The Phoenix Suns selected Maryland forward Jalen Smith with the 10th pick in the NBA Draft
Ironically, the Suns once took another big man who wore goggles at times. That guy, Amar’e Stoudemire, was pretty good.
Is Jalen Smith the next Stoudemire? That’s a lofty comparison. But he and starting center Deandre Ayton do have the opportunity to be the Suns front-court for a generation.
Smith — at 6-10 with a 7-2 wingspan — and Ayton project to be one of the longest and tallest front-courts in the league, which is very different from what was effective last season: starting wings Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson at the forward spots.
The smallish lineup works, but not over the course of an 82-game season. Bridges and Johnson are not quite strong enough to play power forward on a regular basis.
Of course, many people said the same thing about Shawn Marion. The Matrix was not supposed to last as a power forward. Nevertheless, the Suns’ unconventionally small frontcourt of Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire forever redefined NBA basketball.
The Phoenix Suns perfected small ball. Now they are just like everyone else. And that is a good thing.
The Suns now defy convention again by playing a traditional frontcourt. I like it. The Lakers won the championship by playing a big lineup, which will increase league-wide demand for big men.
I also like the pick. The draft has no surefire top prospects entering the league. The Suns should take the best player available on their board.
Suns GM James Jones values multi-year college prospects. This is a major inefficiency in the NBA draft. Jones has done a great job taking college guys who are a bit undervalued because they are not one-and-done prospects.
Smith, a sophomore, was taken along those lines.
Smith has the potential to become the starting power forward. Imagine Chris Paul or Devin Booker feeding him in transition. If Smith can run the court as he did in college, he will get plenty of these kinds of highlights on Twitter.
Still, the arguments in social media circles have been fierce. Many Suns fans thought this was a reach. Iowa State point guard Tyrese Haliburton was a popular choice at ten, whereas Smith was projected to be available later in the first round.
The pundits said the same thing about Cameron Johnson in 2019. Johnson had an excellent rookie season and figures to be an integral part of the Suns rotation for years to come. Mikal Bridges was only available at ten since he was an upperclassman, although he was the quintessential 3-and-D prospect coming out of Villanova.
When the Philadelphia 76ers traded him on draft night to Phoenix, many people criticized the Suns for giving up Miami’s 2021 first-round pick just for getting Bridges.
Everyone thought that was a future lottery pick. Miami was in the NBA Finals this year. Yeah. That won’t be a lottery pick.
Jalen Smith, a sophomore, might be yet another example of a multi-year college guy being undervalued. Smith’s stats look impressive: 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game on over 50 percent shooting and 37 percent from 3-point range. At the end of the season, he was named first-team all-conference and third-team all-American for the Maryland Terrapins.
His highlights are even more impressive.
Smith is exactly what the Suns need. He protects the rim. He shoots the ball well enough just to give Chris Paul and Devin Booker enough space to navigate defenses.
Most impressive is his durability. Smith has played and started in 64 games in his two seasons in Maryland. Given the Big 10’s penchant for physical play, this is extremely impressive.
But if Smith has staying power on this team, he must learn to defend on the perimeter. With the league emphasizing 3-point shooting, Smith has to develop his defensive footwork and lateral quickness in guarding perimeter players.
Developing this kind of footwork will not be easy. Even Deandre Ayton has had his well-documented struggles corralling opposing guards on the pick-and-roll.
If Smith’s defensive footwork is not up to NBA standards, he will not start right away, instead joining the Suns funky yet wildly effective second unit. This unit was spearheaded by the dual point guard backcourt of Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter.
Yes. I realize many Suns fans are not thrilled about either Carter or Payne in the rotation. They got the job done inside the bubble. Don’t be surprised if they get to run it back.
However, Dario Saric was the bench’s most valuable player. If Saric is brought back, Smith and Saric stand as a formidable frontcourt against opposing second units. Saric is better suited to chase opposing power forwards than Ayton. His old-school bruising and Smith’s new-school athleticism is intriguing as well.
Of course, if Saric leaves in free agency, Smith immediately reprises his role as the backup center, presuming Aron Baynes departs in free agency (which is highly likely). There may be some options for filling out the frontcourt in free agency as well.
Either way, Smith is getting playing time. He and Ayton can end up dominating the glass as a starting frontcourt. Or they can get played off the court in the wrong matchups.
But I’m optimistic. Those two will develop into the Suns frontcourt of the future. I see them developing into a front-court emblematic of a new NBA frontier: bigger, but just as versatile. The unicorn big man is here to stay.