It feels like it’s been a long time coming for Phoenix Suns second year forward/center Jalen Smith, but on Friday night the 10th overall pick from the 2020 NBA Draft finally had a chance to play in some meaningful minutes in the regular season. While his 7 points and 9 rebounds weren’t career highs in either category, it was how he earned those points that mattered.
Deandre Ayton was a late scratch with a non-COVID related illness, and with Frank Kaminsky already sidelined with stress reaction (and Dario Saric out for the season), the Suns found themselves short at the five entering their game against the Boston Celtics. Monty Williams’ solution? Start JaVale McGee and sprinkle in some Stix minutes to spell him. And cross your fingers.
In his short career, Jalen Smith hasn’t seen much of the court. You know his story. Shockingly taken at #10 overall. No rookie camp. No rookie Summer League. A shortened preseason. Couple that with the fact that his team went from picking in the lottery to playing in the NBA Finals during his rookie season, and yeah, he didn’t get much of an opportunity to showcase his skillset in 2020-21.
Smith ranked 2nd in fewest minutes played (156) among all first-rounders taken in his draft class. He scored a total of 53 points. Still, playing for a team with championship aspirations on a roster chalked full of talent, it’s hard to break the rotation.
He shined in the 2021 NBA Summer League, leading the league with 12.5 rebounds per game and averaging 16.3 points, including a 21 and 11 performance against the Denver Nuggets on August 12. His efforts earned him a spot on the All-Summer League First Team.
He followed up the Summer League by posting 9.5 points, 8 rebounds, and .5 blocks in his 21.5 minutes in the preseason. Gaudy numbers? No. But enough to display growth statistically and more importantly increase his personal confidence.
As the 2021-22 season began, so too did the rumors/opinions that the Suns should move on from Smith, using his $4.5M contract as a piece in a trade to upgrade the roster. If he isn’t going to contribute to the team, using his lottery status as a player surely could garner some buzz, right? No trades were made and Stix found himself doing what he always does: getting sporadic minutes at the end of blowout games.
His lack of usage brings up different thoughts as to “why”. Why is he not getting any minutes? Why are the likes of Abdel Nader and Ish Wainright getting minutes rather than Smith? There are theories on both.
I’ve mentioned this motion before, but perhaps Smith is more valuable sitting on the bench than he is performing on the court. He does still carry the lottery pick designation and he is still only in his second year in the NBA. These are two leverage points the Phoenix Suns could use in a trade if they choose to go that route with Smith.
There is a risk of playing Smith and putting on tape any underperforming traits he may display. It’s one thing to have tape on a player he is getting his minutes in garbage time. It’s quite another to see him attempt to perform against the first and second teams and looking lost on the court. His value remains more of a mystery if he isn’t playing.
The second theory is on how Nader and Wainright are earning more minutes. The key word there is “earning”. Monty is known as a coach who rewards players for the effort they put forth during practice sessions. Intensity on the practice floor is transferable to in-game scenarios and Monty has an affinity for the high motor guys.
This is pure speculation, but watching the body language Stix displays, he doesn’t have the appearance of someone who is overly intense or too amped up. I would describe him as more of a finesse attitude player rather than aggressive.
Regardless of the reasoning, the fact remains: Jalen Smith hasn’t seen the hardwood very much. Prior to his Friday night performance, he had played in 7 games this season, playing a total of 36 minutes.
On Friday night, however, Monty’s hand was forced. He had to play Jalen Smith. And you know what? Smith put together some solid minutes for the Suns and may have either a) increased his chance of getting more minutes and/or b) increased his trade value.
The final statline wasn’t the sexiest you’ve seen. 7 points on 3-of-8 shooting – including 1-of-6 from deep – and 9 rebounds in 21:36 played.
What did we see from Smith? Let’s break some of Friday night down.
Following his substitution into the game at the 6:06 mark in the first quarter, the Celtics immediately targeted Jalen Smith with 15-year center Al Horford. He caught the ball on the right block and began backing Stix down, testing the young player to see how he would respond to some physicality.
To Smith’s credit, he absorbed the contact and did not allow Horford to get to his desired spot on the floor. The possession ended with quality shot deterrence and a missed hook shot.
One reason I believe Smith hasn’t seen many minutes is he still is lost on the defensive end at times. It’s the chicken and the egg argument: how is he supposed to get better defensively if he doesn’t get in-game reps?
One thing I kept my eye on throughout the game was how he navigated the pick-and-roll on defense. He was getting minutes at the five, so you knew the Celtics would do what they could to switch and make the second-year player have to think.
