by Gina Mizell

Headline

Disciplined. Regimented. Focused.
Jalen Smith's journey to NBA fueled by thirst to learn.

Bino Ranson scanned the dark charter plane transporting the Maryland basketball team back home from a crushing two-point loss at Wisconsin. The assistant coach noticed a light gleaming from one of the players’ rows. 

While most of his Terrapin teammates slept away the pain of defeat, Jalen Smith caught up on homework needed to pursue a degree in information science. The next morning, Ranson recalled, Smith was an early visitor to the coaches’ offices, before heading to the court to put up shots.

“That’s unbelievable,” Ranson said. “Most kids … they might not go to class the next morning after a tough loss and (having to) to travel back from the Midwest.”

But that’s Jalen Smith. Ranson and longtime personal trainer Don Aaron describe Smith as disciplined, regimented and focused, all traits rooted in being raised in a military family. Smith’s father, Charles, calls Jalen a sponge, always seeking to absorb intel from those around him. Smith describes himself as detail-oriented, with a thirst to know the “why” behind each action and experience.

“I need a lot of information in order for me to function,” Smith said.

That mentality, in addition to his high motor and versatile big-man skill set, is what made Smith an ideal fit for the Phoenix Suns to select with the 10th overall pick in last week’s NBA Draft. He joins a team with a mixture of young and veteran talent, and heightened expectations following an 8-0 run in the Orlando bubble and acquisition of future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul. 

Smith has reached his NBA dream. Now, he is ready to keep learning.

“He never thinks that he knows more than what he does,” Charles said. “ … He’s never a kid that’s gonna tell you that, ‘I’ve made it.’” 

***



Make sure everybody got home safely.

Lock up the house.

Call Dad with updates.

That was Smith’s routine whenever father Charles was away. Now a retired Naval officer, Charles was deployed between six and 10 months about every other year for much of Jalen’s childhood.

Charles’ station assignments ranged from across the world in Japan, to across the country in California. He and Jalen’s mother, Orletha, did not want to constantly uproot Jalen and sister Kiara from their Baltimore-area home. That often left Jalen as the man of the household, and with an early grasp of sacrifice, structure and principles.

“Being able to understand that your dad is out serving his country and protecting your freedom, which protect your rights,” Orletha said, “ … I think that it allows him to understand that, yeah, I love to play basketball, but there’s more to the world than just this sport. So, it humbles him.”

Added Jalen: “I pretty much learned all my ways from (my father). All the military ways that he goes about his morals, his values and stuff like that, I pretty much just emulated that.”



Dad was also who first put a basketball in Jalen’s hands, who’d never let his son win at 1-on-1 and who introduced Jalen to Kobe Bryant’s relentless work ethic. Yet because of Charles’ military commitments, Orletha was the primary parent shuttling Jalen to practices, games and camps as he developed from scrawny kid to five-star recruit.

Smith’s first AAU coach, Jarvis Thomas, gave him the nickname “Stix” because he was the skinniest kid on the team. Around age 11, Smith also began working individually with Aaron, who did not train Smith like a prototypical post player. Aaron wanted Smith to develop perimeter fundamentals, such as outside shooting and putting the ball on the floor. 

Orletha remembers sending a concerned “they’re gonna crush my baby” text message to her husband when a 6-foot-5 Jalen was the smallest eighth-grader at John Lucas’ camp in Houston. But a relieved text followed an hour later, thanks to Jalen holding his own because of those skills. 

“People used to say, especially when he got to high school, ‘He needs to get down low,’” said Aaron, who also works with former Suns two-way player Tariq Owens. “You have to look at, what are they doing at the next level? That’s the way he was trained.” 

The only time Aaron bluntly critiqued Smith for going through the motions during a session, he watched the eighth-grader internalize the feedback and correct his work ethic for good. Aaron said, if anything, Smith could get impatient, resisting the reality that development happens over the course of many workouts. Smith thrived when given incremental goals, such as making 12 of 15 attempts during a shooting drill.  He asked questions about how he would apply the drills to game situations.



So Smith’s trademark goggles were not the only thing Ranson first noticed when he peeked his head into a middle-school game while scouting an area AAU tournament for Maryland. Young teenagers with a blend of length and size are always intriguing, Ranson said. But in a few minutes, Smith’s shooting and defensive ability made him dominant.

“Wow, he has a bright future,” Ranson thought to himself.

Ranson was right.

Smith morphed into a McDonald’s All-American, averaging 23 points, 12.5 rebounds and three blocks per game as a senior at Mount Saint Joseph High School. He prided himself on fulfilling whatever role his team needed during a particular game. Charles fondly recalls a national tournament semifinal game during Jalen’s final year on the AAU circuit, when teammates implored him to take over late in a tight victory.

