Coming off major run to NBA Finals, Phoenix could go a number of directions with 29th overall pick, but might steer away from taking a big despite Jalen Smith averaging just two points his rookie year after being taken 10th overall in the 2020 draft.

The Phoenix Suns went against popular opinion that had them taking point guard Tyrese Haliburton in last year’s NBA Draft, instead selecting big man Jalen Smith out of Maryland with the 10th overall pick.

The thought behind that selection was building the Suns up to battle the then-defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets, who lost to Lakers in the conference finals in the Orlando bubble.

“We talk about teams like the Lakers, those are teams that have great size, skill and versatility,” Suns General Manager James Jones said after last year’s draft. “You talk about teams like Denver, they have great size, skill and versatility. And so we’ll have to match and exceed that if we want to continue this journey that we’re on to become a powerhouse in the West.”

The Suns wound up eliminating the Lakers and Nuggets in reaching the NBA Finals, with Smith being a spectator after he averaged just two points and 1.4 rebounds in 27 regular-season games.

Then Dario Saric went down with torn right ACL in Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks, leaving the Suns shorthanded in the frontcourt.

Suddenly, Jones’ initial post-draft comments about Smith and Deandre Ayton playing together regained traction.

“I’m looking forward to seeing those two guys anchoring the floor together, even if it’s for stints,” Jones said.

The Suns weren’t going there in the finals, despite Ayton needing help facing two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, 7-footer Brook Lopez and backup big Bobby Portis.

So while they could be looking at a big with the 29th overall pick in Thursday’s draft, as Jones values depth at all positions, the Suns can now develop Smith the way teams used to do so before the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world.

The 21-year-old can play in next month’s NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, something the league didn’t have last season. His only major action came in the regular-season finale at San Antonio where he posted his first career double-double of 11 points and 10 boards to go along with two blocks in 41 minutes.

Smith battled through an ankle injury and bout with COVID-19 early in his rookie year and was later sent to the G League bubble. That stretch essentially took him out of rotation consideration.

Injuries happen. That’s part of the game, but had Smith been a regular-season contributor, Suns coach Monty Williams would’ve felt confident throwing the 6-10, 215-pound forward out there against the Bucks.

The talent is there. He has a nice shooting stroke. Good handles.

Can rebound. Block shots. Just didn’t do it nearly enough to play when it mattered most even though the Suns lacked size backing up Ayton when Saric got hurt.  

They tried Frank Kaminsky III early, but his Game 3 struggles led to him collecting DNPs in Game 4 and 5 before getting another opportunity in Game 6.

The 7-footer played well in posting six points on 3-of-4 shooting and two rebounds in 11 minutes, but the Bucks still eliminated the Suns with their frontcourt doing serious damage in the Game 6 clincher.

Antetkounmpo went hydro with a playoff career-high 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks.

Portis scored 16 off the bench and Lopez added 10 points and eight boards.

Phoenix got past the Lakers in large part becasue All-Star big Anthony Davis sufferieed a knee injury in Game 3 that led to a groin injury in Game 4, was DNP in Game 5 and was an early exit in Game 6 when he reaggravated his groin.

The Lakers had Marc Gasol, Andre Drummond and Montrezl Harrell, and of course, LeBron James, but without Davis, the Lakers fell to the Suns in six.

The Nuggets possessed the league MVP – Nikoka Jokic – but got swept.

The Los Angeles Clippers battled inside with Ivica Zubac playing hard, but they also went small, a strategy the Suns defeated in advancing to the finals.    

Ayton had a monster series against the Clippers in averaging 17.8 points on 68.9% shooting and 13.7 rebounds as he posted four double-doubles in six games. 

So Phoenix entered the finals confident – and healthy.

Then Saric lasted two minutes in Game 1 before suffering a season-ending injury.

The Suns still took a 2-0 series lead, but lost four straight in losing the finals. 

Drafting Haliburton may have worked out for the Suns as he could’ve been an understudy behind 16-year veteran Chris Paul. 

Earning first-team All-Rookie honors, Haliburton averaged 13 points on 47.2% shooting, connected on 40.9% of his 3s and delivered 5.3 assists a night in 58 games after going 12th overall to Sacramento in the 2020 draft.

He’s pretty solid on the defensive end as well. With long arms, anticipation and smarts, the 6-5 Haliburton averaged 1.3 steals.

So Haliburton put up numbers, but the Kings didn’t make the playoffs.  

He probably doesn’t average 30 minutes a game or start 20 games in Phoenix with Paul running the show, but being able to play off the ball would’ve helped him find his way on the court.

Then again, Cameron Payne wouldn’t just let a rookie delete his minutes.

Payne averaged 8.4 points on 48.4% shooting, hit 44% of his 3s and posted 3.6 assists a night in 60 regular-season games.

The upcoming unrestricted free agent then showed his worth in the postseason.

Averaging 9.3 points in the playoffs, the quick, explosive and jerky 6-1 Payne erupted for 29 points and nine assists, both playoff career highs, in Game 2 of the conference finals, which the Suns won over the Clippers without Paul, who was under the NBA’s health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19.

Payne could very well re-sign with Phoenix, but has played himself in a position to receive generous offers from multiple NBA teams. 

Teams can start talking to free agents Monday beginning at 3 p.m. PT.

Anticipating the loss of Payne, Phoenix may very well use the pick to find a point guard or trade the pick to acquire a more experienced one.

Of course there’s Paul, who may opt out of his $44.2 million player option to stay in Phoenix and become a free agent.

The Suns can go a variety of ways in the draft, but still have more to see and learn about their last first round pick.

Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at [email protected] or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.

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