The Nets were one of the first teams to interview Maryland power forward Jalen Smith, which is fitting. The 20-year-old grew up watching a pair of similarly sized Kevins the Nets are intimately familiar with: Kevin Garnett and Kevin Durant.
Smith patterned his game after Garnett and said it would be a dream come true to be drafted in the first round by Brooklyn and get to learn from Durant.
“Yes, Brooklyn Nets were probably one of my first interviews I had. They’re a great organization, I liked all the coaches. They were fun and up front with me, and even joking with me a lot,” Smith said via Zoom. “It was pretty much [everybody], a lot of people, I would say the GM and coaches.”
While Kenny Atkinson is long gone as head coach, GM Sean Marks is still in charge and interim Jacque Vaughn has stayed on as lead assistant. The staff that’s been mulling Smith as a potential 19th-overall pick is still in Brooklyn, as is the star who Smith hopes to play behind and learn from.
“Just being able to play with KD, that’s a dream come true,” Smith said. “Obviously growing up watching him so much and pretty much just learning from him, being the same size as him, just being able to get so much from him that he’s done in the league and continue to work and just compete against him would be tremendous and a good thing for me and my skills.”
It would’ve been shocking if Smith hadn’t grown up watching Durant.
He came up in Maryland a decade after Durant, becoming a McDonald’s All-American at Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore, 30 miles away from Durant’s Montrose Christian School. At 6-foot-10, they are a similar height — though it’s another former Nets big man Smith tried to emulate growing up.
“I always tried to model my game after Kevin Garnett. That’s one of the people I looked up to the most,” Smith said. “He was considered one of the small bigs in the league, but he always had that impact on it. His work ethic never trickled no matter what, he was having a good game or a bad game, and I always looked up to him just to keep that mentality and that mindset.”
Smith has also interviewed with the Bulls, Raptors, Spurs, Suns and Wizards, and though the Nets do have Durant, DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen in the frontcourt, there is logic in taking Smith.
They will have to make a decision on Allen next season or see him hit restricted free agency in 2021. Jordan, 32, is getting older and more immobile.
Despite making All-Big Ten first team while being asked to play center, Smith is really a power forward. That means backing up Durant, who is sure to be rested often coming off Achilles surgery.
“I was playing out of position most of the year because [Maryland coach Mark] Turgeon wanted me to play the 4, but most of the year I played at the 5 due to issues we had behind the scenes,” said Smith, who averaged 15.5 points, 10.5 boards, 2.4 blocks and hit an improved 36.8 percent from deep.
A willowy 215-pound build as a freshman got him the nickname “Stix.” After adding 10 pounds he got upgraded to “Thix,” but he knows he must improve his range and his frame.
“It’s a lot of things I’ve got to hone in on, things I’ve got to analyze that I’ve got to get better for the NBA, and just getting more time to focus on my body going into the combine,” said Smith, who was working out four days a week before the NBA draft combine. “Now with this time it’s just been focusing on my shooting, my dribbling, making sure my body is right.”