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Summer League Primer: Let Stix SZN begin!

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It’s time to unleash Jalen Smith.

Phoenix Suns Portraits Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Summer League.

Two words that, for the better half of the last decade, Phoenix Suns fans gravitated towards. Given the franchise’s recent history with lottery picks, it’s easy to understand why. While the NBA Draft has served as a version of Christmas morning, bestowing a new gift for us to unwrap, the NBA Summer League was the first time we were allowed to enjoy that gift.

The Summer League means something different to everyone. For lottery players, it is an opportunity to become baptized by the sport in which they potentially have a future. They can use the time to develop and grow. For invitees, it is a chance to put their skills on display, hoping that a team will grant them a 10-day contract.

For some fans it means a trek Vegas to scout the newest additions to their teams. Some make it to the games on time, others succumb to the nightlife and aren’t seen again until it is time to depart.

Whatever the Summer League means to you, get ready. Because here it comes. And with it comes hefty expectations for second-year forward Jalen Smith.

Smith, taken with the 10th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, tallied the least amount of minutes played during their rookie year out of the top 26 players drafted (not including Leoandro Bolmaro, drafted #23 by the Knicks, who continued to play internationally).

That’s right, we saw a grand total of 156 minutes of Jalen Smith last season. That is the exact running time of The Revenant. A revenant is “a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead”. That’s a pretty accurate description of our expectations this year for Stix.

We all have talked ourselves into the reasoning why, right? He didn’t get a Summer League to develop. He didn’t get a full training camp or pre-season to grow. Well, neither did any other player in the draft last season. Smith found himself at the bottom of the heap relative to opportunity and production.

He totaled 53 points (second fewest from a 2020 first-round pick last season), 37 rebounds (second fewest), and 4 assists (you guessed it...second fewest). It is safe to say that Suns fans did not get their fill from their 10th overall pick, nor did he have the opportunity to display his talents.

Perhaps he is merely a victim of circumstance. The Phoenix Suns had the appropriate depth to cover his position throughout the season and, given that the team was competing every evening for a chance to have the best record in the NBA, putting him on the floor could have potentially jeopardized their record.

After all, the only other 2020 first-round pick to have lower usage and production? Udoka Azubuike, drafted by the team that ended the season with the best record, the Utah Jazz. There is no time to provide developmental minutes when you’re trying to get that #1 overall seed.

Regardless of why we didn’t see Jalen Smith, the time has come to take the training wheels off and truly see what we have. Smith is 6’10” and has shoulders like USA Olympian Caeleb Dressel. His lower body? Well, that’s why they call him Stix.

Our hope is that, given the fact he should see plenty of minutes, he begins his second-year development off on the right foot in the NBA Summer League. It’s assumed that he will make the opening day roster for the Suns, the question will be in what capacity will he assist the team.

Obviously his body type and offensive scoring ability would have been beneficial for a Dario-less Suns team in the NBA Finals, but alas, his Bambi-on-ice-skates-during-a-blizzard defensive ability left him posting DNP’s. This is what I am using the laser beam on my pen-pointer (do people still use those?) and focusing on during the Suns’ Summer League run in 2021.

Jalen needs to find his way into the paint on both offensive and defense and learn how to navigate that space. He is not a spot up shooter. Too often we saw Smith bleed to the perimeter and subsequently take bad shots.

Remember that, while playing for the Maryland Terrapins in college, he was only a career 32.3% shooter from beyond the arc. Only 26% of his shots came from deep, so it wasn’t horrible, relatively speaking.

Fast-forward to his rookie season with the Phoenix Suns and Smith shot an abysmal 23.5% from three. Fuggin’ yikes. It was a small sample size — he only attempted a total of 50 shots from the field last season — but 34% of his shots were from deep. That is not the space where he is effective nor should it be.

The kid with a 7’1” wingspan needs to be in the paint. He is a smooth leaper and plays with fluidity. He possesses a quick second jump and made the Big Ten All-Defensive Team in his sophomore year, prior to declaring for the draft. He has the tools. Summer League will be his chance to go to work.

This is what I am looking forward to as I tune in to watch the Summer Suns. I am looking for Jalen Smith to focus on the same thing that has made Deandre Ayton successful in his young career: a commitment to the defensive end. From shot blocking and deterrence to effective rebound and full-court hustle, Jalen Smith will have the chance to develop these aspects of the game. It is up to him to take advantage of these opportunities.

Establish your dominance on defense and the offense will come as a result. Be prepared for some rim-running electric slam dunks in the Summer League. Plays like these, however sexy they are, will be the result of Smith’s ability to develop and understanding the intricacies of the game occurring around him.

I have faith in Jalen Smith and his growth. Is this due to my “In Jones We Trust’’ attitude? Most likely. But watching more highlights of Smith at Maryland, seeing the flashes that occurred ever so rarely during last season — due to playing time and opportunity rather than lack of talent — and knowing that James believes in the choice he made a year ago, you can’t help but have hope.

Let Stix SZN begin.