The 2020 NBA Draft posed plenty of conundrums for the teams drafting. It had been nearly eight months since the talent they were evaluating had played. The class was considered to be one full of role players rather than superstars. Outside of the top 3, it was a crapshoot.
James Jones left plenty of us with our jaws agape as we pondered why he chose Jalen Smith from Maryland with the 10th overall pick. The roster needed a playmaker or another wing (following Kelly Oubre’s departure). So why go with a 6’10” big from the Big Ten?
The preseason has begun, and although the brief 4-game experience is primarily being used to get the legs underneath the players and develop chemistry for a reinvigorated roster, it is safe to say many Phoenix faithful are queued in on Stix. Fair or not, every minute he plays is viewed by fans as either vindication for Jones’ pick or justification that he should’ve taken Tyrese Haliburton or Devin Vassell.
Why the Phoenix Suns made Maryland’s Jalen Smith one of the NBA Draft’s big surprises. https://t.co/hJFRExWYFe— Doug Haller (@DougHaller) November 19, 2020
No Summer League. An abbreviated draft-to-preseason time period. A muted training camp. All of these factors are working against the Class of 2020. We don’t know what to truly expect from the Suns’ first-rounder.
Jalen Smith now has some film on him, albeit in the preseason, that allows us to analyze his strengths and weaknesses. With Dario Saric and Jae Crowder sitting in the first two preseason contests, Monty subbed the rookie into the game with 4:38 left in the 1st quarter of preseason game versus Utah.
Thus began the Stix Era in Phoenix. On Monday he received his first chance to start at power forward against Utah and logged 23 minutes. In total, through two games, we have seen him play 42 minutes, score 13 points, snag 10 rebounds, and commit 4 fouls.
Remember this: it’s early. Really early. The kid is raw, had practically no time to prepare like a normal rookie would, and is playing in the NBA. Last time I checked, the NBA is a few levels higher than playing against Rutgers.
What are the initial thoughts on the 20 year-old? How does he compare to the draft profiles? Will he be an effective part of this team? It may be too early to tell. Let’s enter the film room and look as aspects of his game.
My first take away from watching Jalen Smith is the smoothness of his shot and his willingness to take it. James Jones loves him some shooters, don’t he? Although not everything went in for Smith during this past weekends games (5-12 from the field, 2-7 from downtown), his confidence in taking shots is certainly present.
His first shot from behind the arc came in Game 1 vs. Utah on Saturday night. His mechanics were sound and he shot the ball with conviction, even with Juwan Morgan closing rapidly on him.
I think we all stood up with excitement seeing that.
STIX FOR THREEEEE!— John Voita (@DarthVoita) December 13, 2020
In this next set, Smith is hovering in the right corner as the Suns pass the ball around the perimeter. His defender collapses on fellow rookie Ty-Shon Alexander, leaving him wide open for the three-point jump shot.
Again, you see his ability to catch-and-shoot with poise, resulting in a ‘nothing-but-netter’.
Great ball movement, eh?
Not everything goes in, however. The Suns as a team had a rough two games in Utah, shooting 42.6% from the field and 31.2% from deep. Their legs clearly weren’t beneath them as numerous shots came up short. Couple that with poor rebounding (and sprinkle a ‘lil shoddy refereeing) and your result is an 0-2 record in Utah (side note: last season the Suns were 2-14 in games in which they shot under 42.6%).
Jalen was no exception. On this slip screen he finds himself all alone behind the arc. He’s back, he shoots, he...air balls.
As I mentioned above, this could be a legs issue. Tired legs can equate to short shots. The fundamentals are there, however. He has a smooth stroke. There is no early-Mikal herkie jerkiness.
Smith displayed his ability to make the mid-range shot as well. There is no lack of confidence in his game.
He went to his left and drove the lane on Monday night, pulling up from 11-feet, and drilled the jumper. He drew a foul on the play as well.
Perhaps I’m naïve, but I didn’t know that he had the ability to put the ball on the floor and create his own shot this well. If our power forward can does this with regularity, the offensive sets are endless.
What surprised me more on this play was his...
When Adam Silver read Smith’s name on draft night, many of us gravitated to draft guides and profiles, YouTube clips and podcasts. He wasn’t on anyone’s board. We had to see what the experts thought and if the skillset he brought would meet the needs of the team.
