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James Jones expects Jalen Smith to factor into Suns’ rotation in 2021-22

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More Stix minutes? More Stix minutes (apparently).

NBA: Phoenix Suns at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones said he expects backup forward Jalen Smith to factor into the team’s rotation for the 2021-22 season during a Zoom call with local reporters on Thursday night.

Smith, who was selected by the Suns with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, did not have a big impact during his rookie season, averaging 2.0 points and 1.4 rebounds in 5.8 minutes per game across 27 regular-season contests. His presence or that of another backup big man would have been a big benefit for the Suns the 2021 NBA Finals, as they were dominated by the Milwaukee Bucks in points in the paint, rebounding and second-chance points after backup forward Dario Saric tore his right ACL in Game 1 of the series.

Given that Phoenix is looking to maximize a championship window in which it can retain starting point guard Chris Paul with starting forward Mikal Bridges and starting center Deandre Ayton still under their rookie contracts for one more season, it is conceivable that Smith could be moved this offseason for a more proven big man. However, Jones appeared to shut down that possibility.

“Jalen, like every guy on this team, took steps forward this year,” Jones said. “For a rookie to step into this situation, it’s extremely difficult. You go from a team that’s building to a team that’s built. And now, we’re playing playoff basketball 82 games a night. And for him, it’s been a great trajectory.”

Smith’s first season was significantly interrupted by COVID-19 restrictions surrounding the NBA, which led to the cancellation of its summer league and a virtual Draft Combine. He subsequently missed 10 of Phoenix’s first 13 games due to a left ankle injury and positive COVID-19 test, falling out of its rotation.

Once the Suns ascended to the top of the Western Conference with Saric and backup center Frank Kaminsky solidifying their roles behind starting center Deandre Ayton, Smith never carved out a significant role.

Smith will play for Phoenix in the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League, which will take place from Aug. 8 to Aug. 17 at the Thomas and Mack Center and Cox Pavilion on the campus of UNLV. There, Jones said he hopes to see improved development from Smith while keeping in mind the Suns’ needs for 2021-22.

“Across the board at every position, we just need to get stronger, we need to mature,” Jones said. “And that comes with time. But as far as size, with Dario going down, we’ll have to address that position.

“But I’ve always said, I think in terms of building a team like an index card. We need three-by-five. So I need to make sure that all of our positions are filled with guys that can contribute, and that will be our focus going forward.”