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Jalen Smith gets new contract, starting job on the Pacers

The former Suns lottery pick has found a home and a starting position with the rebuilding Pacers

Detroit Pistons v Indiana Pacers Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

We have an update on the progress of former No. 10 overall pick by the Phoenix Suns, forward Jalen Smith: he is doing well, thankyouverymuch.

Smith signed a three year, $15.1 million contract with the Indiana Pacers that has the third year as a player option and includes a 10% trade kicker.

The Pacers immediately said Smith would be their starting power forward when the 2022-23 season starts.

Just in case you’ve been under a rock, the championship contending Suns drafted the 6’10” Smith, nicknamed ‘Stix’ in college for his matchstick shaped legs, at No. 10 overall in 2020 with hopes that he could develop into Jerami Grant type of defender and scorer at forward. They had visions that the skinny Smith could become the perfect four — able to make threes at a high clip (40% from the shorter line in college as a sophomore) while also comfortably hammering down dunks on oops and rolls.

But then the Suns acquired Chris Paul, decided to fight for every win they could get, and lost all their interest in developing kids. As the Suns went on to win 51 of 72 games in the 2021-22 regular season and went all the way to the NBA Finals, Smith found himself glued to the bench.

Summer League is where he would get his first real shot.

At Summer League a few weeks after the Finals, the 21-year old Smith got a ton of run. He was the team’s star player, flashed all the potential on offense that was hoped for and made the All-SL team as one of the seven best players.

In four games, Stix averaged 16.3 points and SL-best 12.5 rebounds (including SL-best 5 offensive rebounds), though he made only 36.5% of his shots and committed three turnovers for every assist.

He was named to the All-Summer League team, joining co-MVPs Davion Mitchell (Kings) and Cam Thomas (Nets), along with Jalen Johnson (Hawks), Trey Murphy III (Pelicans), Payton Pritchard (Celtics), and Obi Toppin (Knicks).

Still, the Suns decided that they did not want to be stuck with paying almost $5 million to Smith in 2022-23 and decided to decline his 3rd year option. To say this decision was out of the blue is an understatement — no player had had their 3rd year option declined since... the Suns did it to Kendall Marshall in 2013 and Earl Clark in 2010. No other NBA team besides the Suns has declined a third year option in decades. There’s only one high-profile common thread to the 2010, 2013 and 2021 Suns decision making team: managing partner Robert Sarver. Not saying Sarver decides these things, but we’re talking three iterations of front offices reporting to him over that time, and the Suns are the ONLY team to have done this.

Once the Suns declined Smith’s 3rd year option, his sophomore season was already set up for disaster. He would become a restricted free agent the next July, and the better he played for the Suns the more chance he would leave without compensation. The Suns would be capped at paying Smith $4.7 million for 2022-23 if they wanted to retain him, while the other 29 teams could all top that mark (given the tax-payer MLE and Room Exception are over $6 million each).

Still, he got some chances — albeit slim — to show his value.

Early in the 2021-22 season, he was given a chance to play the second-team power forward position next to Deandre Ayton or JaVale McGee, but he did not impress. Only twice did he get more than 10 minutes or play in consecutive games as he appeared in just 11 of the Suns first 32 games, averaging 3.5 points (42% FG, 9% 3P) and 2.8 rebounds in 8 minutes in per appearance. It’s important to remember that the Suns were fighting for every single victory, including an 18 game winning streak, so they had no patience for the inevitable mistakes of a baby giraffe on roller skates.

In mid-December, COVID ravaged the team and Smith got his chance to shine. He started at center in 4 of the next 6 games, averaging 15.8 points (55% FG, 38% 3P), 10.2 rebounds and 1.0 blocks over 25.5 minutes per game. The baby giraffe was still a bit wobbly, but the skates were off and he looked more like he belonged on the court!

But his big chance was short-lived. Soon, Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee were back, and newly signed center Bismack Biyombo — who’d shared time with Smith while Ayton and McGee were out — took over Smith’s last bit of daylight at center.

No matter what kind of fan you are of Smith, you can’t argue that Ayton, McGee and even Biyombo were more effective and reliable than Smith in the pivot during that part of the season for the best team in basketball.

Stix was a revelation, but was still inconsistent and had major defensive limitations — very stiff hips, which is a real challenge in space — on a team that prided itself on defense, ranking 2nd or 3rd in the league almost the entire season.

Finally, Smith was traded. He was sent to the Pacers, along with a second-round pick, for fan and team favorite Torrey Craig to help shore up the area Smith couldn’t: power forward.

Smith shined in Indiana, who’d just traded their best big man (Domantas Sabonis) and lost the other one (Myles Turner) to injury. On the Pacers, Smith got to play the role he had for a hot second in December and during the prior Summer League: offense-oriented big man.

He shared time at power forward and center for the Pacers over the last 22 games (4 starts) of the season, averaging 13.4 points (53/37/76 splits), 7.6 rebounds and 1 block with nearly a 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in 24.7 minutes per game.

Check out some highlights here. Smith was clearly his best self in Indiana.

The Pacers still faced the same problem that the Suns did, which was why the Suns had to include a second-round pick in the deal. Smith would become a restricted free agent, with 29 other teams able to give him more money than the Pacers could ($4.7 million for 2022-23). Even capped-out teams had at least their $6.5 million tax-payer MLE to offer, and any offer over the $4.67 million couldn’t be matched.

After a week of talking with other teams, though, he decided to return to the Pacers for the best deal he could get from them: $4.67 million in 2022-23, an 8% raise in 2023-24 and a player option for another 8% raise in year three. If Smith plays well, he’ll have the ability to level up in a couple years to a higher salary.

“I had a lot of offers, here and there,” Smith said at his press conference to announce the signing. “But at the end of the day, I chose my future over instant gratification.”

Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle now plans for Smith to be their starting power forward next season, playing next to Myles Turner (or Deandre Ayton?).

“I’m having a hard time not being giddy,” Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard said to media. “This is great day for our organization. When we made the trade... we just didn’t know how good this guy was. The sky is the limit.”

Here’s Smith press conference yesterday, after signing his new deal.

Similar to the Suns sharing video of Booker signing his $224 million supermax contract, the Pacers had Smith sign his deal in front of media at the presser.

The Pacers said they worked hard to convince Jalen to come back to them despite their financial limitations, and they’re proud that the efforts made an impact. Head coach Rick Carlisle even went to Baltimore on a recruiting trip to try to convince Smith and his family to forego other offers to return to the Pacers on less money.

“I felt that Indiana was going to help me build to the future that I wanted,” Smith said, of deciding to return to the rebuilding Pacers.

I’m guessing he got offers from other teams to be a rotational backup big man, and he chose the Pacers specifically for a chance to be a starter right out of the gate. He likely did not want to be buried again, like he was in Phoenix.

The Pacers will be entering a rebuilding year, though they might try to level up their team with an offer to Deandre Ayton in the coming days. They will have $31 million in cap space once their pending trades are finalized.

Who knows, the Pacers might be trying a front-court this year that the Suns did not think would work on a high level. But then again, the Pacers tried for years to pair up centers in the same lineup (Sabonis + Turner) so why not try it again with Smith and Ayton/Turner?