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Suns need Jalen Smith to become a power forward, using Summer League as the cauldron

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Smith could make the Suns even more unique and difficult to beat... if he develops properly.

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2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Phoenix Suns v Utah Jazz Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Jalen Smith is a power forward. Jalen Smith is a power forward.

These are likely the hopeful words repeatedly running through the back of Phoenix Suns GM James Jones’ mind as he contemplates his roster going forward.

He wants Jalen Smith to be a good power forward. He needs Jalen Smith to be a good power forward.

In some ways, Smith is the ideal power forward in today’s NBA. He is long (7’1” wingspan), springy and mobile, able to stretch the floor with a clean three-point shot release, can put the ball down in traffic to maneuver around big bodies, can rebound in traffic and can protect the rim and block shots from the weak side.

You can see the dream: using Smith and Ayton together, able to switch onto each other’s man and negate the opponent’s attempt to clear out rim protection and rebounding, while also being able to thrive inside-out on offense. It’s a dream lots of General Managers have had over the years, often settling for undersized bigs at least in one of the two positions.

But he’s still underdeveloped and incredibly raw, at just 21 years old with two seasons of college ball under him. With his long, skinny legs he lopes around like a giraffe and stays too high-centered on defense. He’s nicknamed Stix for a reason. He misses most any shot attempt against physicality, lacks perimeter defensive fundamentals and lacks the hip fluidity to change directions as the ball handler jukes left and right.

A better position for Smith at this stage of his career is at center, defending the paint on one end and stretching the floor on the other. His high center of gravity and stiff hips work a lot better near the rim, like most other centers in the league. Trust me: Dario Saric, JaVale McGee and Frank Kaminsky all have the same limitations outside the paint, as do 95% of the league’s players 6’10” or taller.

If this was the 2016-2019 Suns, Stix would be getting 25+ minutes a night looking mostly like he does in Summer League — rebounding well but shooting 35% from the field. Shades of Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender here. Smith’s career arc will be a true test of the Suns improved culture and player development program

Yet, ‘Stix’ doesn’t have the luxury of playing to many of his current strengths. That’s because the Suns have a much better option in the middle named Deandre Ayton, who happens to be really good in there AND in perimeter defense. Ayton will get 30-35 minutes a night, leaving the Suns other big men to fight for scraps, with JaVale McGee getting first crack.

If you are wondering why the Phoenix Suns are trying so hard to fit the square peg into the round hole, look no further than the Suns current depth chart.

See that big, gaping hole at forward depth behind Crowder, who’s only 6’6” by the way, Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges? Jones would love love love for Smith to take some power forward minutes next to Ayton or McGee, allowing Mikal, Cam and Abdel Nader to stay at their more-natural positions with less pressure to grab rebounds and protect the rim.

Jones has described what he wants on the roster as an ‘index card’, meaning 3-by-5 (three deep at all five positions). He just doesn’t have it yet.

All of Deandre Ayton, JaVale McGee, Jalen Smith, Frank Kaminsky and even Dario Saric work best as the lone ‘big’ on the floor. It’s good to have depth there, though. Just remember the Finals against the Bucks, where Frank was the lone ‘backup’ to Ayton after Saric’s injury and rookie Smith’s not-readiness. JaVale McGee is a good addition to fill a targeted need: rim protection and lob-stuffing.

Now the Suns are center-heavy where last year they were too heavy in undersized shooting guards. Gone is the 6’2”-and-under deep bench depth, replaced by 6’10”-and-over bench depth.

What’s been achieved is a bit more flexibility in their switch-heavy rotations, with 6’4” Landry Shamet and 6’3” Elfrid Payton a bit more plug-and-play in a heavy-switching defense than last year’s undersized guard options in Jevon Carter, E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway.

The Suns can certainly get by like they did most of last year with Crowder/Bridges/Johnson playing nearly all of the two forward minutes, spotted by Nader and Booker for small bits, but they would rather have a bigger lineup option too.

And Smith is the key to making that work.

That’s why you are seeing Smith playing exclusively at power forward in Summer League, next to centers Kevin Alexander and Zachary Hankins. They need to see if he can thrive being the second big on the floor. They want him to be able to reprise Jae Crowder’s role as a floor spacer on offense while adding on some dives to the basket. Defensively they want to see him play the other team’s biggest non-paint player while rotating in from the weak side to protect the rim.

The results are hit and miss so far. Hit: SL-leading 13.5 boards per game, even with a center on the floor next to him. Miss: 13.5 points on 14.5 shots (34% FG) per game.

But he’s still just 21 and has so much to learn. Let’s see if he can put it together here in Summer League.

Next Up

The Suns play again tonight, at 7:00 PM on NBATV.