EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Jalen Smith adds shooting, offensive upside to Suns’ frontcourt

Nov 18, 2020, 9:38 PM | Updated: Nov 19, 2020, 2:11 am
Jalen Smith #25 of the Maryland Terrapins takes a foul shot during a college basketball game agains...
Jalen Smith #25 of the Maryland Terrapins takes a foul shot during a college basketball game against the Michigan Wolverines at the Xfinity Center on March 8, 2020 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

James Jones has his guy and he’s not afraid who else is available when the Phoenix Suns pick. The general manager has made that evident in his second NBA Draft, selecting Maryland big Jalen Smith 10th overall.

Before we get there, though, let’s look at the player.

To what should be no surprise by now, the biggest appeal in the player Jones just added is shooting.

Smith at 6-foot-10 is not just a catch-and-shoot threat from three-point range, where he made 36.8% of his 2.8 looks per game as a sophomore. He’s comfortable getting on the move, something head coach Monty Williams will utilize by using Smith as an off-ball screener for a decoy action before Smith gets his own off-ball screen set for him.

Here’s what that could look like.

Despite the way the league has been changing with more and more shooting, stretch bigs are still a rare commodity in the NBA. A 6-foot-10 big with a nearly 7-foot-2 wingspan that blocks nearly three shots a game while shooting like that is not something you see much of in the league.

And most importantly, Smith isn’t restricted if defenders heavily close out on him. A dribble or two to get to the rim isn’t an issue.

Smith will even take the occasional pull-up jumper.

And widdling it down even more, that was even happening in more traditional pull-up situations a time or two, where perhaps he could implement that into his faceup game.

On top of Smith finishing around the basket and some scoring out of the post, that’s quite the offensive upside the Suns could tap into.

The biggest question here is on defense. As you can see in those clips, while Smith is fluid for a big, he isn’t quick. And in the same way the advancements in the NBA world for shooting have come in the last decade, so has the power forward position disintegrating slowly before our eyes like a post-Thanos snap.

Wings are taking over that spot, and quick ones at that. While traditional lineups with two bigs still exist on plenty of rosters around the league, a power forward these days needs to be able to consistently move his feet and neutralize dribble-drive attacks.

Can Smith do that? Well, he needs to, or else the Suns just picked a backup center in the lottery.

The good news is that Smith showed great self-awareness after being drafted of what he wants to bring to the Suns and what he wants to work on.

“This whole offseason I’ve been focusing on getting my lower body strong and just becoming more flexible in the hips and the ankles,” he said to reporters on a Zoom call Wednesday. “On the court, being able to create for myself and being able to explode with my back to the basket and just extending my three-point range.”

As a team defender when he wasn’t on rim protection duty, Smith had a knack for consistently lagging behind on rotations. That can be due to both his limited movement skills and seeing things a step slow.

But Smith is a tough dude who battles, and when he was guarding in the post, that really shined.

The athleticism, effort and energy are there to be a plus defender, the same traits that led to him averaging 10.5 rebounds a game, including 3.2 on the offensive glass. That’s a whole lot of rebounding if he plays alongside Deandre Ayton, and a needed boost for the team overall.

While Smith needs to add some more strength at 225 pounds for center minutes, the length and shot-blocking instincts clicked.

If you can’t tell by now, this is sort of an upside play by Jones, which is interesting. Smith has a few elements of his game that need to come together in order for him to be the player that’s worth this selection.

It has to be mentioned that Smith just shot 26.8% as a freshman from deep, and under three attempts a game is not a high enough sample size to completely believe in him as a reliable shooter.

The aforementioned physical growth will have to come for him, and those can often come to fruition on NBA strength and development plans. Cam Johnson is a recent example of looking the part a whole lot more after going through that process. Johnson also lacked awareness defensively coming out of the draft, accepted the challenge to improve on that end and succeeded.

And, obviously, this isn’t the only place we can link the selection of Smith to Johnson from last year.

Jones sticks to his guns.

He didn’t care that Tyrese Haliburton was on the board, a great playmaking point guard who is inarguably a better shooter than Smith right now that adds a ton of intangibles beyond that.

He didn’t care that the answer to filling out the rest of the wing rotation was on the board, whether it was Desmond Bane, Saddiq Bey or Devin Vassell.

His guy was Smith, and he took him. It worked out last time, and that was far more of a reach than this pick, so he’s earned some leeway here and got a guy at the very minimum who will space the floor well for Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Ayton.

But remember, Johnson was taken over guys like Brandon Clarke, who effectively could have been the pick last year for the role Smith now takes. And then Phoenix could have gotten better value on a wing this year.

Either way, that won’t keep Jones up at night, and that’s a good trait for a general manager to have.

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