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Dan Bickley

Suns GM James Jones stuck to his plan by drafting Jalen Smith

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Chances are, the Suns selected someone you’ve never heard of in Wednesday’s NBA draft. Someone you’ve never seen play.

But you’re cheering just the same. Maybe even louder than usual.

That’s because sports fans are at our most gullible on draft day, especially in the NFL and NBA. We are like barking seals, willing to cheer water for being wet.

It’s mostly because the heavy lifting is already done in Phoenix. The Suns have already authored their best off-season in more than a decade, acquiring Chris Paul in a blockbuster trade with the Thunder. We are liberated from the awful fate of relying on teenagers to lift our downtrodden franchise.

Let’s never do that again.

You’re also cheering because general manager James Jones is newly crowned royalty in the Valley. He is reaping the rewards of the Monty Williams hiring; an 8-0 performance in the Orlando bubble; for pairing Devin Booker with one of the best point guards in NBA history.

It’s also because of his performance in the 2019 draft, when Jones moved out of the No. 6 pick, trading for Dario Saric and drafting Cam Johnson five spots later. Jones was largely ridiculed for selecting a player expected to go much later in the draft, a player valued more by Jones than any other GM in the league. The results speak for themselves.

Maryland’s Jalen Smith is the same but different. Most slotted him as a late first-round selection, and the Suns’ GM once again proved that he trusts his intuition more than the opinion of others. He will not be swayed by the aggregate consensus of draft experts.

Many believe a backup point guard was a much smarter maneuver, especially with a two-year mentorship that would’ve come from playing underneath Paul, competing with a Hall of Famer every day in practice.

But the Smith selection tells you something else. Namely, that Aron Baynes is gone and Deandre Ayton needs someone to push him in practice. The unconventional selection of Johnson in 2019 also assures that Jones will get the benefit of the doubt with this kid.

After all, Cam Johnson is as of now a projected starter in 2020-21, part of lineup that will feature four excellent shooters. That means the Suns will achieve elite floor spacing next season, opening up new horizons for both Booker and Ayton.

With all due respect to Ricky Rubio, the departed point guard was not defended like a true NBA scoring threat. Paul’s Suns will make it nearly impossible for opponents to double-team anyone in the future, particularly Booker, and that is tremendously exciting.

Jones also seems to be sticking to a coherent plan. He values experienced, highly-competitive players who can shoot the lights out. He refuses to go all-in on unproven rookies, most of whom are all swag and raw skill, coming to the league with very little polish or basketball education.

That’s also why this NBA draft didn’t feel so important. The Suns didn’t need to hit a home run. And that’s a good thing in Arizona.

The 2020 NBA draft also felt small for other reasons. The pandemic forced a shutdown of the previous college basketball season, including the highly-visible NCAA Tournament. That resulted in little familiarity or name recognition among any of players drafted on Wednesday.

A condensed offseason and disrupted NBA calendar was also disorienting, yielding little buildup time to this draft. But in many ways, the event is better this way. Less hype means less disappointment, and the latter seems inevitable in most cases.

After all, the Suns have relied on the draft the way the Thunder, who entered the 2020 NBA draft with 20 first-round picks over the next six years, are set to do. We have learned the folly of building a future around a collection of teenagers and young adults. It doesn’t work. And that’s what made this draft so special.

Because it doesn’t matter that much to the grand scheme on Planet Orange. And barring disaster, it will mark the last top 10 pick we see for quite some time.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.


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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier