Five* role players having an outsized impact
*Plus one more I just want to talk about
Jalen Smith, adapting
It’s probably marketing suicide to start with the Indiana Pacers’ backup center, but I am who I am.
Jalen Smith isn’t anyone’s idea of a star. He won’t be on too many highlight reels, and he’s not likely to be a critical playoff piece. But he’s shown tremendous personal growth as a player this season in his new role on the team.
Smith arrived in Indiana as a theoretical stretch-four but became ineffective on both ends after an initial sweet-shooting honeymoon phase. He had reasonable athleticism but was very stiff, an action figure without knee joints. Smith couldn’t chase guys around on defense or take advantage of his size on offense. When his shot went cold, which it did for the entire last season, he didn’t bring much to the table.
Smith’s role seemed uncertain coming into the season. Myles Turner was the entrenched starter at center, and Smith clearly didn’t have the skillset to continue playing the power forward spot next to him. Isaiah Jackson, a high-flyer ideally suited for Tyrese Haliburton’s pinpoint lobs, and reliable vet Daniel Theis seemed likely to soak up most or all of the big-man minutes.
Instead, Smith seized the reserve center role for himself. Because of this, Smith’s shot distribution has changed, and he is averaging nearly 12 points and seven boards on cartoonishly efficient 72/67/75 percent shooting splits. Instead of being stationed on the perimeter, he’s far more often screening for Pacers on and off the ball, and he gets most of his points in the paint as a roller or sprinting past slow-footed bigs in transition. Smith has shown new feel for when to screen hard and when to slip, with surprisingly nimble footwork despite a noticeably heavier frame.
His three-point volume is the lowest of his career, adjusted for playing time, and he’s shooting fewer than two per game. Instead, 62% of Smith’s shots are at the rim, the first time he’s ever cracked even 50%, and he’s 22-for-27 so far this season from that range.
My favorite Smith bucket this season came in transition, when he absolutely leveled Jordan Poole with a (probably illegal) screen that would’ve sprung Andrew Nembhard for an easy three — if Smith hadn’t sprinted so far past that defense that he himself was still open even after the pick:
Smith’s resurgence is a great reminder that minutes alone aren’t the only path to production. A new physique, skills, and position have unlocked Smith in a way I didn’t know was possible.
Jalen Johnson, flying
In his third year, Atlanta’s Johnson has finally earned the opportunity to showcase the undeniable skill and freaky athleticism that made him a popular preseason breakout candidate.
Johnson is most famous for his dunks, and there have been some doozies this season:
He’s listed at 6’8”, 220, and smart bettors would take the over on both measurements. Pair that size with kangaroo hops, and you get a transition monster finishing an eye-popping 82% of his shots at the rim. Despite that frame and willingness to catch bodies, he’s a quick decision-maker on the move with an unselfish attitude and more slickness than you’d expect. Look at this exaggerated head fake and no-look pass:
That playmaking is a crucial ability to have coming out of the short roll, and it helps make up for his poor long-range shot.
Johnson doesn’t get enough credit for his voracious rebounding appetite. Despite exclusively playing next to a center, he boasts a 20% defensive rebounding rate, in the 94th percentile for forwards. In simpler terms: he’s hit double-digit rebounds in three of his last four games, including 11 in just 23 minutes against Washington. That lets him grab-and-go like a point forward, turbocharging Atlanta’s powerful fast break.
Johnson is also turning into a strong defender, and the team has assigned him to offensive juggernauts like Zion Williamson (1-for-5 with Johnson as the primary defender), Karl-Anthony Towns (3-for-10), and Giannis (2-for-6). The Hawks don't switch much, but I’d love to see what Johnson could do given more reps against primary ballhandlers as a lengthy point-of-attack menace one day.
Jaden Springer, swatting
Sure, it would be easy to talk about Kelly Oubre’s startlingly efficient start to the season, but I’m a basketball hoopster (I was literally calling Josh Giddey an out-of-bounds wizard BEFORE it was cool!). So indulge me on this one, even if “outsized impact” is several bridges and a pontoon boat ride too far.
Springer has played a grand total of 44 minutes this season and so far proven utterly incapable of making a positive offensive mark (although he was the G-League championship MVP, so there’s something in there).
But at just 6’4”, Springer has already provided several of the year’s most entertaining defensive plays. He’d be a strong contender for an All-Defensive slot if he could average just fifteen minutes per game.
This swat might be the best defensive play of the season’s early going. Springer plays this like an elite NFL cornerback, watching Damian Lillard’s eyes without any idea where the ball is. He only leaps when Lillard has committed himself to the air, and I swear you can see Springer smile predatorily. He unleashes an unholy two-handed abomination of a block, banishing the basketball to the seventh circle of hell (where it’s destined to be shot off the side of the backboard by Killian Hayes for all of eternity):
You aren’t likely to see a lot of Springer minutes this year, but please pay attention when you do. You won’t be disappointed.
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None of their names are “Ja_en,” either!**