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Where Jalen Smith ranks among Suns prospects of yesteryear

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Summer League has been tough for Suns prospects in year two.

Phoenix Suns v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

After three games in Vegas Summer League, Phoenix Suns second-year forward/center Jalen Smith has received a lot of skepticism despite posting three double-doubles, leading all SL players in rebounds per game (12.7) and posting his first 20+ point game on Thursday night.

The Suns world is on fire right?! Jalen Smith is a new fan favorite!

Except, the world is not and he is not. In fact, few Suns fans are even watching Summer League this year because for the first time in forever the Suns best hopes and dreams are not on display in Vegas.

To wit, the Suns kinda punted on SL this year. Around ‘Stix’ Smith and fellow second-year player Ty-Shon Alexander, the Suns brought in a group of overseas-league veterans who are making less than 30% of their shots. They have only won 1 of 3 games, though they could easily be 2-1 right now despite the terrible roster construction.

Lost in all this is Stix and his development into a player the Suns might be able to count on, whether that’s at backup center where he’s most comfortable or backup power forward where he’s learning as he goes.

Statistically, Stix is having one of the best SLs in recent memory for a Suns player the year after being drafted.

I am using the ‘year after being drafted’ comps because most of the Suns high draft picks from the past decade were better in their rookie-year SL than their second-year SL. Why? Because in rookie-year SL they were just playing to their strengths, unencumbered by expectations or weaknesses to address. Remember 18-year old Archie ‘God’-win? Or flashy Dragan Bender? Or 9-rebound-per-game Josh Jackson?

Many those same vaunted rookies played poorly in year two once they were asked to spend SL focusing on strengthening their weaknesses.

For player in Summer League AFTER a year in the Suns system, leading into their second NBA season...

  • 2014: Archie Goodwin, still age 19, 12.3 points (36% FG), 3.0 reb, 0.8 assists
  • 2015: Alex Len *two years after drafted, hurt in both SL1 and SL2*, age 21, 10.8 points (44% FG), 9.8 reb, 2.2 blocks
  • 2015: T.J. Warren, age 22, 18.7 points (54% FG), 3.6 reb, All-SL team
  • 2016: Devin Booker, age 19, 26.0 points (47% FG), 5 reb, 6.5 assists, All-SL team
  • 2017: Marquese Chriss, age 20, 14.4 points (34% FG), 6 reb, 1 block
  • 2017: Dragan Bender, age 20, 14.2 points (39% FG), 6 reb, 0.2 block
  • 2018: Josh Jackson, age 21, 10.3 points (24% FG), 2.3 reb, 1.3 assists
  • 2019: *Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges did not play in 2019 SL, a year after being drafted.
  • 2020: Cancelled (COVID)
  • 2021: Jalen Smith, just turned 22, 16.0 points (36% FG, 39% 3P), 12.7 rebounds, 1.3 steals (3 games so far)

For each player’s ‘year AFTER being drafted’ Summer Leagues, Warren and Booker would be your gold standard while Goodwin, Chriss, Bender and Jackson all posted stat lines you want to avoid at all costs, especially the FG%. While Smith’s scoring at FG% compare to those illuminaries, his rebounding is simply off the charts.

Smith’s best comp, so far, appears to be year-three Alex Len. Len missed his rookie SL injured and only got one SL game in year two before yet another injury. Len should have dominated SL after two full years in the league since being the 5th overall pick in the 2013 Draft, especially for being allowed to play his natural position at center, but his stat line and impact does not even compare to Jalen Smith.

Len is a quality NBA player, though he never did become a career-long starter, let alone a game changer. When it’s all said and done, Len will have a 10-15 year career as a rotation player at least (225 starts in 531 career games so far). He just signed a two-year contract with the Kings last week which will take him through year 10, and he still just be 29 years old when that contract ends.

Do you want Jalen Smith to be better than Len? Yes, me too.

Will he be as good as Devin Booker? NO, lol. How about T.J. Warren? Probably not.

But he sure looks like he can play this game, and stay in the league for many years thanks to his relentless hustle. He’s leading the SL in rebounds per game despite playing the power forward position next to paint-hogging center. That’s hustle. Coaches love it.

In the big picture, that hustling career might not be in Phoenix.

For one thing, the Suns are contenders, and contenders don’t usually play raw young big men much.

For another, the Suns still have a hole at big swing forward and might have their eyes set on someone more established than Smith.

And finally, veteran backup center JaVale McGee’s contract is not yet signed, despite agreeing verbally with the Suns on day one of free agency. He will definitely sign with the Suns, but it’s possible the Suns are lining up contracts around the potential of adding a bigger swing forward.

Smith has two more SL games before the Suns take a long break before training camp starts for the 2021-22 season. Let’s see what happens after that to the rest of the Suns roster.

But no matter what, you need to know that Smith has played well in Summer League and likely has a good ‘role player’ future in the league at the very worst. Maybe even a starter at the best.