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Jalen Smith trying to find his footing in the NBA

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Phoenix Suns rookie Jalen Smith has not played well yet this season

Oklahoma City Thunder v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

After being taken 10th overall in the 2020 NBA Draft, rookie big man Jalen Smith looks like he needs more seasoning before he is ready to make a positive impact in the NBA.

Smith is only 20 years old, two years younger than any other Sun (Deandre Ayton is 22) and four years younger than anyone else. Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges and Devin Booker are all 24 this year.

But age is not holding Smith back. If you’re ready to play, you’ll play. The Suns need what Smith was drafted to bring. He is a stretch big that’s tailor-made for today’s NBA in that he is long and instinctive enough to protect the rim, grabs rebounds at a high rate and stretchy enough to make 40% of his college three pointers.

The Suns only rim protectors behind Deandre Ayton are... well, they don’t have any. Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky try hard, but do not have the verticality to block many shots or deter drivers once they get beat on the perimeter. Damian Jones had verticality to block shots, but could not find his fit on either end of the floor for the Suns, and was released last week.

Pointing out their lack of rim protection is not to denigrate Saric or Kaminsky. They do their best (Frank had a couple blocks the other night), box out hard, and provide enough rebounding and three-point shooting to provide positive impact in almost every game.

But the Suns could use another serviceable big man who fits their team profile.

Jalen Smith has had a rough introduction to the NBA so far. Due to the pandemic, he (like all the other rookies and second year players) was deprived the chance to play Summer League and participate in off-season pick up games with teammates to get acclimated to the NBA athleticism. Training camp was shorter and less intense than usual, and was the first time he’d played interactive basketball in almost nine months. Then in preseason when he finally got a chance to play full speed, he turned an ankle and missed most of it. Before he got healthy, he contracted COVID, which knocked him on his butt for two weeks and sapped his energy longer than that.

Suddenly, he’s a month into the regular season starting from scratch.

Just like his age, these aren’t the reasons Smith isn’t playing. If we was ready to provide a positive impact, he would. They are just contributing factors.

Two weeks ago, the Suns assigned Smith to the Clippers G-League squad to get some run, get his conditioning and rhythm back, in an attempt to jump-start his rookie campaign. Rarely are lottery picks assigned to G-League teams as rookies, but here we are.

Unfortunately, the G-League assignment did not go particularly well and Smith was recalled back to the Suns two days ago. He appeared in 6 games for the Clippers, shot only 38% from the field (25% on threes), and played just 16 minutes per game.

The great Jonathan Givony gave us a glimpse of the good and bad from the G-League bubble, and Suns fans are likely not happy with it. Givony included Smith among three other 2020 draft picks who have struggled in their G-League assignments and could now be considered potential flameouts.

In the 2020 NBA draft class, players who might have cause for concern (with all stats through Thursday’s games) include:

Jalen Smith (No. 10 pick, Phoenix Suns) — This was a surprising pick on draft night (especially with Tyrese Haliburton on the board) and Smith’s play in the NBA preseason, the regular season and now on assignment in the G League isn’t encouraging thus far. He’s posting a 48% true shooting percentage through six games and struggling badly defensively, having a very difficult time standing out from regular G Leaguers, despite being one of the best big men in college basketball at Maryland last season. Finding a position to defend, as well as some consistency with his jumper (he’s 8-of-37 for 3 on the season thus far) will be important first steps.

—Givony, ESPN

If you’ve heard anything about the G-League in past years, you might want to take this evaluation with a grain of salt. The G-League does NOT cater to high draft picks. Everyone is fighting for their NBA lives. It’s dog eat dog. They all want to get a raise from their $35k-85k salary to the $800k range of an NBA rookie minimum, even on a day-to-day rate.

But still, Smith did not stand out in a positive way. He joins Aleksej Pokusevski (17th), Tyrell Terry (31st) and Cassius Stanley (54th) on the uh-oh list, as well as some 2019 first rounders that include Ty Jerome.

On the other end, Givony lists some standouts who all happen to be 22-28 years old, fighting like dogs to get into (or back into) the NBA.

Let’s hope Smith just needs some time to adjust to his new surroundings and get healthy for a bit before the light comes on. In two college years, he went from disappointing freshman at Maryland to one of the best players in the country as a sophomore. Maybe he’s just repeating that pattern.

Smith is back with the Suns, once he clears any COVID protocols necessary from the return from the G-League. It’s possible he could play against Minnesota if it’s a blowout.