“He put on the performance of his life,” Charles said. “ … They actually said, ‘Lead us,’ and he did that.”

Yet Smith’s freshman season at Maryland was challenging. 

The Terrapins already had future NBA player Bruno Fernando in the middle. Though Smith was an immediately reliable rebounder and shot-blocker, he did not always get consistent touches on offense. His 3-point shooting percentage (28.6) was a disappointment. Smith acknowledges today that he needed to mature.

Smith cried after Maryland’s last-second loss to LSU in the 2019 NCAA Tournament’s second round — then channeled that into fuel for the offseason.

He worked with Aaron on four elements of his game: 3-point shooting, free-throw shooting, creating his own shot and loosening his hips to gain more mobility to move laterally. Then-Maryland graduate assistant Brenton Petty, who is now a basketball operations intern for the Detroit Pistons, also worked with Smith on touch and finishing around the rim. Smith spent even more time in the weight room, bulking his once-wiry frame up to 225 pounds. 

At Charles’ suggestion, Smith also pulled teammates aside for extra workouts centered around their strengths. For example, he improved his footwork while guarding leading scorer Anthony Cowan, and improved how he played with the ball through contact while matching up against defensive specialist Darryl Morsell.

“That passion of not wanting to lose ever again is what made me mad,” Smith said. 



Smith flourished during his sophomore season. His motor and uncanny timing allowed him to block a shot at the rim, then beat everybody down the floor in transition. He connected on 36.8 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, and was the only player in the country to record at least 30 3-pointers and 60 blocked shots.

Perhaps his best game was a 29-point performance at Indiana, which included a game-winning layup in a huge moment that Ranson believes Smith “probably would have gotten pushed off the ball” the season prior. Orletha’s favorite college outing, meanwhile, was a comeback win against Minnesota, when Jalen fought through first-half foul trouble to record a double-double and crucial put-back dunk in the final minute.

“He easily could have just given up,” Orletha said. “He could have easily just been mad about the situation. But he was smart enough to play and play at a high level, and still defend and still execute offensively with all of that on his back.”

Smith helped lead Maryland to a share of the Big 10 regular-season title, and turned himself into a lottery draft prospect. He left school on track to graduate with that information science degree, a precursor for computer-programming jobs that initially piqued his interest because of his curiosity about how electronics and video games worked.

Yet Ranson is most proud of how Smith conducted himself daily. If Smith missed a layup in practice, for instance, he would make four extra after the workout at Ranson’s request, no questions asked.

“There was never a time I asked Jalen to do something and he didn’t do it,” Ranson said. “ … He didn’t look at it as silly. He took it that, ‘You know what? This can make me better. Coach is asking me to do this for a reason.’” 



***

Monty Williams asked Smith what scares him. James Jones presented Smith with an analogy of a rabbit chasing a carrot, using it to ask Smith what will continue motivating him throughout the course of his NBA career. 

Those post-workout topics raised by the Suns’ coach and general manager were deeper than what any other team had covered with Smith during an elongated pre-draft process. 

“That’s when I kind of figured, ‘OK, (the Suns have) got a certain interest in me,’” Smith said. “ … That’s what I felt like as though it was a possibility to go to Phoenix.”

Still, Smith had no idea how draft night would unfold. He joined a small group of family, friends and former teammates and coaches at a Columbia, Md. restaurant to watch the telecast. 

As the 10th pick approached, agent Mike Kneisley handed Smith a phone and said, “Welcome to the Phoenix Suns” while Jones waited on the other end of the call. A wide grin flashed across Smith’s face as NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced his name. Mom handed him a purple and gray Suns hat.

A few minutes later, Smith dropped his head to the table and began to cry in his arms, overwhelmed with emotion. 

“Once that moment hit, those tears kept falling,” Smith said. “Just lucky to be in this moment, because so many people want this in their lifetime.” 

2020 NBA Draft: Suns Select Jalen Smith

Now, Smith is eager to apply that “sponge” mentality with his new team. 

Paul is regarded as one of the league’s best leaders — and lob-throwers to leaping big men. With Deandre Ayton, Smith can build on past experience playing alongside another talented frontcourt player. Williams is a respected basketball and life teacher, and already shares a connection with Smith as a fellow Marylander. Smith expects to reveal his goofy side as he gets more comfortable with teammates and coaches, but to also maintain his self-proclaimed “boring lifestyle” because he does not like the attention he receives in public for being so tall. 

And whenever the Suns hit the road, it won’t be a surprise if Smith’s reading light permeates the darkness of a late-night, postgame charter flight.

After all, there is plenty more to learn.

Family photos courtesy of Orletha Smith.

Photo of Jalen Smith and Don Aaron courtesy of Aaron.

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