I don’t know what 21-year old big man Jalen Smith did to deserve this, but he appears to be so far out of the Phoenix Suns rotation that recent two-way signee Ish Wainright got minutes over him on Thursday night against Detroit.
Nothing against Ish, whose shoulders look like they were drawn by the late great Stan Lee for a superhero comic, but Wainright is an undersized big and career journeyman while Jalen Smith is a prototype young big that desperately needs seasoning.
Yet Monty Williams favors predictability over potential. Ish must appear more unlikely to do anything bad for the team. How else to explain it?
Ish played four minutes against the Pistons on Thursday night, at one point dishing an assist to Cameron Johnson for a slam, after scoring his first NBA points a few games ago.
The Suns have suffered some injuries lately, losing four of their trusted rotation players in Devin Booker (hamstring strain, out about two weeks), Abdel Nader (knee soreness, out indefinitely), Frank Kaminsky (stress reaction, out indefinitely) and Dario Saric (ACL recovery, out until at least April).
Those injuries leave them only 8 deep in the regular rotation, and Monty Williams needs 9-10 on a nightly basis.
Enter Elfrid Payton, a veteran point guard who can’t and won’t shoot, and Ish Wainright, an undersized power forward who really doesn’t shoot either.
Behind them, all that’s left on the roster are Jalen Smith and Chandler Hutchison, two players with lots of talent but very little trustworthy production. Hutchison has bounce as a 6’7” wing, but cannot shoot and commits more turnovers than scores or drives at the basket. Smith can rebound, but gets pushed off his spots due to his lanky frame, and his three-point shot is still just theoretical in short minutes.
Where the Suns are really thin right now is on the wing. They are two-deep at point guard (Chris Paul, Cam Payne) and two-deep at big (Deandre Ayton, JaVale McGee). Unfortunately, all the Suns have left are a point guard and a big.
Without Booker and Nader, the Suns have only four regular rotation players left — Landry Shamet, Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder — for the other three spots in the lineup. Those are very good players, but four for three is a lot of responsibility for them and they collectively lack the secondary playmaking needed for the Suns offense to hum. Devin Booker, Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric are really good at the off-ball playmaking without needing too many dribbles. In fact, Booker and fellow starting point guard Chris Paul lead the league in assists-per-pass.
Hence the use of Elfrid Payton in limited minutes since Book went down. Payton can’t shoot, but he can playmake a bit and let Cam Payne be the scorer/attacker when they share the floor. Payton is going to have to play within himself, limit his turnovers to somewhere around zero, and truly focus on setting up more teammates than a diving JaVale McGee.
That leaves Monty needing a guy for a few minutes each night with a bit of height or heft to help rebound next to the other big (Ayton or McGee) and potentially score around the paint. Will that be the short-ish but burly Ish Wainright?
Or the lanky giraffe Jalen Smith? I’m guessing Monty will mix and match, depending on the moment.
Either way, the Suns are in a pickle when two of Payton, Ish and Stix (Smith) are on the court together. Could be that Monty needs to get more creative with his substitution pattern to make sure that any time with two of them includes at least two starters to balance the production scales. Yet doing that either wears out the starters (Mikal Bridges is averaging 40 minutes a night lately!) or reduces the effectiveness of the Suns overall rotation by being unable to match their best lineups for the most minutes.
Let’s see how Monty runs the rotation this week.
Suns host the Spurs on Monday and Celtics on Friday.