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In Review: Jalen Smith’s Big Opportunity

“Not to get too philosophical, but oftentimes in life we all just need an opportunity…” -acting head coach Kevin Young, ahead of Jalen Smith’s first career start

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There are a few points to make clear about Jalen Smith’s standing within the Phoenix Suns organization before we can dive into his first few career starts in the NBA in wake of Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee’s stints in Covid protocol.

Last summer, Smith became one of the only cases of a former top-10 pick who didn’t get the third year of their rookie deal picked up by the team. This means the Suns’ final lottery pick for the foreseeable future will be an unrestricted free agent after just two years with the team.

When that unrestricted free agency arrives, the Suns would be able to make him a new offer if they really want to, but they’ll also be dealing with the Ayton negotiations again at that point, and if Ayton receives the full max like he and his camp wanted last offseason, the Suns will then be operating over the cap, further limiting what they’d be able to offer Smith.

What does that mean for how we look at the Smith starts? It means that we should be hoping he plays well and builds up some trade value.

Well before the Covid outbreak struck the Suns opening minutes for Smith to showcase himself, The Athletic’s Shams Charania wrote, “Despite declining his third-year option, the Suns have had interest generate in talks to move center Jalen Smith, sources said. But interested teams expect a potential move for Smith as the Dec. 15 date — when most offseason signings can be traded — nears.”

Charania states that even before the starts, Smith had been receiving trade interest from around the league, so that Dec. 13 report could serve as a trampoline for that value to skyrocket with a more consistent opportunity for Smith. Let’s dive in.

Kevin Young: “The one thing about him is he has stayed ready throughout his time with us; give credit to Mark Bryant and those guys that work with him on a daily basis for just keeping him ready, so I’m actually excited to see what he can do.”

Dec. 31 @ Boston Celtics (123-108 loss):

19 points (7-9 FG, 0-1 3P, 5-5 FT), 7 rebounds, 1 block in 27 min (-12 in 15-point loss)

An all-around rough game, Smith was one heck of a bright spot in his first career start. This grab-and-go opportunity (whose very existence surprised me) that ended with a little two-man game between he and Cam Johnson and a bucket for Smith was one of my favorite offensive plays for him as a pro:

He added a second grab-and-go during the second half that ended with a circus and-one for Smith.

While it wasn’t a perfect night for Smith on either end, Phoenix’s best minutes seemed to come with him out there. The Suns were making one of their more fruitful cuts into the large deficit around the 8:00 mark in the 3rd quarter and that push by the team lost its momentum when Smith had to exit the game after a bad call that earned him his fourth foul. Smith already accumulated most of his stats by that point: 19 points and 6 rebounds just four minutes into the second half and the Suns were down just 59-75 before the ensuing Jaylen Brown free throws.

Jan. 2 @ Charlotte Hornets (133-99 win):

19 points (8-15 FG, 0-2 3P, 3-3 FT), 12 rebounds, 2 blocks in 24 min (+19 in 34-point win)

Smith came into this contest looking much more confident and comfortable especially on the defensive end protecting the rim. He doubled his block total in fewer minutes than the first start and they were both beauties, like this one toward the top of the game during Miles Bridges’s poster attempt…

…and the other came in transition running down a Charlotte fast break:

He even showed a new way to score with this floater out of the short roll pass from Cam Johnson:

Jan. 4 @ New Orleans Pelicans (123-110 win):

12 points (4-7 FG, 2-3 3P, 2-2 FT), 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block in 16 min (-1 in 13-point win)

Another solid outing from Smith, it only took him about six minutes to reach double figures, thanks in part to two early three’s, including this one out of a pick-and-pop.

We also got to see some of the passing that Smith is more pre-qualified to do than the Covid centers, in general, like on this in-rhythm bounce pass to Devin Booker.

Unfortunately for him, due in part to some foul trouble as well as getting clocked in the mouth by New Orleans center Jonas Valanciunas, most of Smith’s usual second half minutes went to new arrival Bismack Biyombo, and so we didn’t get to see much of Stix in the later portions of the game.

Whether I’m hoping or predicting I’m not sure, but this could be Smith’s last start with head coach Monty Williams clearing protocols just before the game, meaning Ayton may be soon to follow ahead of Thursday’s matchup with the Clippers.

Given the misfortune of general manager James Jones declining Smith’s third year on his rookie deal, teams may be less inclined to want to trade someone for just a short half-season stint. However, this solid play of 50 points and 24 rebounds over three starts could be promising enough to a team with the arrow pointed down that they would want to give him a short tryout of sorts.

I’m already on record as interested in trade targets like Houston’s Eric Gordon

…as well as Oklahoma City’s Kenrich Williams, and those two teams make sense as Smith destinations. Sweetener picks would likely have to be thrown in as well (probably more than this year’s second-rounder, the only 2022 pick in Phoenix’s possession), but Smith and a pick looks a whole lot better as a package than it once did.

The other – much less likely – scenario is that Smith isn’t moved, but that this stretch of solid play is enough to give Williams enough faith to play Stix down the stretch in the right matchups, like against Dallas or in some lineups against Memphis. It’s never a safe bet to bet on Williams favoring young guys, but it looks much more plausible now than it did a week ago.

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