The Phoenix Suns surprised the NBA when they drafted former
Maryland big man Jalen Smith with the No. 10 overall pick in the
2020 NBA Draft. Less than a year later (348 days to be exact),
Phoenix is already pulling the plug on further developing
potentially their last lottery pick for the extended
Coming to the conclusion that they swung-and-missed on Smith,
Phoenix is already committed to wiping their hands of the mistake
as soon as possible. The team declined to pick up Smith's
third-year option, which means he'll be an unrestricted free agent
after this season.
In 2019, the Suns uncovered a gem when they traded back from No.
6 overall (which became Jarrett Culver) to nab Dario Saric and
North Carolina sharpshooter Cam Johnson’s rights from the Minnesota
Timberwolves. However, the following year, Suns GM James Jones
over-calculated and tried to be the smartest one in the room in
terms of his evaluation of Smith. The big man was projected as a
mid-to-late first-round pick by most credible draft experts, which
is why jaws dropped when the Suns reached for Smith with a top-10
Smith's season in the Valley was somewhat tumultuous. He was
outside of Phoenix's rotation, so he saw some time in the G-League
with the Agua Caliente Clippers and didn’t stand out. That was the
first real sign of concern. Then, in his first-ever Summer League
action, Smith continued to be just a guy rather than showing some
real promise against many players on the NBA bubble.
Smith was soon involved in trade rumors, with the Suns
reportedly trying to package him for a win-now veteran piece to
bolster their second unit. Nobody bit on a former lottery pick less
than a year after he donned a Suns hat on draft night. Thaddeus
Young was the Suns' top target, and now you have to wonder if those
talks will intensify with Smith’s option declined and Young barely
logging minutes in San Antonio.
Once news leaked from The Athletic’s
Shams Charania on Monday morning, Suns head coach Monty Williams
spoke of Smith’s situation after practice. In short, Williams
summarized that Phoenix’s plans for Smith changed after Chris Paul
and Jae Crowder arrived that same offseason. If that’s the case,
yikes. What a waste of a potential long-term asset and
“He hasn’t been dealt the best hand, as far as just not being a
rookie but being a rookie [and] all of a sudden everything changed
when we got Chris and Jae. All of a sudden, our trajectory
changed,” Williams said. “So, instead of being a young guy who
could just come out and play with Mikal (Bridges) and all the young
guys we had, he got COVID. Got drafted, two weeks later he’s in
training camp. He’s had a whirlwind, so it’s hard to grade him
because he hasn’t had the chance to play. And I feel somewhat
responsible for that, but it’s just been the cards we’ve been
Smith was short and to the point when asked about it on
“You just control what you can control," Smith said. "Just come
here and hoop. That’s my job, just coming in here and hooping. All
that outside stuff handles itself.”
As you can tell, Smith didn’t really dive into his thoughts on
the situation. But from a historical perspective, Smith joins Earl
Clark (2009) and Kendall Marshall (2013) as the Suns' only lottery
picks in recent memory to have their third-year options declined.
It’s a damning indictment when you realize that Suns busts from
2016, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, didn’t suffer the same
Smith was supposed to develop for a few years behind Saric (and
now JaVale McGee), then assume the long-term role of unique two-way
connector for the Suns’ second unit (backing up Deandre Ayton).
Less than a year later, the Suns are ready to completely move on.
If this was just about limited opportunities for playing time on a
win-now contender, it seems unlikely that Phoenix would decline his
third-year option. It seems that the Suns' decision-makers haven't
been impressed by Smith behind the scenes.
Imagine the possibilities for Phoenix’s long-term future if they
would’ve hit on their last lottery pick for potentially the rest of
the 2020s. They passed on all of the following prospects for Smith:
Tyrese Haliburton, Devin Vassell, Saddiq Bey, Tyrese Maxey and
Desmond Bane among others. After losing Torrey Craig in free
agency, Vassell, Bey or Bane would’ve been ideal replacements.
Haliburton or Maxey being tutored by Paul before eventually taking
the reins at point guard would've been incredible for all involved
(although Haliburton seemd intent on landing in Sacramento).
Now, the Suns will let Smith enter unrestricted free agency
after his second NBA season. Look for Phoenix to soon try to
package Smith with salary filler in an effort to make a move that
improves their 2021-22 title chances. It’s a sudden fall from grace
for Smith, but one that’s necessary with player and organization
being on opposite ends of the spectrum with prioritized
“If he just plays with energy, defends and rebounds, he could
find himself a box. It’s just hard to get him on the floor where we
really can see what he can do, because when you’re playing two,
three, four minutes, it’s hard to get a rhythm,” Williams said.
“That’s the part where you just feel bad for him, because he just
works his tail off. He’s in the gym every single day. He doesn’t
miss days. He just hasn’t had the chance to carry it over to the
floor... When he’s out there, we saw it the other day, like the
blocked shot he had. Not many guys can do that on the move."
Smith's days in Phoenix are numbered, and it'll be interesting
to see whether the 21-year-old is able to realize his full
potential elsewhere in the Association.