How Suns Big Jalen Smith can be an X-Factor even in the Playoffs

Phoenix Suns, Jalen Smith. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Phoenix Suns, Jalen Smith. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports /

After one heck of a poster, several resounding blocks, and some all around great play, Jalen Smith found himself back in a low minutes role this week for the Phoenix Suns.

After all, he did recently fill in big time for Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee, who went into NBA health and safety protocols roughly two weeks ago. The second-year man dazzled first as a backup and then as a starter, averaging 15.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game during his extended run.

While some view this as an ideal time to shop Smith, with trade talks leaking already out, keeping him could be just as fruitful for the Suns. I believe Smith has shown enough to not only warrant keeping him around past the trade deadline, but to also feature him as an x-factor for the Suns as they aim to make another deep playoff run.

For Smith to attain such a role, his regular season success needs to go beyond just his raw, individual numbers. Fortunately, the Suns have been incredibly successful with him on the court.

The lineup featuring Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, and Smith posted an astounding +16.7 net rating in their six games played together. That puts them in the top-10 for most effective lineups in the NBA from the moment Smith started fielding big minutes.

This seamless fit which Smith has with the Suns starters remains one of the biggest factors in trusting him when the stakes become higher.

Of course, if Smith did play meaningful minutes in the postseason, he would likely do so not as the only big man on the floor. Smith still sits third on the depth chart behind Ayton and McGee, and with rotations shortened during the playoffs, you rarely need more than two centers.

I would not advocate going away from the Suns bread and butter of a one-big lineup just to get Smith minutes, but against certain teams, an additional big might work to their advantage.

Last year during the NBA Finals, Phoenix’s lacking size more than anything led to their demise against the Milwaukee Bucks. With Ayton guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, the remaining Suns were left to contend with Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis on the boards and in the paint. That made for a serious problem with Phoenix’s next biggest player being Jae Crowder, who already stands undersized as a power forward. A second big on the floor would have been huge for the Suns in that series, and if they run into a similar matchup this year, they might need to call upon Smith to fill that role.

However, whether or not Smith possesses the tools to consistently play the four remains an unresolved question.

During Smith’s starting stint, and for most of his career with the Suns, he solely played at the five slot. But after Ayton and McGee returned, Monty Williams started giving him minutes as a power forward, primarily next to McGee. The pairing has been ineffective in Phoenix’s previous two games, as the two posted a disastrous -20.9 net rating together. But beyond that small sample size, they appear as a more successful tandem for the season at large, boasting a +9.2 net rating across their 35 total minutes played together.

Smith carries several key attributes that poise make him a solid power forward as well. He improved his ability to put the ball on the floor, which remains essential based on his proposed spot along the block. He also moves well on defense, and while I’m not convinced he’ll be able to guard smaller fours in today’s NBA, that won’t be as much of an issue against the big lineups he would see minutes against.

Ultimately though, Smith’s ability to play the four will hinge on his 3-point shooting. Thankfully, his shot already looks to be coming around. Over his last eight games, Smith finds himself shooting 37.0 percent from downtown.

Next. How Jalen Smith Participates in All-Star Weekend. dark

Without question, Smith rightfully earned himself a bigger role with the Suns over the past few weeks, and the team already looks focused on finding a way to maximize what he brings to the table. He will certainly get a shot to argue why he deserves to hold onto some minutes at the four, and if it all goes well, he might stick around for those imperative playoff minutes.