James Jones has made many excellent roster decisions with the Phoenix Suns, turning them into the first team in the league’s 75-year history to rise from the bottom of the league to the top of the league in only two seasons as the General Manager.
Nearly every single transaction has turned out well, regardless of immediate public perception, resulting in the league’s second-best record in 2020-21 and a blitz through the playoffs to the brink of a league championship.
His draft picks are a perfect encapsulation of the best and worst of Jones’ decision making. He has never been a fan of rookies, often citing his desire for prime veterans rather than rookies in his team’s rotation, and has shown that disdain for the traditional draft process by ‘over drafting’ both 2019 and 2020 picks and then trading all the way out of the 2021 Draft.
Today, he guaranteed the 2022-23 option for Cameron Johnson, but declined the option on Jalen Smith.
Sources: Phoenix is declining center Jalen Smith’s third-year rookie option ($4.7M), making him an unrestricted free agent in 2022. The 6-foot-10 big man averaged 9.5 points and 8 rebounds in four preseason games after posting 16.25 PPG/12.5 RPG in summer league.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) November 1, 2021
Smith will now become an unrestricted free agent next summer. For trade purposes, he is now a $4.4 million expiring contract for teams who need to shed salary during the season.
Cameron Johnson was taken 11th overall in 2019 to league-wide skepticism on draft day, but has been a very good NBA player and now is widely considered a top-10 talent from that draft class. If you are an advanced-stats fan, you probably know that he is 7th in win shares, 7th in Box Plus-Minus and 5th in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) from that draft.
Independent of draft classes, Johnson is a top-tier role player in the league regardless of age and experience. He is one of the league’s best three-point shooters and was one of the Suns’ top seven players in last year’s playoffs.
His fourth year team option is a bargain at $5.89 million for the 2022-23 season.
That number, controlled by the rookie-scale contract system set up for a first-round pick’s first four years in the league, is low for a rotation player in today’s NBA. The mid-level contract for a 20+ minute per game rotation player today is nearly $10 million per year, and Cam Johnson just might earn $15+ per year on an extension after next year.
Oof. This is where James Jones did not roll a perfect score. A year after showing a real genius for finding a great role player for the Suns in Cameron Johnson, Jones took a raw, gangly 20-year old from Maryland with the 10th overall pick in the 2020 Draft who has yet to crack the Suns rotation.
By all statistical measures, the player nicknamed ‘Stix’ for his long skinny legs, has been a bust since entering the NBA. He ranks no higher than 37th among his draft class in games, minutes, points and rebounds and all the advanced stats — well below his Draft slot stature (10th).
He has a tantalizing skill set — can rebound in traffic, finish around the rim and has a clean, easy stroke on three pointers. But on the down side he’s been unpredictable in short minutes and runs around like he’s still getting used to his long legs, kind of like a baby giraffe.
His contributions have been so lacking that when the Suns really needed more size in the Finals last year after losing backup center Dario Saric (knee), coach Monty Williams never looked in the 6’10” Stix’ direction. He instead played small, which ultimately killed the Suns chances to beat the bigger Bucks.
Stix once again did not earn a rotation spot this season, and saw the Suns spend $5 million on JaVale McGee to be Deandre Ayton’s backup instead of Smith. The Suns have talked about Smith playing power forward as a long, stretchy option because he can shoot threes (38% in college) but has only shot 22% from NBA distance when given the chance.
While Cam Johnson’s option for next season is a no-brainer, the same was not true of Jalen Smith. His current role — emergency backup big man out of the rotation — can be had for half that salary. The league minimum on 4+ year veterans is just under $2 million per year.
Today, James Jones decided to decline Smith’s $4.7 million option for the 2022-23 season to let him become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
Smith is now an expiring $4.4 million contract.
A timely, ironic development
With Deandre Ayton’s knee bruise leaving him limping out of the arena on Saturday night, Smith might be about to get his first break.
If Ayton misses any time at all, Stix and JaVale McGee would be splitting time as the team’s center for a while. McGee is highly productive, but is also foul-prone. Smith would likely suddenly go from nothing to 20+ minutes per game if Ayton is out.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if the Suns decline Smith’s next-year option just to see him ball out once given a chance to shine?