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Despite bumpy rookie season, former Maryland basketball star Jalen Smith relishing run to NBA Finals with Phoenix Suns

The 2020-21 NBA season, like other major sports leagues played in the eye of the coronavirus pandemic, is one that will be etched in our memories forever.

Following the Orlando bubble for the restart of the 2019-20 season, NBA players returned to their home markets but had to abide by stringent coronavirus protocols as the league attempted to sandwich a shortened regular season and postseason in seven months.

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This season has almost reached its conclusion and former Maryland men’s basketball star Jalen Smith is in the thick of it as a member of the Phoenix Suns, who host the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night.

“I didn’t expect the run to be like this but I saw that we could be special from the beginning once I found out the team got Chris [Paul] and Jae [Crowder],” Smith said Sunday, hours before the Bucks defeated the Atlanta Hawks to set up the best-of-seven championship series. “Obviously, Jae and Chris with their playoff experience, just coming in and helping everybody. And obviously, Chris being the winning person and the competitor that he is, alongside how much of a competitor ‘Book’ [Devin Booker] is and everyone else on the team. If we focused on that, we can actually jell together and make something happen and as you can see now, it’s all falling together.”

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Smith’s rookie season in Phoenix could be considered memorable for multiple reasons, not just for the conditions and his team’s historic success — the Suns are in their first NBA Finals since 1993 and would capture their first-ever title with a series win — but for the growing pains that have come with it.

Smith, a McDonald’s All-American at Mount Saint Joseph, was selected No. 10 overall in the draft, which was held in November as opposed to its customary July date because of postponements caused by the pandemic. At his draft watch party, Smith beamed as he spoke of joining a young team that was led by veteran coach Monty Williams and had just acquired Paul, an 11-time All-Star point guard.

The NBA was set to start its 72-game schedule in about a month, so within the next 24 hours, Smith was on a flight to Phoenix for an introductory news conference and to get ready for training camp. In a normal season, rookies would have gotten the opportunity for Summer League, a crucial initiation period for newcomers and young players, but preparation went straight to the season instead.

In his second game, Smith suffered a left ankle sprain that sidelined him. Upon his return, he subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 and was placed in health and safety protocols on Jan. 7, keeping him out again until Jan. 23. In total, Smith missed 12 games — a month’s worth of action in the first month of the season — with the string of bad luck.

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Jalen Smith, dunking against the San Antonio Spurs on May 16, is in the thick of it as a member of the Phoenix Suns, who host the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night.
Jalen Smith, dunking against the San Antonio Spurs on May 16, is in the thick of it as a member of the Phoenix Suns, who host the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night. (Eric Gay/AP)

“It was tough, just not being there and being able to experience everything,” said Smith, who added he’s not feeling any lingering effects. “But everyone knew that there was a slight chance of anybody catching COVID, so we just had to deal with it.”

Smith returned to limited action on the court sandwiched between DNPs. He appeared in 27 games during the regular season, averaging just under six minutes. The team also sent him to the G League for a short stint in the Orlando bubble to continue his development. A bright spot of his rookie season was the season finale when he received his first start and recorded a double-double.

“It’s been a challenge,” Smith said. “Not many people can come into a unique situation like mine — even though when I got drafted, I knew it was going to be a unique situation with Phoenix because we’ve got so much talent, there’s so many roles to be filled and things like that. So, I knew that coming into my rookie year that it was going to be a year of working and just learning and understanding everything.”

With Deandre Ayton, the top pick in the 2018 draft who has blossomed this postseason, manning the center position, the Suns coaching staff has attempted to play Smith at power forward.

It’s not a position he’s never played; he was a Big Ten All-Freshman Team selection at Maryland in 2019, playing beside fellow All-Big Ten standout Bruno Fernando in the frontcourt. Once Fernando left early for the NBA, Smith moved back to the center position for his sophomore year, earning Associated Press Third Team All-America honors.

“I’ve remarked a number of times how hard it is to get drafted and go right from being drafted right into a training camp,” Williams told reporters in April. “Not only that, pretty much trying to learn a new position. Going from a five [center], trying to learn how to play like [teammate and power forward] Dario [Saric]. ... That’s something that we’ve talked about is Jalen becoming a more athletic Dario and that’s a high goal, if you will, but we feel like with the work he’s put in with [assistant] coach [Mark] Bryant, he’s going to get there someday.”

Maryland forward Jalen Smith (25) dunks during the second half against Iowa in a game Jan. 30, 2020, in College Park.
Maryland forward Jalen Smith (25) dunks during the second half against Iowa in a game Jan. 30, 2020, in College Park. (Terrance Williams/AP)

Said Smith: “The NBA is a lot different at the four spot [power forward] because you’ve got to learn spacing and you’ve got to just learn how to read, and you don’t really touch the ball much so you’ve got to figure out ways to find opportunities for yourself and to help your team out. So, it’s pretty much a lot of off-ball things that come with being a four.”

While much of Smith’s time in his rookie season has been spent as a reserve, he’s grateful for the mentorship of people like Paul, Booker and Williams. And while protocols kept players fairly isolated for the early portion of the season, Smith has stayed in contact with his family, who has even visited Phoenix a few times to watch him play.

Despite limited playing time, a postseason rife with injuries to star players — and role players breaking out — has shown Smith that you’re just one play away from a prominent role.

“You’ve got to be ready at all times. You never know when your number’s going to be called,” Smith said of the most important lesson he’s learned in the NBA. “You’ve got to figure out what ways best you can help the team no matter what and just continue to work. You’ve really got to have a hard work ethic to stay in this league.”

NBA Finals, Game 1

BUCKS@SUNS

Tuesday, 9 p.m.

TV: 2 7

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