As I browsed through pages and pages of Jalen Smith material, I found that his ability to catch-and-shoot would be his primary addition to the Suns. Seeing as the team had Deandre Ayton, and would later re-sign Dario Saric and acquire Jae Crowder, his ability to shoot would garner him minutes no matter what.
What has surprised me the most is his ball handling skill thus far. At 6’10”, you don’t expect him to take the ball off the dribble and create his own shot.
I think he showed us plenty with his first points on Saturday:
He takes the ball going right, redirects left, drives down the lane, loses Morgan on a screen by Damian Jones, and goes into Derrick Favors whilst making the contested layup. And let’s state the obvious here: he was fouled.
This was our introduction to Jalen Smith. This one play tells us plenty about the player. He put the ball on the floor. He went left. He sought out contact. He finished. He looked fluid during the entire play.
Here Smith lets an over-pursuing Bojan Bogdanovic slip past him, then shows us his other hand. He goes right and right at a two-time defensive player of the year in Rudy Gobert. He flashes the ball high, brings it down, and finishes through the contact.
Knowing that this skill will do nothing but improve has to excite you about his ceiling. I think back to the days of Dragan Bender. When he put the ball on the floor you felt the nervous fear a parent feels when their child is on a swing. You were grinding your teeth hoping for the best.
I don’t feel that way with Jalen going to the hoop.
Defense & Rebounding
It’s hard to evaluate his defense too much, especially considering the Jazz were spreading the floor and chucking up three’s non-stop. The team as a whole struggled defending the perimeter. The Jazz shot 36.2% (29-80) from beyond the arc over both games.
Smith found himself collapsing to the interior on numerous occasions, and the Jazz took full advantage of it.
Jalen was looking to snag a defensive rebound on the play, but you can’t leave a guy who shot 41.4% from deep last year in Bogdonivc. He did his best to recover, hustling back to his spot and putting his hand in the air, but the damage was done.
Time and again, the Jazz enticed him to collapse. Their continual ball movement is enough to make your head spin, and for a guy play his first minutes as a pro, you can’t fault him. Jordan Clarkson drives and kicks to Joe Ingles, who kicks to Smith’s assignment, Juwan Morgan. Morgan uses a screen from Clarkson to shield himself on the shot. Bam. 3 points.
The guy is big. Perhaps not as big as I had envisioned him when I watched his YouTube highlights, but still, 6’10” is what many would consider “large”. He averaged 10.5 rebounds-per-game at Maryland, good for 2nd in the Big Ten. The expectation is that he will bring second-team rebounding to the team.
Here was his first rebound as a Phoenix Sun:
Look familiar? He left his guy wide open on the play. Avoid cherry-piking boards and stay home. Good things will happen, I promise!
This is where coaching will be key for Smith. When he is playing the stretch-four, he will be asked to guard players who can shoot. Welcome to the NBA, kid. If you collapse, specifically against teams like Utah who are above-average from three, you will pay the price.
This is Jalen Smith’s 7th and final rebound on Monday night’s game. Watch how he is already beginning to make the adjustment. His instinct is to collapse from the weak side. He begins to drift towards the paint, but rather than blindly leave his man, his head is on a swivel. He is constantly keeping tabs on who he is defending.
Lesson administered. Many more lessons to learn.
We are barley scratching the surface of what Jalen Smith’s skillset is. Thus far I will say I am pleased with his fundamentals. His hands are up and he is ready to shoot when the Sun call upon him. We won’t be waiting around a year as he tries to perfect his shooting motion.
His handles are surprisingly fluid. We knew coming into the NBA he possessed versatility, but the early returns on his offensive talent justify James Jones’ selection. Smith’s aggressiveness and willingness to put the ball on the floor and create for himself exceed expectations.
Rebounding will come (he pulled in 10 during the two games in Salt Lake City). The defense is an area of improvement as he learns NBA offensive sets and how to position himself within the confines of the defense. In his start on Monday he found himself in early foul trouble, two of which came as he tired to fight through screens.
He may be called, “Stix”, but he is built like one of those brick houses people used to relieve themselves in. HIs body and mind will continue to develop under the tutelage of Monty Williams and his staff.
You may ask how does this translate to the playing surface... at the end of this video @thejalen_smith will get fouled while going to the basketball hoop and although he gets bumped while being off balance.... he is able to score the basketball. Good job Fam! pic.twitter.com/Uad5cfBxN5— Gibson Performance Training (@GibsonTraining) December 15, 2020
Again, it is early. Too early. But the initial film study says this guy has the confidence, fundamentals, and coachability that will equate to success.