Here is one instance in which Smith’s late reaction to the switch cost the Suns two points:
You see that he drops to take Schroder, only realizing late that the quickness of Cameron Payne allowed him to slip Al Horford’s screen. Schroder recognized this and dished the ball to Horford, who pump-faked a late-rotating Smith out of the play.
Need another example of Smith incorrectly rotating off of a switch? On this play he leaves Al Horford wide open behind the arc as he once again drops defensively. His length assists in deterring fellow 2020 NBA draftee Aaron Nesmith’s shot, but had Nesmith recognized Horford’s raised arms, this could have been a play that closed the gap to 2 for the Celtics.
It’s not all bad for Jalen Smith in the pick-and-roll. Although he does have a tendency to drop, it can be beneficial for the big guy. Especially when you have the likes of Mikal Bridges next to you to instinctively help you out.
Romeo Langford tries to use Smith’s dropping defense against him on this play, hoping to once again free up Al Horford. But with Mikal’s understanding of what’s occurring, coupled with Smith’s shot deterrence ability, Langford is forced into an offensive possession he’d like to have back, as Stix rises for the blocked shot.
Smith needs to continue to get reps to help develop his awareness. It wasn’t too long ago that a rookie version Mikal Bridges was having a tough time with the same issue. So much so that Monty Williams didn’t provide him minutes either. Granted, due to sheer athletic ability, Bridges can make up for mistakes on a play, it took time and repetition to develop defensive court awareness.
I appreciate the effort Stix put in defensively in this game. It’s clear that he still needs plenty of work on that end of the ball. But his hustle was noticeable. For example, on this play when Jae Crowder left his defender to assist in the paint, Jalen Smith is the one who sprinted towards Robert Williams to contest the shot.
The three-pointer fell for Williams, but it is this kind of effort that will earn respect from coaches and players alike.
I began with the defensive side because that is where I feel Jalen’s value lies and where growth needs to occur.
Offensively he looks more in tune with who the Suns are and what they are trying to execute. What was nice to see was the minute’s Smith received playing alongside the starters on Friday night. For seven minutes in the second quarter, Smith played the five with Chris Paul, Landry Shamet, Mikal Bridges, and Jae Crowder. The team went +9, shot 50%, and scored 17 points.
His time on the floor with the starters was highlighted by a dunk off of a Chris Paul pass.
Now it is clear that the respect the Celtics were giving Smith was minimal. Had that been Deandre Ayton rolling to the rim, you best believe he would have a defender glued to his hip and Al Horford would’ve dropped off of Landry Shamet to prevent such a play. But credit Chris Paul for rewarding Jalen Smith’s hustle.
The respect factor – or lackthereof – was a consistent theme from Boston throughout the evening. Jalen Smith took 6 three-points, making only his third attempt, and the Celtics were happy to let him do so. Notice the amount of space he was allotted on each of his shots from beyond the arc.
How confident is Jalen Smith putting the ball on the floor and forcing the defense to make decisions? Not confident enough. It’s either that or he wants to play more like Jae Crowder.
Jae Crowder has been a mentor to the young talent throughout his career thus far, showing him the ropes and teaching him proper form. Monty Williams noted that Jae had, “taken on this role with Jalen. He understands where Jalen is and we’ve told Jalen, if you want to be a really good player, watch Jae. Watch how he works. Watch him talk. Watch his footwork. Those are things that we feel like can help Jalen grow as a player.”
On Friday we saw Jalen Smith do his best Jae Crowder impression, although he lacked the consistency that Jae has (Crowder went 4-of-8 from deep). The fact that he was trying to fill that role, however, shines a light on what he could be.
Prior to Friday night, Jalen Smith had only played more than 22 minutes in one other professional game. He logged 41 minutes in the last game of the 2020-21 season against the Spurs, a game affectionately referred to by Suns fans as the “E’Twaun Moore Game”.
The minutes played were extremely valuable. If the Suns choose to stand pat and not make any acquisitions moving forward, providing Smith with the opportunity to play with the first team unit assists in building his confidence. Is there work to do? Yes. Should the Suns try to get him more opportunities moving forward? Again, yes.
The other advantage of his performance is it put good film on tape for other general managers to see if the Suns attempt to make any deal that involves Stix. Confidence can be gained in a deal knowing that Smith has the foundation as a player. Not playing Smith was possibly the best way to lure lucrative deals. But now that Monty’s hand was forced, and Smith played like a competent NBA player, options arise.
Regardless of how the Suns choose to move forward with Smith, as a fan of the team and James Jones, it was nice to see him not only get minutes, but contribute and play well.