James Jones is not going to build the Phoenix Suns the way you want him to. He’s not going to follow other peoples’ draft boards, or sign our favorite free agents, or even make a strong attempt to get an A-grade in every transaction.
He just wants to win games, and he is going to put together rosters that will do just that.
“We’re here to win games, we’re here to make the playoffs, we’re here to win a title,” he said when I asked him about their goals. “It’s the same every year.”
That’s what any GM will say when asked about their goals for a season, but sometimes the words ring a lot more hollow than Jones’ words on Wednesday night. That’s because so far, Jones’ roster machinations have turned into wins.
His first offseason of roster turnover doubled the team’s win rate (19 wins to 38 win pace) and nearly culminated in a playoff berth. Now the first transaction of his second offseason — trading for Chris Paul — has the Suns firmly in the Western Conference playoff picture with a chance to push for home court advantage.
A year ago he shocked the draft world by taking Cameron Johnson with the 11th pick overall. People laughed at the pick, yet Johnson finished the season in the top five of all rookies in several advanced-stat categories, including Win Shares (4th), Box Plus-Minus (5th) and Value Over Replacement Player (4th). He made nearly 40 percent of his threes, extremely rare for a rookie, and started all eight games in the 8-0 Bubble Run. Now Cam’s future looks so bright that he could already be the Suns’ starter at forward this season.
This year, Jones shocked the draft world again by taking 6-10 big man (7-2 wingspan) Maryland’s Jalen Smith, a player with the nickname ‘Stix’ because of his formerly-even-lankier frame (he’s 225 lbs. now) and wears goggles on the court because he doesn’t like contacts and can’t see otherwise.
No one had tied Smith to the Suns, but then again we didn’t even know who the Suns had brought in to Phoenix for one-on-one workouts! Still, it’s not like Jalen Smith isn’t a good prospect despite your lack of knowledge about him. He ranked in the mid-to-late teens on most draft boards
- Sportingnews: 18th
- Ringer: 17th
- Tankathon: 15th
- B/R: 21st
- Athletic: 32nd
Here’s a single sequence of plays to give you insight into Smith’s talents as big man who can make a long three on one end and block shots on the other.
This Jalen Smith sequence is still is still some of the most electrifying basketball I’ve ever seen pic.twitter.com/TOIpflw3aD— Connor Newcomb (@ConnorNewcomb_) November 19, 2020
On draft day, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony slotted Smith at 14th to Boston with this to say:
Smith has boosted his stock in the pre-draft process with a series of strong workouts and interviews, making him a likely candidate to hear his name called in the Nos. 13-20 range. His length, shooting range and rim protection should make him a good fit on most NBA rosters as a stretch big.
What was so great about Stix’s predraft work?
“Jalen was one that exposed his weaknesses and [we were] able to see where he excels and where he doesn’t,” Jones said of what he liked about Smith — a 20-year-old — in the pre-draft workouts. “We came away from that excited and with some clarity knowing when he’s here with us, we can help him get better quickly.”
Jones noted that most prospects’ agents developed strict workouts that only showed a player’s strengths, and would not allow the team to deviate or control the workout in any way.
Yet Smith and his agent allowed the Suns to manipulate the workout to showcase some of his weaknesses too. Jones really liked that Smith was open to feedback, ready to put in the work to improve on his game.
“This whole offseason I’ve been focusing on getting my lower body strong and just becoming more flexible in the hips and the ankles,” Smith said. “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.”
In his two years at Maryland, Smith developed a profile as a skilled scorer, rebounder and shotblocker who is a little stiff in the hips and has poor lateral mobility for defending in space.
Similar descriptive words were used about Cameron Johnson a year ago. Yet by the end of his rookie season, Johnson had improved that part of his game and was no longer a liability worry on defense in space.
Jones loves Smith’s effort: “We want guys that are hoopers, that are self-starters.”
Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer had this to say after the Suns took Smith:
I love how Jalen Smith plays. Dude hustles so hard. Bright Future Suns fans are gonna fall in love with his shooting ability, you're gonna see Monty Williams running him off screens. A fun, quirky player. Average athlete, needs to improve on D, but I'd bet on high effort players.— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) November 19, 2020
And this as well: “Whoa Jalen Smith is interesting for the Suns. NBA execs fully expect Aron Baynes to leave Phoenix (with New Orleans as a distinct possibility) so Smith can fill that stretch-5 role. I fully expect Monty Williams to use some double-big lineups too. Smith can stroke 3s like a wing.”
And here’s more from James Jones on Smith: “We identified him not only as a good player but a professional college player. He’s extremely disciplined, regimented, he’s a tireless worker and his approach fits our approach.”
For his part, Jalen Smith is extremely happy to experience the reality of a lifelong dream for him and so many of his contemporaries.
“Just lucky to be in this moment,” Smith said after the draft. “Because so many people want this in their lifetime. Just to be one of those people to get it, there was nothing I could do to stop [crying].”
The moment he's dreamed about forever.— Maryland Basketball (@TerrapinHoops) November 19, 2020
You deserve it all, @thejalen_smith. pic.twitter.com/gsBJjudrcn
On tap TODAY
The Suns have seven players under guaranteed contract, including Jalen Smith in there. They already made qualifying offers to restricted free agents Dario Saric and Jevon Carter with the expectation of bringing them back with new contracts.
As for the rest of the roster, they have until this afternoon to decide whether to
- Pick up Frank Kaminsky’s team option of $5 mill
- Cameron Payne’s $1.9 mil team option at the league minimum
- Cheick Diallo’s $2 mil team option
- Keep the rights/cap hold for Aron Baynes, which allows the team re-sign him despite being over the cap
The Suns are over the cap, so there is no harm in keeping Baynes’ Bird Rights even if they don’t intend to match any big offers for him, and they certainly want to bring back the Payne train. Diallo is likely not back again.
Frank Kaminsky is a wild card here. They could guarantee his contract today in order to either keep him (unlikely) or use him in a trade for a veteran at another position. Or they could simply let Frank go. We will know by end of day.
On tap TOMORROW
James Jones said on Wednesday night that the Suns he expects the Suns to use their cap exceptions — $9.3 million mid-level exception and $3.6 million biannual exception — in free agency to add players that fit his Suns mold — hard working, no-ego, smart basketball IQ. He’s got his targets already in mind.