Knicks Urged to Target Former Top 10 Draft Pick in Free Agency

Jalen Smith

Getty Jalen Smith, formerly of the Indiana Pacers and Phoenix Suns

Mitchell Robinson’s immediate future is one of many question marks hanging over the New York Knicks as he ponders his next move.

If Robinson, who will become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, moves on, the Knicks will have a big gap to fill at center. One writer said a former top 10 pick could be the answer.

Knicks Film School’s Jonathan Macri said that Jalen Smith, who played with the Indiana Pacers and Phoenix Suns in 2021-22, could be worth a close look on a team-friendly contract next season.

After failing to reach an agreement on a contract extension last summer, Robinson will become a legitimate flight risk as an unrestricted free agent. With his potential departure in mind, the Knicks are likely weighing their options for a cost-controlled replacement. Ideally, any incoming big man would be on the current core’s timeline, be ready to contribute from the jump and have plenty of untapped potential.

Enter Smith, the former top 10 draft pick by the Phoenix Suns who hasn’t been able to show his true value during his first two years in the NBA. Smith was drafted by a Suns team that already had DeAndre Ayton on their roster, so his playing time was always going to be limited under Monty Williams. But in his 22 games for the Indiana Pacers,  Smith showed glimpses of what he has to offer.

It’s those games for Indiana that should pique the Knicks’ interest, Macri said.

“Following a trade to Indiana, Smith got more time and continued to put up a decent number, mostly while playing backup center,” he wrote. “How much did it mean coming for a tanking team late in a lost season? Not everything, but something. If nothing else, Smith showed there’s still a player here worth investing time and energy in.

“Should that team be the Knicks? There are a few ways this could happen,” Macri wrote. “Let’s say, for instance, that Mitch leaves in free agency but New York is unable to find a home for the brittle Nerlens Noel. In that case, the Knicks might have the benefit of taking a chance on an unproven center. If it works, great. If not, Noel is there to co-pilot the position with Sims. Best case scenario, Smith hits, and the expiring Noel gets cut or dealt at the deadline.”

Smith Brings Floor Spacing

A modern NBA center is expected to provide rim protection, solid screening and, ideally, floor spacing. Rim-runners such as Robinson hold tremendous value within the league, but their upside as a starting center is usually capped because teams are relying on spaced-out offenses to generate driving lanes for their wings.

Smith entered the NBA with a reputation for being a potential floor-spacing big man. During his two seasons at Maryland, Smith averaged 32.3% from deep on 2.5 attempts per game, but it was his noticeable jump in conversion rate that got people excited. As a freshman, Smith shot just 26.8% from beyond the arc, jumping to 36.8% in his sophomore year. That increase likely enticed the Suns to use a lottery selection on Smith in 2020.

RJ Barrett and Obi Topping project to be big contributors for the Knicks moving forward, and both players are at their best when getting downhill towards the rim. Adding Smith into the equation would ensure opposing defenses are stretched out enough to garner additional driving lanes and kick-out options for both of the team’s young scorers – assuming Smith would be entrusted to shoot the three-ball consistently enough to create scoring gravity.

At 6-foot-7, Smith is slightly smaller than 7-foot Robinson but does project to be more mobile, which could be beneficial if he’s switched onto smaller players. Still, when given the opportunity in Indiana, the 22-year-old big man averaged 7.6 rebounds and a block per game in 24.7 minutes of playing time — so it seems there’s a rim protector somewhere under the surface.

Keeping Robinson Could Still Be the Primary Objective

While Smith could be worth a one-year deal, the likelihood of him becoming an integral part of the Knicks’ future is slim. Top 10 draft picks seldom see their third-year option get declined, and that has to be a telling sign about how the Suns viewed his potential upside long-term.

The Knicks front office could come to an agreement with Robinson to keep him in New York for the foreseeable future if they can sell him on the rebuilding project the franchise appears to be embarking on. Still, as a free agent, Robinson probably will test the waters. Should he want a fresh start on a different team, Smith could be a smart replacement, even if it’s just for one year.


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