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Film review: Evaluating Jalen Smith’s progress in the NBA Summer League

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Stix has gotten plenty of run out in Vegas

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

Stix season? Stix season.

Phoenix Suns backup forward Jalen Smith had positive moments in the 2021 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, Nevada, an encouraging sign for a team that could benefit from his contributions with backup forward Dario Saric likely out for most of next season with a torn right ACL.

In four games, Smith averaged a league-best 12.5 rebounds with 16.3 points on 36.5 percent shooting (35.7 percent from 3-point range). The Summer Suns posted a 2-2 record in their first four games in Las Vegas. Smith did not play in the Monday finale against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Smith, the No. 10 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft out of Maryland, could be an important piece for the Suns this year. He played sparingly in 2020-21 due to a compressed season in which he suffered a left ankle injury and positive COVID-19 test and subsequently fell out of Phoenix’s rotation early in the year, though he has great potential the team says it can still maximize.

“Jalen, like every guy on this team, took steps forward this year,” Suns general manager James Jones said before the Summer League began. “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 play has earned compliments from former NBA players who have commentated on his games, including Steve Smith and Brendan Haywood. Steve Smith commended Stix for “getting in front of the rim, going up strong (and) being able to finish” while Haywood appreciated his rebounding and “shot-blocking prowess.”

“I think he has an opportunity to wake some people up and show that he can get some minutes in this league,” Haywood said, “because with Saric being out this year and possibly [all of 2021-22], he has a chance to carve out a nice little role in that Phoenix rotation.”

It is still unclear if Smith will be on Phoenix’s roster by the time the 2021-22 season begins. The Suns are expected to be in a “win-now” situation with starting point guard Chris Paul, who will turn 37 years old next May, signing a four-year deal earlier this month. Phoenix also agreed to terms to sign veteran center JaVale McGee and added backup guard Landry Shamet, a capable defender and shooter, as a reserve for Paul and All-Star shooting guard Devin Booker.

Despite Smith’s youth and need for continued development, Jones said last month he expects the second-year forward to factor into the Suns’ rotation this season. Here’s a look at his progress in the Summer League and what coach Monty Williams and others can take from it.

Positive: Rebounding

Listed at 6-foot-10 with a reported 7-foot-1 wingspan, Smith has the height and length to rebound at a high level. We’ve seen that on display throughout the last four games.

Stix has recorded 12, 15, 11 and 12 boards, respectively, in Phoenix’s four contests and has been an active presence on both ends of the floor. Though he is playing against Summer League-level competition, his skill on the glass is certainly something the Suns could use, as they were out-rebounded 278-234 in the NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks (that’s nine rebounds per game).

Here are some clips of Smith’s efforts, some of which have come on the offensive end and while establishing good positioning on defense.

Smith’s verticality is certainly something the Suns could benefit from. He is not the most fluid athlete but can leap in the air with a towering standing reach of 9-feet-2.

This is a guy who plays with a high motor, too. As a sophomore at Maryland in 2019-20, he recorded a double-double in 21 of the Terrapins’ 31 games, including nine straight from Jan. 18 to Feb. 18.

Smith has integrated this skill into his arsenal, especially after a freshman season in which he only recorded double-figure rebound totals six times and was bullied while he was a much thinner player. Though he has improved physically, Smith’s strength remains one of his biggest weaknesses at this point of his career.

Area of Development: Strength

There’s no question that Smith has made strides with his body over the last few years. Reportedly nicknamed ‘Stix’ by one of his AAU coaches and later referred to as ‘Logs’ by his coach at Maryland, Mark Turgeon, once he reportedly added 30 pounds after high school, Smith is in a much better place physically to compete as an NBA player.

But there is certainly room for him to grow, especially with his lower body. Smith’s legs are very thin compared to his broad upper frame, disallowing him from establishing a low center of gravity to keep his balance against contact plays, like ball screens and box outs. We’ve certainly seen this in the Summer League, even against inferior competition to everyday NBA talent.

In his first game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Smith struggled at times to establish himself forcefully against 6-foot-8 forward Devontae Cacock, 6-foot-7 forward Vic Law and others.

On this play, Smith tried to initiate contact with his arms — an improper technique — on a V-cut against Law, who simply bumps Smith to the 3-point line extended while staying close to his chest. He then bumps Smith while he tries to set a screen for guard Justin Simon, a play that keeps the Suns far beyond an opportunity where they can attack the defense effectively.

Here, Smith’s ability to play as a pick-and-roll defender is thwarted by a simple ball screen from Cacok. He is pushed off balance toward the top of the key, allowing guard Mac McClung to easily find Cacok on a dive that is luckily stopped by guard Jaleen Smith.

I know there were some people who called for Smith to be inserted into the NBA Finals once Saric went down. But let’s face it — he would not have been ready to play, especially against an established big like starting center Brook Lopez and of course, jack-of-all-trades Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It’s nearly improbable for Smith to turn his legs into trunks before this season begins. But this is a limiting factor that may not be answered for another few years in his career.

Positive: Bringing the Ball up the Floor

Remember how frustrating it was when Bucks starting guard Jrue Holiday hounded Paul for 94-feet on seemingly every possession in the last few games of the Finals? Yeah, it was bad.

