Eight months after his final college basketball game, Maryland’s Jalen Smith finally knows his next destination, as the Phoenix Suns selected the Terrapin big man with the 10th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft Nov. 18.
Smith becomes Maryland’s highest draftee since Alex Len went fifth overall in 2013, also to Phoenix. He’s also the third Terp to be drafted in as many years, joining Atlanta Hawks selections Kevin Huerter in 2018 (19th overall) and Bruno Fernando in 2019 (34th).
The Baltimore native and Mount Saint Joseph High School graduate was a unanimous third-team All-American and first-team All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore at Maryland. Smith averaged 15.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game in 2019-20, recording 21 double-doubles in 31 games.
“I couldn’t be happier for Jalen and his family tonight,” head coach Mark Turgeon said in Maryland’s press release. “Jalen entered our program with a plan and put in the work to turn his dream into a reality. To be selected in the top-10 makes it that much more special. I have no doubt Jalen is destined for great things and can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future.”
This was a moment several years in the making.
Smith was a five-star prospect out of Mount Saint Joseph — he was the No. 16 overall prospect in the Class of 2018, according to the 247SportsComposite — but entered college weighing just 195 pounds, with his lanky frame earning him the “Stix” moniker. He quickly bulked up, though, ultimately holding his own against physical Big Ten centers this past season.
While Smith’s freshman season wasn’t dominant, he showed plenty of flashes. He debuted with 19 points and 13 points against Delaware. He averaged 11.7 points and 6.8 rebounds in a year highlighted by his NCAA Tournament performances. Smith tallied 19 points and 12 rebounds in Maryland’s first-round win against Belmont, then finished with 15 points, eight boards and a game-tying corner three in the last minute of what eventually became a loss to LSU.
After playing alongside Fernando as a freshman, Smith put his star power on full display in 2019-20. He became a consistent threat from long distance (36.8 percent on 3-pointers, up 10 percent from a year prior) and an ace rim protector (2.4 blocks, second in the Big Ten). He punctuated dominant games with clutch plays, perhaps most notably dropping 29 points, 11 rebounds and the game-winning basket on Indiana Jan. 26.
Smith likely could have been a late pick in 2019, but opted to not even test the waters. After a year of development and stardom, he was a near-consensus first-round pick by the time he declared for this year’s draft April 7. His draft stock slowly rose throughout the summer and fall, with most mock drafts slotting him between the early teens and the end of the first round. But he ended up going even higher on draft night.
He joins a Suns team on the rise.
Phoenix hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009, but made a run in the bubble this summer, going 8-0 in seeding games but just missing a chance to play for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Fifth-year wing Devin Booker, an All-Star in 2020, has scored 26.6 points per game the last two seasons, and third-year big man Deandre Ayton (18.2 points, 11.5 rebounds in 2019-20) gives Phoenix one of the most promising young duos in the NBA.
The Suns look poised to take the next step after acquiring 10-time All-Star Chris Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder this week. Last season, Paul led what many thought would be a rebuilding team to the No. 4 seed in the West and a seven-game first-round series with the Houston Rockets. Phoenix believes the 35-year-old will serve as a leader on and off the court for an otherwise young core — Smith, Booker, Ayton, third-year wing Mikal Bridges and second-year wing Cameron Johnson.
Smith will enter a frontcourt that’s still in flux outside of Ayton. Veteran center Aron Baynes is entering unrestricted free agency, while power forward Dario Saric will be a restricted free agent. Phoenix also has club options on power forwards Frank Kaminsky and Cheick Diallo. It’s unclear how many of those players will be on the Suns’ roster when the NBA season begins, or which free agents might replace some departures. If Saric and Baynes both return, Smith’s path to immediate minutes is murkier, but don’t expect him to get buried.
While Smith might not start immediately, it’s clear the Suns believe he has the tools to become an impact player and a strong running mate for Ayton in the long run.
“I did a radio show this morning in Phoenix, and the NBA has gone so small, they were worrying if [Smith] and Ayton could play together, and they can because they’re both so skilled and can shoot threes and spread the floor,” Turgeon said at a media availability Nov. 19.
“They had the guts to pick him at 10, so they obviously have a plan for him, and I think he’s gonna have a chance to make an impact for them right away.”
Anthony Cowan Jr. still awaits his own destination.
The senior point guard wasn’t expected to be drafted, and was far from alone among star college guards who never heard their name called on draft night. Marquette’s Markus Howard, Seton Hall’s Myles Powell, Kansas’ Devon Dotson, Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans and Creighton’s Ty-Shon Alexander were all still available after 60 selections were made. As of the afternoon of Nov. 19, Cowan hasn’t signed with a team.
Because the NBA season is a bit more than a month away, Cowan won’t have the same opportunities as years past to play his way onto a roster — no summer league, short training camp, short preseason. It’s most likely he’ll spend the 2020-21 season either in the G-League or overseas.
While Cowan still waits to learn where his professional journey will begin, Smith received the long-awaited news Nov. 18. And his NBA career will start with plenty of excitement.
This has been updated with the second quote from Turgeon and the Cowan breakdown.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox