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Jalen Smith lands in an ideal scenario with the Phoenix Suns

Here’s how the former Maryland men’s basketball forward fits in with his new team.

Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Suns

Jalen Smith let out a big grin with a sense of amazement in his eyes as NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced his selection by the Phoenix Suns as the 10th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft Wednesday night.

The former Maryland men’s basketball forward didn’t yell out in jubilation or say much, but his emotion was clear; he began to cry and bow his head as the life-changing moment set in.

The pick was considered one of the biggest surprises of the draft, but Phoenix general manager James Jones and the rest of the organization were high on Smith; and it’s a seemingly perfect fit.

The team was impressed with the Baltimore native’s play on both sides of the court, with Jones emphasizing his shooting ability and ball handling skills. And Smith’s personality took major stock in the decision as well.

“We identified him not only as a good player, but as a professional college player,” Jones said. “He’s extremely disciplined, regimented. He’s a tireless worker and his approach fits our approach. Our culture is about work. We want guys that are hoopers, guys that are self-starters, that play with play with passion, that love this game and are dedicated with their free time to improving.”

The young Suns squad showed that passion in the NBA restart down in Orlando. Despite struggles throughout the year, Phoenix went 8-0 in the bubble and finished just shy of the playoffs. They ended the season with a 34-39 record, good for 10th place in the Western Conference.

Phoenix sent shockwaves across the NBA Monday, trading forward Kelly Oubre Jr., guards Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome and Jalen Lecque, and a 2022 first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for 10-time All-Star Chris Paul and forward Abdel Nader.

“They’re a team on the rise,” said Maryland men’s basketball head coach Mark Turgeon. “We feel like he’s going to go to a team that’s going to win and he’s going to a place where he fits in and and I think will thrive.”

The projected top lineup for the Suns includes Paul at point guard, Devin Booker at shooting guard, Mikal Bridges at small forward, Cameron Johnson at power forward and DeAndre Ayton at center.

As the assumed starter, Johnson will be one of the main people Smith will have to compete with for minutes. Johnson averaged 8.8 points and 3.3 assists per game as a rookie in 2019-20. Like Smith, he was an early pick by Phoenix, No. 11 overall, that surprised a lot of people and was met with criticism at the time.

With Ayton as a solidified center down low, Smith will be able to slide back to his traditional position as a power forward. This gives him more opportunities to put up shots beyond the arc, where he shot 36.8% from last season, including 41.2% in Big Ten play. And Smith’s experience playing alongside Bruno Fernando in his freshman year at Maryland will benefit him alongside Ayton, who has a very similar game.

“He allows us to play with two dynamic bigs in space,” Jones said. “I’m looking forward to seeing [Smith and Ayton] anchoring the floor together. Even if it’s for stints.”

However, given that Smith’s ability to stretch the floor and have success at the five spot was appealing to the Suns, he could see minutes there as well depending on game situations, Jones added.

Smith also benefits greatly from the Paul trade. Even though the duo play very different positions, the president of the National Basketball Players Association, will be a great mentor to show Smith the ropes of being an NBA player.

“It’s going to be an amazing feeling,” Smith said of teaming up with Paul. “Growing up in AAU, always playing against his AAU team and him being there, it’s going to be surreal being under a top veteran guard like him and just being able to learn from him and pick from him to help me evolve my game.”

The pair should be an ideal fit on the court as well. Entering his 16th season, Paul has an extremely high basketball IQ and remains one of the best passers in the NBA. Smith impressed with his transition play throughout his time at Maryland, routinely using his speed to sprint down the floor and slam down thunderous dunks on fast breaks, which should make for a perfect connection with Paul.

Smith has a lot of pieces working in his favor, with another being that much of the makeup of the rest of the Suns’ depth in the front court remains up in the air with free agency underway.

Restricted free agent Dario Saric was extended a qualifying offer by the team and has yet to make a decision on where he’ll be playing next season. If he chooses to stay, the fellow 6-foot-10 big man presents competition to Smith after averaging 10.7 points and 6.2 rebounds in 24.7 minutes per game last season. Aron Baynes, an unrestricted free agent, is expected to leave the organization, though nothing has been announced yet.

Phoenix declined its team option for Frank Kaminsky on Thursday, leaving Cheick Diallo (unrestricted free agent) and Tariq Owens (team option) as the other two deciding factors. The 6-foot-8 Diallo put up 4.7 points and 2.8 assists per game in 2019-20, while Owens fluctuated in and out of the G-league.

Regardless of any impending moves, Jones said several times that he expects Smith to come in and see minutes right away, which gives the Maryland standout a chance to develop and prove himself early on in his rookie season.

“Pretty much once I got drafted by them, it was a surreal moment,” Smith said. “Everything was up in the air because of this year. It wasn’t a traditional draft. But at the end of the day, the Phoenix Suns would know that I was the best fit for them. I feel like that’s someone I can work with and continue to grow there in Phoenix.”

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