By Brendan Rourke | Pacers.com Contributor
Years Pro: 2
Status: Unrestricted free agent
Key Stats: Appeared in 51 games (29 for the Phoenix Suns). Averaged 13.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 53.1 percent shooting while wearing a Pacers uniform.
Sometimes, a fresh start in a new location is what an NBA player needs to jumpstart his career. Perhaps a roster is too stacked at one position. Or a player’s skill set does not match a coach’s game plan. For whatever reason, Jalen Smith initially struggled to find the court as a young forward on the Phoenix Suns. Yet, as a member of the Pacers, the 22-year-old revealed a secret to NBA fans around the world.
He can play.
Shrouded by the shadow of the Tyrese Haliburton acquisition, the Pacers quietly dealt forward Torrey Craig to Phoenix in exchange for Smith at the trade deadline. While Craig played solidly for Indiana in his 51 appearances, the Pacers organization opted to go in a younger direction. Ultimately, that led to the decision to deal Craig, the 31-year-old, back to his former team.
PHOTO GALLERY: Jalen Smith's 2021-22 Season in Photos »
Some saw this move as a low-risk gamble. An inauspicious start to Smith’s career had the 2020 lottery pick labeled as a bust by some news outlets early. The forward averaged just 5.8 minutes of action over 27 appearances during his rookie season. He scored an average of two points per contest.
Things did not improve at the start of his 2021-22 campaign, as the Maryland product did not see playing time in 21 of the Suns’ initial 32 contests. However, on Dec. 27, he posted a 15-point, nine-rebound performance against the Memphis Grizzlies. The relative outburst helped produce a string of six consecutive double-figure games, including three games with 19 points. That was enough to get the Pacers’ attention.
Including that six-game stretch, Smith had posted just seven total double-figure games in 29 appearances for the Suns. In his 22 appearances with Indiana, he finished in double figures 18 times. The performances increased his average points per game from 6.0 with the Phoenix to 13.4 with Indiana – a +7.4 differential.
A frequent force on the glass, Smith tallied a 17-point, 12-rebound double-double in just his second game with the Blue & Gold. Afterward, he accounted for five more double-doubles during the season. Playing against the Orlando Magic, he set a new career-high in rebounds with 15. The Maryland native's rebounding average jumped 1.8 points when donning the Pacers uniform, and his six-foot, 10-inch stature and consistent availability reinforced a depleted Pacers frontcourt.
However, Smith revealing his secret now becomes a Catch-22 for Indiana, who hopes to re-sign the forward in the offseason. This is due to an odd contract stipulation seldom seen in the NBA.
Before the trade, the Suns declined Smith’s third-year option of his rookie contract, turning him into a free agent. Because of this, the Pacers can only offer a total that matches the amount he was originally owed from his rookie contract ($4.67 million). Meanwhile, other teams are allowed to propose a higher offer.
If Indiana can persuade him to stay, Smith potentially becomes an integral piece for the Blue & Gold in the future. But it now becomes a waiting game.
Regardless, Smith’s Pacers campaign deserves recognition, as the 22-year-old proved doubters wrong and showed his potential. This season demonstrated that the youngster has plenty of gas in the tank. It just so happens that gas could be more expensive than the Pacers can offer.
2022 Pacers.com Player Review Schedule
April 18: Tyrese Haliburton
April 19: Buddy Hield
April 20: Chris Duarte
April 21: Isaiah Jackson
April 22: Oshae Brissett
April 23: Malcolm Brogdon
April 24: Goga Bitadze
April 25: Myles Turner
April 26: Duane Washington Jr.
April 27: T.J. McConnell
April 28: Jalen Smith
April 29: Lance Stephenson
April 30: Terry Taylor