Granted, the Suns’ starting point guard did have a left wrist injury that eventually required surgery. But he was — and is — Phoenix’s primary playmaker, making its offense more challenging to set up when he is less than 100 percent.

I’ve been very impressed with the few possessions I’ve seen in which Stix has gotten the rebound and initiated the Suns’ offense on the other end. Check out some of those moments here.

At the very least, this is a look that opposing teams will have to account for in their scouting reports, if the Suns can use it effectively and successfully. Smith appears to be an above-average ball handler for his height, maintaining a tight dribble while not losing his balance somewhat, even in penetration scenarios like this.

Again, it’s hard to say just how effective this can be since Stix is going up against Summer League competition that won’t body him up or force him out of the paint like physically mature NBA athletes. But the Suns, who were at their best offensively during the postseason when they were in transition, could certainly benefit from this look here.

Area of Development: Offensive and Defensive Positioning

This is an area of Smith’s game that is somewhat difficult to gauge because his position is not quite defined. It would be ideal for the Suns if he could play at power forward next to starting center Deandre Ayton, but his skill set and physical tools are not quite where they need to be for him to be effective there.

Smith doesn’t yet have the strength to play consistently as a back-to-the-basket post, which is very limiting for his offensive requirements at the ‘4.’ Phoenix has called some direct post-ups in which his moves have not been refined or properly executed. Some of that could be because of the weight he is giving up against his defenders, but he did not appear to have a go-to option, like a dropstep or hook above the restricted circle.

At this point, Smith’s most likely opportunity for effective playing time is as a stretch ‘5’ in which he can space the floor offensively and play under the rim on defense. He has shown some positive signs while moving laterally as a defender in the Summer League but concerns remain with how tight-hipped he is and his core not yet fully developed.

Positive: Stretching the Floor

This is one of Smith’s best assets he could provide now in a game setting. Though he has not been a potent shooter throughout his career — he shot 26.8 percent and 36.8 percent from 3-point range, respectively, during his first two years at Maryland and 23.5 percent with the Suns on 17 attempts last season — Smith has a clean release and gets his shot off fairly quickly with good rotation on the ball.

Against the Nuggets on Aug. 12, Smith shot 4-of-7 from 3-point range and got it done from multiple areas on the floor. Check out the pop here off the pick-and-roll:

And the corner triple in transition (with a mock toward the Nuggets’ bench, yes sir!):

Stix has hit some difficult shots from this range, too. This was a four-point play in the Suns’ first game against the Lakers:

Back to the Nuggets game, here was a triple while rotating from the weak-side ring off a pick-and-roll at the top of the key:

With how the Suns play in their “point-five” offensive scheme — in which they look to dribble, pass or shoot within half of a second — these looks are good indicators for how Smith can get involved in their offense next season. He has made seven combined 3-pointers in the Suns’ last two games and will certainly be a threat from that range.

Area of Development: Body Control

We’ll get to this soon, but Smith has the athleticism to get off the floor and finish with one or two hands, often with some force. But given that he struggles at times with his post-ups and isn’t mature physically, Smith won’t be able to effectively put the ball on the deck and score. At least, not yet.

As mentioned above, Smith plays with a high motor and is tough as nails mentally. His father, Charles, was a Naval officer, making discipline and consistent habits a must to keep himself locked in.

To his credit, Smith has not shied away from attacking the rim on multiple possessions. He just hasn’t been able to make them count consistently.

Defensively, too, he’s been out-of-position or bodied a few times in which he hasn’t been able to recover.

Given that he is not a fluid leaper, there’s multiple things here that the Suns’ staff will have to correct. Namely, some footwork and technical issues in addition to Smith’s weight.

Positive: Sealing and Running the Floor

As a former big man — albeit, a very short one at 6-foot-3 — there’s nothing I love more than to see a guy run the floor, put a defender on his hip and rise up and throw it down in transition. We saw it a lot more out of Ayton in the postseason, and Smith has shown promise with his ability to do it in the Summer League.

Great recognition here, though the pass is very late from Simon:

Jaleen Smith doesn’t hit him immediately here, but this is exactly what you want:

Angles and separation, yes please:

And of course, we’re all here for the athleticism. Get off the floor big man — make them pay!

Stix has good court awareness in transition and runs in a straight line, not flexing out to the perimeter unless he needs to. He’s pretty mobile at his height and can out-pace even some wings down the floor, which is a very encouraging sign for the Suns.

Once he’s ahead of the pack, Smith’s concerns about strength and body control go out the window. That’s a time when Stix can do his thing.

Conclusion

I’ve gone on record and said that the Suns should look at keeping Smith, if possible. He’s a very hard-working guy and I don’t doubt that he’s taking his weight-gain process seriously. With the player development program Phoenix has in place, this is an optimal situation for him to grow as a player.

However, is there time to properly bring him along? It’s hard to say. The Suns need to win now, like right now. Paul isn’t getting any younger and their core is starting to hit its peak. With backup point guard Cameron Payne resigning and the additions of Shamet and McGee, Phoenix will conceivably be two-deep at every position minus power forward.

That’s where Smith could step in. He’s athletic, versatile and arguably has more upside than any other big on the Suns’ roster aside from Ayton. But he’s going to need to make progress quickly.

The Summer League has been a positive step for Smith, but there is still more for him to be done to prove he’s deserving of the roster spot that Jones said he can take next season. Will he take it? We’ll find out soon enough.