LAS VEGAS — The team plane touched down in the Valley around 2 a.m. on July 21, capping off nearly a nine-month journey for the Phoenix Suns through a condensed training camp, an unorthodox regular season filled with COVID-19 protocols and a historic run to the NBA Finals.
The short offseason officially began for players to rest their bodies, recover from the relentless grind and mentally reset following the rollercoaster of emotions they faced over the previous few months.
But over 2,000 miles away in Baltimore, Jalen Smith continued to put in work on the hardwood.
The tenth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft played in a total of just 33 games and felt that he “didn’t really deserve a break.” So, he travelled back home to Maryland for a change of scenery and continued to train behind the scenes, starting on the court, then transitioning to weights before wrapping up his daily routine with a yoga session to help rest his body for the next day.
This disciplined work ethic became the norm for Smith throughout the 2020-21 season, coming in on off days and playing one-on-one or five-on-five with anyone who wanted to run, from fellow rookie Ty-Shon Alexander to even some of the coaching staff. And with a quick turnaround from the Finals to Summer League, Smith is looking forward to showcasing the knowledge and skills he gained throughout this season and is ready to prove what he’s capable of in Las Vegas.
“I just wanted to prepare myself so that I could play to my potential and just go out there and have fun,” Smith said. “It's going to be a lot more hectic and a lot more minutes put on my body. So, (I’ve been) pretty much just preparing for that."
Smith was drafted on Nov. 18, 2020 and by Dec. 12 was already playing his first preseason action. With no Summer League and just a small window for training camp, Smith was given less than a third of the conventional allotted time for a rookie to get acclimated to their team and the NBA before their first tip off.
The quick learning curve and the depth of the Suns roster kept Smith on the sidelines for the majority of the season. But while some lottery picks may have complained or felt overlooked, Smith remained mentally strong, enjoying the historic journey while continuing to improve his game behind the scenes.
“Just looking at all the good of everything and not trying to focus on the negative,” Smith said. “Obviously, I was not out there, but I was on a winning team who was making a name for themselves in the league. You see where we got at the end of the season.
“Just staying focused and making sure that you're always ready. That's what I was trying to focus on throughout the season. So, whenever my number was called, I could perform."
Suns assistant coach Brian Randle said that the team staff explained to Smith early on that, while there are often assumptions and expectations for a lottery pick to perform immediately, it didn’t matter where he was taken and suggested to just, “Take a breath. You're here now. We're going to help you. We're going to try to teach you.”
Smith instead focused on what he was able to control. Coming from a military family in which discipline and order are key, Smith highlighted the importance of how he carried himself each day, making sure that he was always on time, working hard and continuously giving his all.
Randle, who will be coaching Smith and the Summer Suns in Vegas, is encouraged by Smith’s consistency in the work he puts in and the growth that they’ve seen from the 21-year-old, giving credit to highly-touted big man coach Mark Bryant.
“Similar to what he did with DA, coach Bryant has been fantastic,” Randle said. “Talking to (Smith). Teaching him. Being patient.”
Bryant assisted with the development of some of the most talented centers in the league from Dwight Howard to Steven Adams to, most recently, Deandre Ayton. Smith said Bryant’s been crucial for his own development, pushing the young big to become an all-around player.
"When we were working out, he was just teaching me how to read, how your defender is guarding you and how to get around them,” Smith said. “Helping me work on moves, my shot, and back to the basket stuff.”
Smith was not only paired with experienced development coaches, but also took advantage of the veterans that surrounded him on roster, understanding the unique situations he was drafted into.
“Not many rookies get to be put in this position of being around a lot of veterans that had success in the league and making their name in the league,” Smith said. “Just knowing that you've got guys like Chris (Paul), Devin (Booker), Langston (Galloway), E'Twaun (Moore), they all helped me out with pointers here and there and just telling me things they did to help them out to get to where they're at. Just helping me figure out myself as well.”
There are few, if any, more impactful mentors in the NBA than Paul. Smith acknowledged Paul’s notorious ability to read the game and said that being around the future hall of famer has helped him view the game in different ways with Paul explaining how and why certain reads work.
