Jalen Smith's path to being one of the NBA's best role players on the Pacers

After getting his option declined, getting traded by the Phoenix Suns, and signing for less than what he may have wanted, Jalen Smith has been balling out for the Indiana Pacers.

Indiana Pacers, Jalen Smith, Phoenix Suns
Indiana Pacers, Jalen Smith, Phoenix Suns / Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
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At the time of writing, the Indiana Pacers sit at 5-3 on the season and are currently fourth in the Eastern Conference, sitting right behind perennial contenders such as the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics.

While there is a lot that can be said about the ever-productive play of Tyrese Haliburton, the surprising scoring outbursts of Myles Turner and Aaron Nesmith, and the play from new additions Obi Toppin and Bruce Brown, one name seemingly came out of nowhere as a top contributor for the Pacers: Jalen Smith.

For some backstory, Smith was traded to the Pacers near the 2022 trade deadline in exchange for Torrey Craig, a trade that was seen as a win-win for both sides, as Craig never fit in Indiana, and Smith needed a change of scenery after not earning minutes under Deandre Ayton on a contending Phoenix Suns team.

In his first half-season in Indiana, Smith played fantastic next to Tyrese Haliburton and under coach Rick Carlisle, averaging 13.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, and one block on impressive 53/37/76 splits.

Despite this solid finish to the season, Smith surprised the NBA by re-signing in Indiana for two more years despite the Pacers not being able to offer him more than other teams due to Phoenix declining his team option.

While he had relatively high expectations going into the 2023 season, Smith underperformed, dropping his averages to 9.4 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting far worse from the field at 47%. He was also among the worst three-point shooters in the league at 28% despite showing some shooting potential the season prior.

Going into the 2023-24 season, coming back to a much deeper Pacers roster, Smith had to work to stand out, and he did, gaining weight during the offseason and coming back a much stronger player, fully outgrowing the "Stix" nickname bestowed on him earlier in his career.

Smith was expected to fight for backup frontcourt minutes with the likes of Jarace Walker, Isaiah Jackson and Daniel Theis as Indiana weighed their options on who they would keep going forward. So far, Smith has more than made his case for Indiana's backup center, as he has completely erased the memories of his lackluster 2023 season with a fantastic start to the 2023-24 season.

Through the first seven games, Smith is averaging 11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds on mind-blowing efficiency. Jalen Smith currently ranks second in the league in field goal percentage at a whopping 71.7% and, believe it or not, is currently leading the NBA in three-point percentage at an astonishing 66.7% - almost a full 10 percentage points higher than second-place Cason Wallace, who shoots 57.1%.

This is obviously coming from a relatively small sample size, and it is doubtful that Smith will keep this incredible efficiency up for the rest of the year, but the fact that he has come out of the gates so strong after having a disappointing season last year tells you all you need to know about him.

This is a guy who was clearly disappointed with his play last season and saw his opportunities dwindle with the influx of talent coming to Indiana. Instead of requesting a trade or hanging his head and playing poorly, Smith took the challenge and ran with it, playing the best basketball he's ever played and securing that backup center position with an iron grip.

As of this moment, Jalen Smith is the concrete backup center for the Pacers, and that's not likely to change soon. He has been delivering on every opportunity that has been presented to him, even getting his first double-double of the year against the Utah Jazz with 16 points and 10 rebounds off the bench.

With Smith's contract being up soon and him having a player option after this season, it is important that Indiana makes retaining him an utmost priority if his play continues at this level.

A player of Smith's level would be welcome on any team in the NBA, and it's up to the Pacers to keep him happy with ample opportunities and playing time to perhaps keep him even longer than the two years he signed on for in 2022.

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Only time will tell if Jalen Smith keeps up this level of play for Indiana or if he's even on the team next year, but one thing's for sure: Jalen Smith has not disappointed so far.