The tape of big man Jalen Smith at Maryland did not immediately point toward a guy that fit the mold of what the Phoenix Suns target.
But after hearing general manager James Jones talk about Smith, the Suns’ selection with the 10th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, it’s clear he’s their type of guy.
“We identified him not only as a good player but a professional college player,” Jones said over Zoom to reporters Wednesday. “He’s extremely disciplined, regimented, he’s a tireless worker and his approach fits our approach.”
Smith enters the NBA with a 3-and-D skillset in the frame of a 4/5 combo big. He shot 36.8% from three-point range in his sophomore season, averaging 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. With Smith’s high energy on the court and a 7-foot-2 wingspan on a 6-foot-10 frame, he’s consistently making plays on the interior while knocking down perimeter jump shots.
That’s a long way of saying that Smith possesses attributes that immediately translate.
“Thought he was the best fit,” Jones said. “Checked a lot of boxes for us. We want to be athletic, we want to be long, adding length to the perimeter … his versatility to play the 4 and the 5 … switch in pick-and-roll, and more importantly, [can] attack the offensive glass. We thought he gave us an edge in our frontcourt.”
When Jones and Smith were both asked about what Smith can provide the Suns, it was surprisingly Smith’s ability to be a presence on the perimeter defensively that was brought up.
It’s surprising because that was seen as Smith’s primary weakness coming out of the draft. Here’s The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie on Smith, a prospect he had ranked outside the first round.
Smith is one of the stiffest athletes I can remember genuinely being considered in the first round. You especially see it on the perimeter defensively. He really struggles to sink down and slide with opposing players. Then on top of it, he struggles to drop his hips to try to slide and cut off. He basically just has to turn and run after he gets beat even by a quarter-step. He has some actual lateral quickness and fluidity, but you don’t see it because he often hops around the court on defense in the halfcourt as opposed to sliding. I’d be surprised to see him be a plus defender on the perimeter.
And that is an absolutely crucial part of Smith’s evaluation when it relates to the Suns, because Smith is only going to have so many minutes to play at center behind Deandre Ayton. Smith will be used some at power forward, where his on-ball defense will be even more important. In order to live up to the value of a top-10 pick, he will need to function well at both spots.
But Smith last played in March, and has been working at that weakness, which could also be looked at as some untapped potential in his defensive outlook.
“This whole offseason I’ve been focusing on getting my lower body strong and just becoming more flexible in the hips and the ankles,” he said to reporters on a Zoom call Wednesday.
When Jones and the Suns worked out Smith individually, the big man didn’t shy away from showing what he wasn’t so good at, as opposed to other prospects who in workouts showcase only their strengths.
“Jalen was one that exposed his weaknesses and [we were] able to see where he excels and where he doesn’t,” Jones said. “We came away from that excited and with some clarity knowing when he’s here with us, we can help him get better quickly.”
The appeal, of course, is through a very enticing offensive identity.
“When you look at his ball skills and his comfort level being on the perimeter, he allows us to play with two dynamic bigs in space,” Jones said of a potential Smith/Ayton pairing. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem. I’m looking forward to seeing those two guys anchoring the floor together, even if it’s for stints.”
Jones saw a 20-year-old who made major strides from his freshman to sophomore season, adding over 30 pounds to his frame with the Terrapins.
It comes back to the work rate and intangibles inside a very promising young basketball prospect.
“The speed and intensity at which he executes is something that we demand, so I think it’s a seamless fit,” Jones said.