“Just being able to feed off of that was helpful for me." Smith said. “He just broke down everything at any point in time. I tried to figure it out on my own and then he would just come and help me out and just tell me what he saw. And then I would see it that way."
Smith’s ability to read the game is where he believed he improved the most throughout this season, with the assistance of his teammates and coaches remaining in his ear and his willingness to accept the wisdom they had to offer.
“Just being able to be around Chris, Jae (Crowder), Devin, all of them who have had success in the league so far. It's just been fun learning from all of them. Just pretty much soaking everything in,” Smith said.
Suns fans received a glimpse of Smith’s overall talent and basketball IQ in the team’s final game of the regular season against the San Antonio Spurs.
Head coach Monty Williams granted Smith his first-career start as the rookie notched his first-career double-double with 11 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks in the victory. Smith said that opportunity made a huge impact on him, given the reigns to play free and have fun.
“It was tough before that because I was the only pick in the lottery that wasn't playing as much as usual,” Smith said. “So, it was kind of hard seeing that, knowing what you can do. But you have to understand the situation that you're in. Being able to go out there to show that I can do it all as well. Just being able to play, it was fun.”
While this was primarily his first chance to widely showcase his ability during game action, both Smith and his general manager James Jones believe it was only the beginning. When Jones was asked if he expects Smith to factor into the rotation next season, he responded, “Of course I do.”
“Jalen, like every guy on this team, took steps forward this year,” Jones said. “For a rookie to step into this situation, it’s extremely difficult... For him, it’s been a great trajectory.”
Understanding he won’t be just gifted minutes, Smith believes that sticking to his game, being himself and putting in that extra effort will be the overall difference maker to reach Jones’ expectations.
“I know what I can do. Everybody in the Suns organization knows what I can do,” Smith said. “Going out there and playing hard and just giving effort, because once you give effort, everything else falls into place for you. It's making sure that I'm just working and not taking anything for granted."
But before he jumps into his sophomore season, Smith will take center court for the Suns in Las Vegas, where Jones hopes to see him continue his development. Smith’s mindset is simple entering Summer League, “Just go out there and hoop.”
“Being on the bench all season, that's just the one thing that you want to do,” Jones said. “I feel like that's what Summer League is for. That's what coach Monty has been telling me, just go out there and hoop. James was telling me the same thing of just having fun and playing the game.”
Smith is most looking forward to displaying his versatility on both ends of the floor, being able to guard nearly any position defensively, while also using his high-powered motor to play above the rim, and his impressive range to knock down shots from deep.
Randle highlighted Smith’s physical tools with his strength, athleticism and overall size, as well as his skilled ability to handle the ball, shoot, battle in the post and be multidimensional. While that versatility provides Randle with additional creativity when building his rotations and sets, he emphasized wanting to be strategic about how he goes about showcasing Smith’s versatility, rather than overwhelming him with a plethora of possibilities.
“Part of it is we got to figure out with him where he's comfortable,” Randle said “It does give us some versatility, but at the same time, we know young guys, if you throw too much at them, it's hard. It's a fast game. It's a physical game. It's uber talented individuals out on that court.
“We want to make sure that you're showcasing a guy within what you do, such that it doesn't hinder or hurt him in the long run because we don't want to mess up his growth physically or mentally as he comes into his own."
Randle isn’t looking for specific numbers out of Smith during Summer League and is more focused on what Smith is able to control when it comes to playing hard, defending, rebounding, running the floor and overall hustle.
“Really it's him getting exposure to the game,” Randle said. “It's him getting live reps. But the expectation is that you just give a ton of effort. Every time he steps on the court, hopefully he's growing and he’s learning.”
Smith has prepared himself all season to be ready for whenever his number is called. On Sunday evening against the Los Angeles Lakers, number 10 is up.
"I'm extremely excited,” Smith said. “It's the game I love. So anytime I'm out there on the court, I will just be happy and show that I love it. Play my game and just give effort and continue just to play hard."