New Bulls center Jalen Smith could be just the kind of player Chicago needs

Jalen Smith was just another name among a slew of signings on the first full day of NBA free agency on Monday.

The former Indiana Pacers big man was far from the biggest splash. But after agreeing to a reported three-year, $27-million deal with the Chicago Bulls, he could be in the best position to have a breakout season.

Smith, a 6-foot-10 agile post player, is the archetype the Bulls need. He’s virtually the perfect signing for a Chicago franchise that finally has chosen to recast its roster. The 10th pick by the Phoenix Suns in 2020, Smith currently projects to serve as the backup to Nikola Vučević after Andre Drummond agreed to sign with the Philadelphia 76ers.

But the Bulls are going younger, and Smith will claim the starting position if Vučević is traded. It would be the first time Smith ended up on the right side of a numbers game.

Smith played sparingly as an ill-prepared rookie for the Suns, an NBA Finalist, in 2020-21. A year later, he was traded to the Pacers in midseason in exchange for current Bulls forward Torrey Craig, who somewhat surprisingly opted into his player option to remain in Chicago.

With the Pacers, Smith began showing the promise that made him a lottery pick out of Maryland. He averaged 13.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and one blocked shot in his final 22 games, averaging only 24.7 minutes over that span. But the 25-win Pacers were a punch line, so nobody paid attention.

Yet there always was a ceiling on how much Smith would be able to contribute in Indiana, where he looked up to Myles Turner as the veteran starter and across at Pacers 2021 first-round pick Isaiah Jackson as his competition.

When Smith opted out of his contract last week, he immediately became a no-brainer target for the Bulls. And while the league’s marquee players deserved the bulk of the attention Monday, don’t be surprised if Smith starts carving out his slice in Chicago.



Grading the deals from the second day of NBA free agency

“He definitely has more potential than he has shown,” said one rival Eastern Conference coach, speaking on the condition of anonymity in exchange for candor. “But (I’m) not sure about his mental game.”

To be clear, the rival coach wasn’t asserting that Smith’s mental game was problematic, only that the coach was unfamiliar. When asked about Smith’s stint in Indiana, one Pacers executive labeled him “one of the best pros I’ve dealt with.”

Grounded, humble and hard-working are descriptors multiple league sources attached to Smith, whom they affectionally call “Stix.” He comes from a military family. He prefers to remain low-key off the court. He’s scheduled to marry his longtime girlfriend this summer.

“Don’t know anyone that would say a bad word (about him),” the Pacers executive said.


The rival coach confirmed as much.

“(A) change of scenery can always help guys if they are workers, and by all accounts he is,” the coach said. “He needs freedom and to be more aggressive.”

It’s clear the Bulls valued Smith. They laced him with a lucrative payday that almost doubles the money he would have earned in Indiana next season. They’re also giving him the chance to play his way into a featured role as the franchise’s next starting center.

Smith still needs more seasoning. But he’s the prototypical target for where the team is and what it needs as the Bulls chart a new direction. Here are five things Smith adds to the roster.

Youth and athleticism

They’re doing it! They’re finally doing it!

A failed promise by the former front office regime that has become a running joke for almost a decade, “younger and more athletic” is quickly becoming a reality this offseason. However, chief basketball executive Artūras Karnišovas is proving he’s quite adept at shuffling in the new but dreadfully slow at taking the old to the outhouse.

Suddenly, the Bulls have a stable of sub-25-year-olds with an array of skill sets and intrigue. Is that hope brewing for Bulls fans?

Smith turned 24 in March, aligning him perfectly with Coby White (24), Ayo Dosunmu (24) Patrick Williams (turns 24 in August), Josh Giddey (21), Dalen Terry (turns 22 this month), Julian Phillips (21) and this year’s 11th draft pick, Matas Buzelis (19).

With or without Vučević, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, the Bulls already have repositioned the roster to fit the modern game and have a far longer runway to someday take off. The Bulls aren’t bringing in a center who is past his prime and chasing a former version of himself as they did with Vooch and Drummond. Smith still has an upside.

Smith isn’t the best shot blocker, but compared to Vooch his timing and ability to take flight might look incredible. Smith will add more interior resistance than what the Bulls have been accustomed to receiving in that regard. But he’s not exactly a rim protector. He’s also not a plodding center or a one-trick pony, which is important because it means Smith meshes with the group rather than the Bulls forcing a fit around him at either end.

Offensive rebounding

While his defensive rebounding stands as an area of improvement, Smith ranked 40th in the league with 1.8 offensive rebounds per game in just 17.2 minutes per game. Using the per-36-minute metric, Smith would have ranked in the top 20 among all players.

Smith has a nose for the ball coming off the offensive boards and a knack for putbacks.

With Drummond heading to Philadelphia, the Bulls lost the game’s best offensive rebounder. Smith won’t remind anyone of Drummond’s ability. But his effort will generate offense for himself and additional scoring opportunities for the Bulls.


Here’s where Smith’s athleticism will shine.

After the Bulls acquired Giddey to keep everyone involved and push the pace, teaming him with a mobile big like Smith made sense. Smith can and will run the floor in transition, with the ability to lead the fast break and finish impressively.

Smith has developed into a high-percentage finisher, shooting a career-best 59.2 percent from the field last season. Sixty-three percent of his scoring came from within five feet, according to tracking data, and Smith scored in 72 percent of his chances from in close. Defenders must account for his finishing ability by being aware of where he is or risk giving up an easy bucket. The moment they lock in on Smith, everything else opens.

Lob threat

He’s not quite former Bulls center Daniel Gafford or even the recently departed Drummond.

But Smith is long, springy and doesn’t mind throwing it down. NBA coaches refer to the ability as being a vertical threat. It’s just another weapon that keeps defenses guessing.


Much like Drummond was, Smith will be a target of pick-and-rolls and in transition, similar to former Bulls forwards Derrick Jones Jr. and Javonte Green. Again, this is where Giddey should be a great complement to Smith. By pairing Smith with the pass-first Giddey, the Bulls have set up Smith for maximum offensive success. He doesn’t have to create his shot. He can run the floor, scrap for putbacks and lean on Giddey creating crevices to throw high-risk darts.

Floor spacing

This could be the biggest carrot for the Bulls in Smith’s signing.

He’s not simply a young, mobile big man who attacks the offensive glass, blocks shots and runs the floor. He’s also a 3-point shooting big.

That makes Smith incredibly valuable. How impactful he is for the Bulls will depend largely on how he develops. But the strides Smith has taken must be seen as encouraging.

Smith shot a career-high 42.4 percent on 2.4 3-pointers per game last season. He’s hit 33.5 percent on 2.3 attempts per game from that same distance for his career. So last season might have been a statistical anomaly. But Smith has good shooting mechanics, and the Bulls have shot doctor Peter Patton, the director of player development.

Lineups with White, Williams and Smith give the Bulls critical shooting around Giddey, who is an inconsistent 3-point shooter at best and a liability at worst.

(Photo: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

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