Building a culture, creating an identity and, ultimately, developing a championship roster have been at the core of James Jones’ philosophy since taking over as Phoenix Suns general manager in October of 2018.
“We want guys that are hoopers,” Jones said. “Guys that are self-starters, that play with passion, that love this game and are dedicated with their free time to improve it.”
Jones’ principles have certainly been applied while leading the Suns during the past two NBA Drafts. After trading down and selecting Cam Johnson with the 11th overall pick in 2019, Phoenix took Maryland big man Jalen Smith 10th overall Wednesday night.
“It’s always about fit for us,” Jones said Thursday morning on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s Doug & Wolf radio show. “It’s never just purely about talent. You cultivate talent. You build and you shape talent until you find the fit that you’re looking for. This team, the way we are constructed, the way we play, we trend towards fit.
“If that means taking a guy that no one thinks should be taken at a slot, we live with that, because our ultimate goal is to build the best team.”
Through the draft, free agency or trades, Jones sees the importance in acquiring players with specific skills, experience with winning at a high level, and mentalities to fit in with the rest of the roster.
That mold of a mature, motivated and professional athlete is precisely what guided Jones to select Johnson, a “reach” according to some outsiders due to his age and past hip injuries. But Johnson became an immediate rotation contributor. He shot 39 percent from 3-point range, started at power forward during the 8-0 bubble run and got votes for the All-Rookie second team.
Smith’s versatility to play power forward and center will give him the opportunity to also see minutes early in a Suns uniform. At 6-foot-10 and 225 pounds, Smith has the ability to stretch the floor, run in transition, switch in the pick-and-roll and attack the offensive glass, providing the team with a utility player with a whole lot of hustle. He proved his worth on both ends of the court last season at Maryland, averaging 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks while shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from 3-point range.
“He’s got a level of edge and discipline in his background from his family upbringing that’s a direct culture fit for us,” head coach Monty Williams said. “Between the talent, the person, the background and the future, it’s a win for us and I’m excited to get him in our program.”
In addition to his unique skillset, Smith boasts a well-mannered and determined personality that originates from his family’s military background.
“That had a huge impact on our evaluation of Jalen,” Jones said. “We identified him not only as a good player, but as a professional. He's extremely disciplined, regimented. He's a tireless worker and his approach fits our approach.”
After an impressive 14-year NBA playing career, Jones is now applying his knowledge and experience to the Suns front office. Early in his tenure as the primary personnel decision-maker, Jones often stressed the importance of “raising the floor” through internal development and roster moves.
“We want our guys to be able to contribute right away,” Jones said on Doug & Wolf. “The only way as a player to improve is to play games and to get minutes. You’re either gifted those minutes or you take them. If you have to gift them opportunities so that they can develop so that eventually you can see what they’re about, sometimes you’ll lose credibility within your team.”
Above all else, winning comes first. After the inspiring 8-0 run in the Orlando Bubble, Jones’ vision appears to be coming to fruition. Two days before drafting Smith, the Suns also acquired future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul in a blockbuster trade to continue building upon the established foundation.
“When you put those guys with the current group that we have, you increase our versatility,” Jones said. “But, more importantly, you increase our competitiveness. Those two guys, they bring it and you can see it when they play. They play with passion, they play with force, and we need that in this deep Western Conference.”
As a three-time NBA Champion, Jones understands what it takes to reign supreme in this league. He has witnessed firsthand the types of players, attitudes and culture required to bring the Suns to a championship-caliber level.
That knowledge has driven Jones’ decision-making as Phoenix’s general manager, including during Wednesday night’s draft.
“We are here to win games,” Jones said. “We're here to make the playoffs. We're here to win a title. The expectation is that we bring a playoff type performance to the floor every single night.”