since taken advantage of his opportunity with the Indiana Pacers. But even with a new contract under his belt and the future looking bright in Indy, Smith remains thankful for his time in the Valley.
Just last week, the Pacers re-signed Stix to a three-year, $15.1 million contract with a player option for the final year. Thanks to the Suns declining his third-year team option prior to the start of the season, Indiana couldn’t offer more than other suitors for their unrestricted free agent. Fortunately, his first 22 games went so swimmingly they managed to bring him back anyway.
After being traded to Indiana before the trade deadline, Stix made the most of his rotation minutes on a rebuilding team. Outside of a short stretch in late December and early January where the Suns were short on depth at the 5, Smith’s 22-game Pacers stint represented his first real chance to show what he could do, without the pressures of performing for a title contender.
He averaged 13.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 24.7 minutes per game over that stretch, shooting 53.1 percent from the field and 37.3 percent from 3-point range. Behind those flashes of potential and armed with a contract extension, Smith has already been named as the team’s starting power forward for next season.
“The thing is, it’s never something to take for granted,” Smith told PHNX Sports. “Obviously with that comes more responsibility and more hard work. So I mean, I’m up for it. My parents instilled that responsibility in me at a young age, so I’m just ready to let it show.”
At NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, Smith got the chance to watch some of his current teammates like Chris Duarte, Isaiah Jackson, Duane Washington Jr. and Terry Taylor, as well as a few new rookies in Benedict Mathurin, Andrew Nembhard and Kendall Brown.
Between the new faces and a young core of Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield, Stix is optimistic about the future on his new team.
“It’s amazing, everybody complements everybody,” he said. “I just got locked [in] on some of the draftees for the first time out here, and they’ve been doing amazing. And pretty much all we gotta really do now is just build that chemistry, and I feel the sky’s the limit for us.”
Oddly enough, the underwhelming end to his short tenure in Phoenix turned out to be a blessing. Through two seasons with the Suns, Stix only suited up in 56 games, averaging a meager 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in 9.6 minutes per game. Coming into the league in an atypical year, where coronavirus cancelled NBA Summer League and forced teams to hold shortened training camps, Smith’s initiation to the pros was anything but smooth.
Testing positive for COVID-19 early in his rookie year didn’t help matters, nor did the Suns’ leap from bubble sensation to a 2-seed in the West that made a run to the NBA Finals.
“To be honest with you, he was in a tough spot from day one,” coach Monty Williams said in February after Smith was traded. “He started with COVID, didn’t have Summer League, was in training camp two weeks after he got drafted. It never felt like he had the platform to have the kind of transition that most rookies need. So I’m hopeful that he’ll get a shot to show what he can do consistently, and I shared that sentiment with him.”
Given that Smith was one of the rare lottery picks to have his third-year option declined by the team that drafted him, it’d be fair to assume there’d still be animosity there. But at Summer League last week, Smith got the chance to catch up with some of his former Suns, including general manager James Jones sitting courtside.
Stix said the support he’s received from his former teammates and coaches hasn’t faded with the change of scenery.
“Ever since I got traded, I’ve been keeping in contact with all them pretty much,” Smith said. “Mark Bryant texts me almost every day. Monty texts me here and then, James texts me here and there. It’s been amazing, the support there. I mean, obviously things didn’t turn out the way both parties wanted, but they still support me from the end, and it travels with me.”
This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Monty called the day of the Smith trade a “tough day” given the emotional ties that are made on the basketball court over time. Chris Paul said he would miss a rookie who had been “amazing” since he first arrived in Phoenix.
But the ability to compartmentalize the business side with the relationship side is not always easy. Smith and his old GM having a cheerful conversation months after the fact just goes to show how much better off both sides are after their split.
“He was a really lucky rookie to just get in the league and be around a winning legacy early, an organization that’s been through it and been through the disappointments,” Deandre Ayton said after the trade in February. “Him coming in and getting that experience and just seeing how far it really do go in the NBA is big-time, ’cause I can remember like yesterday, I only won 19 games.”
Speaking of DA, all that goodwill between Stix and his former team certainly won’t stop the “what if” train from leaving the station if another certain Suns big finds himself Indiana next.
As high as Jalen Smith is on his new situation, the Pacers feel unlikely to be a playoff team heading into next season. That could change if they find a way to shed some additional salary and land Ayton with a max offer sheet or sign-and-trade.
When Smith was originally drafted by Phoenix, the Suns had plans of playing him at the 4, alongside Ayton at the 5. Those plans never came to fruition, since they quickly realized Stix was better suited as a center, and that JaVale McGee was a better backup than the raw project out of Maryland.
Back in February, at the time of the trade, DA had some interesting comments about Smith’s departure.
“I think as a team, we helped that dude love the game,” Ayton said. “Not to say that he didn’t love the game, but express it in a way where everybody can see it. This league, not everybody knows each other, but word goes around. We used to sit down and break down to him and tell him like, ‘You don’t have to come with a certain approach to this game that everybody is used to seeing. Especially as a young dude, you’re gonna have to be the first one here, first one there, and you’re gonna have to be very respectable all across the board.’ So just taking that with him and having the type of energy that we gave him and the type of gratitude we gave him, hopefully he could just take that with him wherever he’s at. Take it up in Indiana, and just show those dudes how to do it.”
So far, Smith’s play and contract extension signal he’s done just that in Indiana. A potential reunion there, where both Smith and DA put up big individual numbers, would have many lamenting what might have been in Phoenix…until the Pacers learn the same lessons the Suns did about that pairing, either by on/off-court numbers or the win-loss column.
More than likely, an Ayton sign-and-trade to Indiana is probably on hold until Phoenix works out a way to land Kevin Durant. In any case, Smith is aware of the rumors, and he addressed the possibility of playing with Ayton again.
“I kinda do my own thing,” he said. “I mean, I ain’t really hit him up about it yet ’cause I don’t like influencing people’s decisions. But hey, if we get him, good for us. If we don’t, I mean, we gonna be good regardless. So I’m just happy for whatever he chooses.”
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