Ty Jerome and Jalen Smith have a lot in common. They are two of the least successful draft picks of Phoenix Suns GM James Jones tenure, but Jerome and Smith showed on Wednesday night that they might just have long NBA careers ahead of them after all.
Ty Jerome — 24th overall, 2019 Draft
- barely played as a Suns rookie, traded to OKC in 2020 in package for Chris Paul
- career averages: 16.5 mpg, 7.0 points, 2.2 assists
Ty Jerome filled in as starting point guard for the injured Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on Wednesday night against the Suns with a team-leading 24 points and eight rebounds, plus five assists and three steals, in 35 minutes.
They weren’t empty stats. It seemed like every play he made was a winning one.
“He has a very high I.Q. and so he came out and competed, made good decisions out there,” acting Thunder head coach Mike Wilks said postgame. “Got guys in the right spot and helped us play together.”
The Thunder were missing four starters — SGA (ankle), Josh Giddey, Darius Bazley and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and coach Mark Daigneault (all with COVID) — so that gave Jerome (24 points), Aaron Wiggins (22 points) and Mike Muscala more chance to show they deserve bigger spots going forward. The Thunder are now 12-22 on the season, so they need to find as much talent as possible.
Jerome’s crafty drives against the Suns (reminiscent of young Goran Dragic) and strong shooting helped the Thunder stay extremely competitive all night long. In fact, if he’d have just drained a couple more threes — he missed 5 of 6 after making 42% on them last year in OKC — the Thunder might have had a bigger lead in the 4th quarter to hold onto.
His 35 minutes, 24 points and 8 rebounds against the Suns are all career highs, and the three steals were career-high-tying as well.
“Ty Jerome played good,” Suns current backup PG Cameron Payne said. “He’s back at the crib, I would say, had a good game. We had to find a way to stop him.”
Payne and Jerome briefly crossed paths on the Suns in the 8-game Bubble in Orlando in the summer of 2020. After living out his own ‘failed first round pick’ start to his career, the Suns added Payne for depth in the Bubble. Former second-round picks Elie Okobo and Jevon Carter and first-rounder Ty Jerome were underwhelming at running the team behind Ricky Rubio. Jerome was having a really bad rookie season. When I say bad, I mean baaad.
Payne came in and grabbed the job, helping the Suns to a surprising 8-0 run and allowing them to cull the herd. That offseason, they released Okobo, traded Jerome (for Chris Paul) and moved Jevon Carter full-time to backup shooting guard.
“For [Jerome] to get the opportunity to be here, against his old team and compete,” Thunder coach Mike Wilks said of Jerome’s career night. “He brought a level of veteran leadership which he’s asked to. He’s a young guy but he’s like a veteran.”
Watch the highlights and you will see the guy you really wanted in Phoenix when he was drafted 24th overall in 2019 by James Jones. He’s smart, skilled and knows how to maximize his limited athletic ability.
With Shai, Lu Dort and Josh Giddey all getting 30+ minutes a night in the Thunder guard rotation, Jerome is not playing much this year. But it looks like he could handle a backup guard role in a high-level situation.
Jerome is still just 24 years old. For reference, he’d be one of the three youngest players on the Suns this year.
If Jerome had somehow played like this as a rookie, he might still be in a Suns uniform today.
Jalen Smith — 10th overall, 2020 Draft
- barely played as a Suns rookie
- career averages: 7.5 mpg, 2.9 points, 2.3 rebounds
Jalen Smith filled in as backup center with Deandre Ayton (COVID) and Frank Kaminsky (knee) on the shelf, leaving only Smith and JaVale McGee to man the pivot.
Smith grabbed the opportunity to show he’s more ready than ever for NBA minutes. He posted his second career double-double with 11 points and 14 rebounds (career high) in 25 minutes off the bench.
Those aren’t just empty stats. He’s been a big positive on the floor too. The Suns were +20 in the 25 minutes he played on Wednesday against the Thunder, and +19 in his 29 minutes in Monday’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies (posting a career high 15 points along with 9 rebounds).
Acting Suns head coach Kevin Young was impressed with Smith.
“Anytime he’s around the basket, he’s got a real nose for the ball,” Young said afterward. “And I thought you saw that tonight. To be able to have guys that you can plug and play, it’s a luxury especially given the situation that we’re in, league wide, to have guys that can not only play 25 minutes and get you 14 rebounds and 11 points, that’s pretty impressive.”
Young’s chance to be the head coach, while Monty Williams is out with COVID, coincides with having JaVale McGee and Jalen Smith as his only big men in a scheme that is built to feature the big man on both ends of the court.
Smith still gets lost in space, can’t hold his ground against behemoths, and has not found his three-point stroke yet, but he’s got long arms and is able to be productive in the paint on both ends of the court. Exactly what you want from a backup big.
Suns GM James Jones drafted both of these guys. They have struggled to make a mark in the NBA so far, often looking more like they don’t belong than that they do. But you could see on Wednesday night why Jones saw them as NBA players.
Maybe Ty Jerome and Jalen Smith can use the chaos of ‘health and safety protocols’ to jump start their careers, either with their current team or with another. They definitely showed their acting head coaches on Wednesday night that they can fill in well when needed.