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Jalen Smith was not like many other rookies from the 2020 NBA Draft class. For most top-10 picks, that kind of description would be a good thing. For Stix, it was the opposite.
Last year, 25 rookies averaged at least 20 minutes per game. Smith wasn’t one of them. Forty rooks averaged at least 15 minutes per game, and still, Smith wasn’t one of them. And among the 54 rookies who averaged at least 10 meager minutes per game?
You guessed it: Jalen Smith wasn’t one of them.
A lack of playing time is understandable for most first-year players joining a title contender, though nobody figured that’s what the Phoenix Suns would be when they surprised everyone by taking Stix with the 10th overall pick. When Chris Paul helped accelerate the upward trajectory of this young core, Phoenix had less time to spend on another developmental project.
A LOOK AT JALEN SMITH SO FAR
As the Suns bulldozed their way to 51 wins and the 2-seed in the Western Conference, the rookie out of Maryland got lost in the shuffle. Suiting up for only 27 games, Smith averaged 2.0 points and 1.4 rebounds in 5.8 minutes per game, shooting 44 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from beyond the arc.
It was hardly the type of production befitting a top-10 selection, and it was especially hard to ignore when compared to players who came off the board after him, such as Devin Vassell (No. 11), Tyrese Haliburton (No. 12), Cole Anthony (No.15) and Tyrese Maxey (No. 21).
Heading into Year 2, there are no illusions about how important it will be for Stix to prove he’s ready to contribute.
“I’m extremely looking forward to it,” Smith said at Media Day. “Obviously that’s the main goal of everyone coming into the NBA: trying to make an impact on whatever team they’re on. Obviously my first year didn’t go the way I wanted. Everything’s about trials and tribulations and just learning from it, so this year it was just going into Summer League, gain confidence and continue to get in the flow of the game and just bring as much as I can to the coming year.”
“Summer League” has become synonymous with Jalen Smith early on in his career, not just because Suns fans finally got an extensive look at his game in Las Vegas this year, but because his lack of a Summer League experience heading into his rookie season became the scapegoat for his inability to carve out a niche in the rotation.
Due to the 2019-20 season resuming in the Orlando bubble, the NBA calendar being pushed back and draft night coming so close to the start of a new season, the league scrapped Summer League, and teams only had a condensed training camp to integrate their new rookies. That left Smith, a guy who was selected several spots higher than expected, with the difficult task of getting acclimated to the NBA game on a team that had little time to waste and even less time for actual practices.
“Obviously it was my first year coming into the league, and it was a hard offseason coming in, so I didn’t really get the full package,” Smith said. “But that’s no excuse, so now it’s just being able to put everything together and also showing that even though I didn’t get much time as most people, I can still do what I can do and do my job well.”
The Suns are coming off yet another shortened offseason thanks to their NBA Finals run, but at least this time Smith got the chance to play in his first Summer League.
“It was basically my season to make up for my rookie season, just to go there and just play,” Smith explained.
The results, however, were still mixed.
On paper, his 16.3 points and 12.5 rebounds per game on 35.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc looked mighty impressive. Head coach Monty Williams seemed pleased with what he saw in Vegas too.
“I think Jalen had a really good summer,” he said. “It’s unfortunate for him that he didn’t get a chance to go to Summer League the first two weeks after getting drafted. He had to wait a whole year to get that kind of run, but I thought he took advantage of it.”
Smith led Summer League in rebounding — a goal he set for himself going in and was proud of himself for reaching — as well as 3-point attempts among all big men. At Media Day, Stix said Williams was giving him new objectives throughout the experience.
“Pretty much every time after the game, he would tell me that I had to grab more rebounds than what I did,” Smith said of his coach. “He told me to try and aim for 20 rebounds every game, try to grab everything that comes off the rim. And that was pretty much the main focus was just my effort and continuing to play hard.”
Those efforts were enough to earn Stix All-Summer League First Team honors, but it all sounds more glamorous than it really was. Seven players made the First Team rather than five due to ties in the voting, and Smith’s 36.5 percent shooting from the field left a lot to be desired.
WHAT DOES JALEN SMITH HAVE TO OFFER?
With Dario Saric out for the season, Torrey Craig gone and the Suns in need of some size at the 4, Phoenix could really use some contributions from that spot on the depth chart. The question is, will Stix find more opportunity at the 4, where he’s not best-suited to play? Or does he find a way to crack the rotation at the 5, where his long-term ceiling reaches its highest but his short-term potential is capped by the presence of Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee?
