The NBA Summer League is set to kick off in Las Vegas in a few days, and the Phoenix Suns have the German League MVP, Jaleen Smith, joining them.
The 26-year-old from Texas has played the last four seasons in Germany since graduating from New Hampshire in 2017. Smith began his professional career in Germany’s second division for two seasons before leaping Germany’s top division, the easyCredit BBL, where he’s spent the last two years.
This past season, the point guard led MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg to a first-place finish in the regular season with 15.7 points, 5.5 assists, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game.
NBA teams took notice, and Smith worked out for the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz before agreeing to play Summer League for the Suns.
I had a chance to catch up with Jaleen Smith to talk about his career while he was in Phoenix training with the Suns for Summer League.
You attended college at the University of New Hampshire. Why New Hampshire?
It’s a funny story, but I committed to Southern University in Louisiana. I tried to contact them and see what the next step was and what I needed to do. They never hit me back, so I decommited. New Hampshire was recruiting me, and they kept tabs on me. They brought me in for a visit in April, and they said the weather is going to be nice, and not knowing the northeast, I thought it was going to be like this all the time. I really liked the school, and I ended up committing. The school was struggling a little, so I thought I’d get playing time right away.
You spent four years at the University of New Hampshire. At what point did you realize you could play professionally?
Going into my senior year, I had agents contacting me, saying they are going to keep tabs on me for the season. Even my coach, Bill Herrion, said that people were asking about me playing pro. The summer going into my senior year, I knew I could play pro.
With no pre-draft process, how did you get your first professional opportunity?
I signed with these agents called the GoEmpire Group. Those guys told me about different countries, and then they came to me with two different offers from the second league in Germany. You know you can only go to one place, and I looked up the cities, and the city I went to, Heidelberg, was the best fit for me.
You began your professional career in Germany’s second division. What were those first two years like for you?
For the first two years, I had roommates. The first year I had an American roommate, and it was our first time in Europe, so having someone to go out and experience things was cool. My second year, I had a German roommate, and he knew everything about Germany. He taught me about the food and some words in German. So the first two years were a learning experience for me, getting used to the German ways and just finding my way.
What did you enjoy most off the court living in Germany?
Just the people. The people there are so friendly. You stop in stores, and they’ll recognize who you are. The people are really nice and the food. I love the food there.
What has kept you in Germany your whole professional career so far?
It’s been the right fit. That first year, I didn’t play so well starting out, and it reminded me how I was at New Hampshire. It took some time to find my groove, and I started playing well, so right after the season, they offered me a contract. The team was bringing most of the guys back, and it was coming back to show them what I can do.
After two years, you made the jump to the easyCredit BBL, which is Germany’s top division. Was there an adjustment period?
The coach we had, demanded so much of his players compared to the second league. It was adjusting to his way of playing ball, and it’s faster, better shooters and players. It’s more physical, and they get away with a lot of stuff you wouldn’t in the second league. I think my biggest adjustment is being more physical with guys. In the second league, you couldn’t be as physical.
In terms of playing style, what’s the playing style in Germany?
Most teams play fast-paced. You got some teams that are offensive-oriented, but most of the time, teams that win are gritty, physical teams on defense. They take their time, and the team I was on did a lot of pressing, played fast-paced and quick shots.
This past season, you were named Most Valuable Player of the easyCredit BBL. Your statistics have improved each year professionally; what behind-the-scenes work went into this season?
I worked out with a friend that does training in Texas. I started to see progress in my off-the-dribble game because that first year in Ludwigsburg, I didn’t handle the ball a lot. Going into the bubble, my coach wanted me to play point guard and handle the ball more. This past year, I had the ball in my hand a lot and working with my trainer, Khory Ross, having the ball in my hands is the biggest difference from my first three years in Germany.
How would you describe your journey from where you started to where you are now?
I think it’s a grind, man. Stay with the process. That first year, I was rushing to get back (to the United States). I wasn’t trying to be in Germany very long. That second year, I had an appreciation of the culture, going out and treating it like its home. Once I started doing that, the game started getting fun, and that was another thing, not treating the game as a job. When it was fun, my game started getting better too.
So you worked out with the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz recently; how were those workouts?
Those workouts were a getting to know you as a person. They watch highlights and know how you play, and they want to see you in an environment where you come in and hoop. It more or less is like an open gym, but it’s structured. Those places were good, and I really liked Utah. I went there twice, and I know the whole coaching staff. They will be in Vegas, and we play them, so it’s going to be crazy.
How did the invite from Phoenix Suns for Summer League happen? Were you in talks with them at all?
Yeah, I’ve been in more talks with them than any other team. I’ve talked with their GM, some of the coaches, and they know me personally. So I think it was a better fit, and I’m here now, and I can tell they want me to do all the things I did in Germany this past year. I have the freedom to do that, so I’m excited for it (Summer League).
Smith’s family and friends are excited that they will get to see him on television when he makes his debut for the Suns. He also has family that will be in Vegas to see him play. “They are happy for me, and that gives me extra motivation,” Smith said.
The Suns have a talented Summer League roster, but the German League MVP will be someone to keep an eye. At 6’4″, Smith is a physical point guard that can wreak havoc on both ends of the floor.
Smith is one of the top sought-after free agents in Europe and has drawn interest from EuroLeague clubs, but that is on hold while he pursues his NBA dream.