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Stix Watch: What I’ve seen from the Suns’ second-year forward

It’s like Ayton Watch, but with Jalen Smith!

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

The Phoenix Suns have begun their 2021 Summer League with an 0-2 record. Oh well.

It isn’t the record, or necessarily the statistics, that matter. It’s the opportunity to play, to accrue minutes, to be placed in in-game situations that a player typically does not see during the regular season.

Case and point? Jalen Smith took the last-second shot, a fadeaway 26-foot three-pointer mind you, against the Lakers on Sunday night. When and where will you ever see that during that preseason or regular season? If your guess was, “never”, you’d be correct. Tell them what they’ve won, Vanna!

As I observe the Summer Suns, I am trying to look more for the fundamentals of the game rather than the results. Stix went 1-of-9 to begin the game against the Jazz on Monday night, so if you want that to fit your “Stix isn’t an outside shooter” narrative, you easily can. That’s a narrative I myself have pushed. Just look at his history from deep.

He’s displayed his athleticism on fastbreak dunk opportunities, so feel free to use that for your “he’s validating his 10th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft via elite athletic ability” narrative, go for it. He does possess a long frame, wide wingspan, and thunderous dunking ability.

Nothing is wrong when attempting to interpret what you are seeing in Las Vegas. Okay, using an extreme like, “nothing” is perhaps too much of a blanket term. But you get the idea. We all have different ways of viewing the game and deciphering what we are consuming.

It’s similar to the NBA Draft itself. You observe games and footage of prospects that, ultimately, do not matter in the NBA. No college or overseas YouTube clips can, with 100% certainty, tell you what a player will be in the NBA. Kevin O’Connor’s Jalen Smith comp was Serge Ibaka, Kelly Olynyk, and Thomas Bryant.

Of course, nothing is right either. As the Bright Side’s own Zona Hoops said on Twitter the other day:

Therefore I will make my personal observations through two games of the NBA Summer League relative to Stix, noting what I have seen and what I hope to see moving forward. This isn’t right or wrong, just my interpretation of his game.

And yes, it helps me push my agenda. A little bit >wink<

The Successes

Statistically speaking, Jalen Smith is performing. He isn’t blowing people away like Donovan Mitchell once did in Summer League, but he isn’t a guard either. Guards typically dominate the Summer League as they thrive in isolation basketball situations. And let’s face it, seeing as the Summer League is a chance for players to get their name out there in hopes of earning a two-way or 10-day contract, you’ll see plenty of iso ball in Vegas.

Jalen is getting the touches and the reps that we all desire. He is averaging 13.5 points and 14.5 rebounds. As stated above, I’m not too concerned with his 34.5 FG%. He is taking shots. To me, that is all that matters.

What I like is that he is 10-of-19 inside the three-point line. That’s 52.6%. The Suns have used him in some post-up plays and, although he is raw, you can see the footwork and the technical acumen that will allow him to be successful inside this area. He has been right-hand dominant, but at least he is trying different things like going left and spinning away from the defender.

His rebounding has been fantastic. 6 boards a night on the offensive glass? Yes, please. Again, who knows how that will translate to the regular season, but his willingness to gravitate towards the paint is needed. He is doing so in an aggressive manner, displaying a “that’s my ball” type of attitude.

One observation is that Stix is snagging the majority of these boards coming from the weak side, as he is guarding the opposing corner. These aren’t rebounds from guarding the opposing five. And that’s okay. The expectation is that, if he does earn minutes this year, he most likely will be spelling our power forward position. Seeing him utilized in this manner — with some minutes at the five sprinkled in (good job Brian Randle) — is preparing him for the role he will fill when the regular season commences.

Jalen’s athleticism is his primary positive attribute. Even NBA2k, who has Smith as an overall 72, has his athleticism rating ranked highest, with an 86 vertical and 82 stamina being the primary driving forces for that metric.

Yes, NBA2k has entered the building. It’s Summer League, so everything is a resource!

We’ve seen it on display, although in spurts. Would I like to see Smith put his head down and sprint in translation more? Sure. I truly believe that when Deandre Ayton realized the value in this area — or when Chris Paul informed him — his game took a jump. A guy who hustles will be rewarded.

Areas of Opportunity

As good as Smith has looked, there still are plenty of areas I’d like to see him improve. He is far from a polished player who will make an impact for the 2021-22 Phoenix Suns.

Defense is the side of the ball that has prevented Stix from seeing time at the pro level and I am starting to see why. He is a “hands down” defender. With a wingspan similar to a pterodactyl, you gotta put those mitts up young guy!

I can understand his tentativeness to do so, especially when he is switched onto a guard. Players have been trained from an AAU level to run through arms and draw fouls. Still, making your 7’2” span felt can deter the opposition from seeing the court. And if they choose to shoot over you, guess what? Your arms are halfway up.

Smith’s lower body needs some work as well, seeing as he is easily moved off of his defense positioning when the opposition throws their hips into him. For someone who will play in the paint at a pro level, he’ll need to perfect leveraging his weight to negate this from occurring. Giving up position allows high percentage shots. Doing so will punch a quick ticket to the bench.

Lastly, I’d like to see Stix exert himself as an alpha more. I understand he is mild in nature and that he is not someone who expresses himself much. But when you’re the 10th pick in the draft and you’re a sophomore in the league, you need to unleash your inner Hulk when walking in between the lines.

Ty-Shon Alexander has displayed the confidence and charisma I am referencing. Again, it’s a guard centric league, but he is still attacking on both ends of the floor like a second-year player should. He is hustling. He is putting forth the effort that will get him noticed, even if it is by another team looking to fill out their roster.

I have observed spurts of energy from Stix, it just isn’t sustained to the level that has satisfied my expectations. He isn’t on the low block with his hand raised in the air, demanding the basketball. He isn’t crashing the boards from the weak side as often as this guy who can only dunk on a Little Tikes rim (you thinks he should. He’s not the alpha on the court that I want him to be.

And again, that’s my perception. Right or wrong. It doesn’t determine whether he’ll be effective at the NBA level. It doesn’t mean he’ll be a boom or a bust. It does make me wonder, however.

Overall I am pleased with what Smith has put together in Las Vegas. He has a way to go, but what second-year stretch four doesn’t? I am looking for him to fortify the skills he’s positivity displayed thus far and improve the areas he hasn’t.

We all are. We all want the best for the guy. We want him to help the Phoenix Suns win games. That’s what it’s all about. Win the games...the games that count.

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