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Jalen Smith decision shows Suns aren't buying into sunk cost fallacy

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
November 1, 2021

Jalen Smith had a lot to prove heading into his second NBA season. He barely played as a rookie, his most favorable position on the floor was already occupied by Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee, and even in terms of trade value, the former 10th overall pick had a lot of ground to make up in order to become an asset.

“Jalen Smith has a lot to prove” was literally the title of his player season preview here at PHNX, and for good reason.

According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, he didn’t prove enough ahead of Monday’s deadline for picking up third- and fourth-year rookie team options for the 2022-23 season.

While it’d normally be stunning to see a top-10 pick fail to get his third-year option picked up, it’s not particularly surprising the Suns are choosing to decline Smith’s, even at a manageable price of $4.7 million.

For starters, Jalen Smith is not good. There’s no way around it. As a rookie, he appeared in just 27 games, averaging 2.0 points and 1.1 rebounds in 5.8 minutes per game. He shot 44 percent from the floor and only made four of his 17 3-point attempts (23.5 percent).

In two regular-season appearances for the Suns so far this season, Stix has shown flashes, averaging 4.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in 9.5 minutes per game. In Phoenix’s most recent win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, the energy he brought off the bench in the second quarter helped shift momentum in the Suns’ favor.

“His energy was great,” head coach Monty Williams said after the game. “There were a couple times where, you know, when you haven’t played in that span of time, it’s hard to get a rhythm. But I thought his energy was really good.”

Even so, Stix shot 1-for-4 from the field and had moments where he just didn’t look like a real NBA player.

Smith hinted at growth in the offseason, earning First Team All-Summer League honors by averaging 16.3 points and 12.5 rebounds per game on 35.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc. He led Summer League in rebounding and put up the most 3-point attempts of any big man.

Unfortunately, he also shot just 36.5 percent from the field, and even his All-Summer League designation was slightly marred by seven players making the First Team, rather than the usual five, due to ties in the voting.

Smith’s positional fit and his timeline don’t match up well with this roster either. While he did spend some minutes at the 5 in preseason and even the other night against Cleveland, his best opportunity for playing time will come at the 4, where he’s decidedly less effective.

“Defensively, when he was at the 5, he looked so much more comfortable than at the 4,” Williams said of Smith in the preseason. “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.”

In his first year, Smith only played 156 minutes total, 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 microscopic sample sizes, but the numbers match the eye test in this case, as well as where his skill-set figures to fit best.

Stix has 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.”

This presents a conundrum for the 21-year-old, and for the Suns, who surely never intended to use a top-10 pick on a long-term backup for Ayton.

On a team that has title aspirations and very little time to commit to project development, Smith got lost in the shuffle as a rookie. Part of Monday’s disappointing news is on the Suns, who over-drafted him at No. 10 and then were unable to devote the necessary time and resources to seeing what they actually have in him.

With that being said, the flashes have been too few and far between, and just because he was taken with a top-10 pick doesn’t make him worth keeping around. General manager James Jones whiffed on this pick, passing on guys like Devin Vassell (No. 11 )Tyrese Haliburton (No. 12), Cole Anthony (No. 15), Saddiq Bey (No. 19) and Tyrese Maxey (No. 21) in the 2020 NBA Draft. Smith being a reach was clear at the time, and it looks even worse now that his third-year option isn’t even getting picked up.

But Jones clearly doesn’t buy into the sunk cost fallacy, which, despite how the optics might look, is the best course of action if the Suns aren’t sold on his trajectory. His $4.7 million salary seems manageable until you remember Phoenix will most likely be a luxury tax team next year, and that number jumps pretty significantly for a guy who’s not really part of the rotation.

There’s something to be said for making a mistake and owning it, rather than exacerbating it. That’s why it wasn’t surprising to hear Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer report that Phoenix was gauging interest in Smith back in August, or that they had shown interest in trading for Thaddeus Young, per Charania.

And for the Stix truthers, Smith isn’t necessarily gone yet either; he usurped Abdel Nader in the pecking order in Saturday’s game and provided energy minutes in a win. It remains to be seen whether that just was a product of going against Cleveland’s super-sized lineup (as well as Nader and McGee being off to such rough starts this season) or if it’s something more sustainable.

“It’s a lineup that we may go to, especially when we play these teams who are bigger and they can punish your guys in the paint if you’re a lot smaller, which we are with our normal core lineups,” Williams said. “We think Jalen, at times, can give you some rebounding, some length at the rim, shot-blocking, shot-distracting. We’ll just see how it works out.”

Stix still has a whole season to try and crack the rotation, and if he succeeds, the Suns can try to bring him back as an unrestricted free agent if they so choose — though they’ll be limited to $4.7 million in any attempt to re-sign him:

But as much as this decision stings and reinforces a not-so-old wound that Jalen Smith was a poor use of a top-10 draft pick, at least the Suns aren’t stubbornly sticking with him just for the sake of saving face.

If Jones is unconvinced Stix can play a role on a championship contender, even $4.7 million of salary cap room can make a difference, especially for a future luxury tax team that will need room for extensions for both Deandre Ayton and Cameron Johnson next summer.

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