“I think his performance in practice on the floor will determine that,” general manager James Jones said of Smith’s potential role at Media Day. “I don’t have any predetermined views or expectations for guys. We improved our team externally and internally, so until we get all 15 guys back in the building playing against each other, you really just don’t know where these position battles are or what will happen as a result of these position battles that we’ll have.”
It’s a conundrum for the Suns, who envisioned Smith playing alongside Ayton when they drafted him. Wasting a top-10 pick on a backup center isn’t a good use of resources, but that might be the most optimal spot for him on the floor as he gets stronger.
Smith only played 156 minutes total as a rookie, but of his 83 non-garbage time minutes, the 73 he spent at center yielded a +3.5 point differential, per Cleaning The Glass. In the 10 non-garbage time minutes he spent at power forward, that number plummeted to -8.2. These are minuscule sample sizes, but it’s one of those cases where the numbers match the eye test, as well as where his skill-set figures to fit best.
In the Suns’ first preseason game, Smith played some minutes at the 5 alongside Frank Kaminsky, and his coach liked what he saw.
“Defensively, when he was at the 5, he looked so much more comfortable than at the 4,” Williams said. “At the 4, you have to navigate screens a lot more, getting over screens, knowing when to switch. That’s something that I’m sure he would tell you has been a bit difficult for him. But when he’s at the 5, he’s pretty effective. And so we want him to continue to grow.”
Stix admitted he’s more comfortable at center as well.
“My whole basketball career, I’ve pretty much been a 5, so I know how 5s move, I know how they roll out, I know what they want out of a pick-and-roll, so I’m able to read that,” he said. “At the 4, it’s an adjustment. It’s a different league, a lot of guys being able to dribble and go off the dribble. I just gotta be able to stay in front of them a lot better.”
Unfortunately, the Suns may continue to try and force a Jalen Smith-shaped peg into a power forward-shaped hole. They need him to be a factor this year — either as part of the rotation, or in order to boost his trade value for a potential Thaddeus Young deal.
According to Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Suns were gauging interest in Smith back in August, and a few weeks later, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Phoenix had engaged in trade talks with the San Antonio Spurs over Thad Young. A trade package would almost have to be built around Saric, Smith and draft compensation of some sort, and as we’ve covered extensively, Young would be a tremendous fit on the Suns.
For now though, Smith is still on the roster, hoping to prove he can contribute on a winning team and live up to his draft billing. It helps that he packed on some extra bulk in the shortened offseason thanks to a regimen that featured 1-2 workouts per day.
Williams said he’s been working his tail off in training camp, and the Suns will be monitoring his progress in the preseason.
“He’s got a different light about him in training camp,” Williams said. “Last year he was thinking more. He’s still thinking some, but it was a whirlwind for him, going from the draft right to training camp. That was tough. I thought he had a good summer. It’s only been three days, but we can see the conditioning and the work in the weight room is there, and now it’s just a matter of getting comfortable on the floor with veteran players, which is tough for a young guy.”
The biggest areas for improvement are clear at this point. Smith had an anemic free-throw rate for a near-7-footer, and even adjusting for small sample sizes, he was a poor 3-point shooter from everywhere but the corners, where he went 3-for-7.
He did show some flashes, particularly finishing around the basket and contesting shots at the rim — again, traits more befitting a 5. But no matter which frontcourt spot he occupies in limited minutes, he’ll have to establish himself as a more reliable 3-point threat.
Williams complimented his quick release, which looks confident and compact despite his size and how long his arms are. The bigger issue might be adjusting for the longer distance and mastering the footwork.
“He and coach Bryan [Gates] have put a lot of work, not just in his shot, but his footwork getting to his shot,” Williams explained. “That distance, in college 3s to the pro 3 is just different, and you’re doing it on the move more. In college it was probably more standstill 3s for him. Now he’s gotta slide to his spot, get his feet right, get balanced and then knock the shot down from range.”
Whether it’s as a 4 or a 5, Jalen Smith has a lot to prove this season if he wants to carve out meaningful minutes. Fortunately, the 21-year-old doesn’t seem to be shying away from the challenge.
“Oh I love competition,” he said. “Growing up in this sport or whatever sport you play, you always want to beat the person that’s ahead of you. And that’s just the mentality that you’ve always gotta have. That’s something that I’ve always carried with myself is whoever’s in front of me, I’m gonna make ‘em work. And I know they’re gonna make me work as well, so it’s the best of both worlds.”