EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

All eyes will be on Jalen Smith in Suns’ return to NBA Summer League

Aug 5, 2021, 7:17 PM | Updated: Aug 6, 2021, 11:39 pm
Jalen Smith #10 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game against the Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns ...
Jalen Smith #10 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game against the Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns Arena on January 23, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns didn’t select anyone in the 2021 NBA Draft, and yet, there is a fair amount of intrigue surrounding their upcoming Summer League play that begins on Sunday.

Well, not so much for the whole team, but one guy in particular.

Last year’s first-round pick and No. 10 overall selection, Jalen Smith, will be participating and there are multiple reasons to be keeping a close eye on how he fares.

For one, the Suns might need Smith next season.

Phoenix’s most important big man off the bench, Dario Saric, tore his ACL in the NBA Finals and is expected to be out for most of the year. While the Suns agreed to terms with JaVale McGee and brought back Frank Kaminsky in free agency, Smith is like Saric in that he can switch between the 4 and 5.

Back in mid-April, Williams discussed the difficult transition for the rookie during the COVID-19 pandemic caused by a short offseason without a Summer League. The head coach said the Suns are teaching Smith how to play like Saric.

“Going right from being drafted to a training camp, but not only that, pretty much trying to learn a new position,” Williams said. “Going from a 5 and trying to learn how to play like Dario. That’s something that we’ve talked about is Jalen becoming a more athletic Dario. That’s a high goal, if you will, but we feel like with the work he’s put in with (assistant) coach (Mark) Bryant, he’s gonna get there someday.

“I just wish he would have had a Summer League. I’m hopeful that we still have one this summer because I think that’s what he really needs, is to get out there and play and just make mistakes and deal with it and go to bed and come back and do the same thing the next day. Just hasn’t had that opportunity.

“We’re seeing a lot of improvement when we do get to play pickup after practice. He gets to play against some of our low-minute guys and some of our coaches and you’re starting to see the ball-handling, the reaction, 0.5 — that kind of thing. Just hard to jump right into a system like ours and learn a new position. I am seeing improvement and I think he’s really going to grow this summer when he gets a chance to play more.”

Smith gets that chance starting on Sunday.

Outside of an emergency situation in the season opener when Smith did well, he was not a part of the rotation all year.

Smith’s NBA-ready skills out of Maryland were his rebounding, shot-blocking and finishing, with his athleticism giving him a chance to be an instant impact type of player.

Instead, we didn’t see him. It was logical given the Suns’ status as a contender, and also was telling of where Smith was at in his development, as there were a few injury hiccups across the year where Williams could have seen what he had in him.

Alas, the extent of Smith’s minutes were either in garbage time or in the G League bubble. The results for the latter were mixed.

At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and some quickness, Smith physically profiled as a big who could switch between both big man positions, but his lateral movement especially in college had concerns among scouts on his ability to guard 4s.

When general manager James Jones spoke after the draft, he was praising a lot of attributes that point toward Smith being looked at as more of a 4 for the Suns, including his agility moving his feet on the perimeter.

While Smith can stretch the floor as a power forward, Smith’s required growth in ball-handling and defense pointed in the direction of it being more of a developmental pick by Jones.

And with the value of a lottery pick, the question became how Smith would get more minutes to live up to that because he surely wasn’t picked just to be Deandre Ayton’s backup.

“When you look at his ball skills and his comfort level being on the perimeter, he allows us to play with two dynamic bigs in space,” Jones said of a potential Smith/Ayton pairing back in November. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem. I’m looking forward to seeing those two guys anchoring the floor together, even if it’s for stints.”

When you’d stroll into Phoenix Suns Arena three hours before tip-off, there was Smith working through various drills, including his handle.

As you can expect in a random, chaotic space of basketball to evaluate like the G League, those tantalizing long-term prospects of Smith’s game flashed.

How about something a tad more realistic, though, like attacking closeouts?

It will be a grand slam for the Suns and Jones’ greatest move yet if Smith pans out.

His ability to drill 3s in catch-and-shoot situations and also on the move already made him a potentially unique offensive weapon. But that plus Smith’s motor, interior play and upside as a versatile defender to handle switches and protect the rim are where you can see what the thinking was with the pick.

While it’s not something to make a future declaration over, our first real indication of where Smith is at will be in Summer League play.

As a lottery pick in his second year, the expectation for Smith is that he should look like just that on the court — standing out from everyone else. And, honestly, even more so when you think about the practices he was involved in for the majority of the Suns’ season.

His development is the one wild card of the Suns’ offseason that could really push them over the top in the Western Conference (again) next year.

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