Perhaps Jalen Smith’s first sigh of relief after being selected 10th overall by the Phoenix Suns in the 2020 NBA Draft came two years later, in a different city, playing for a different franchise.

In his first 26 seconds on the court with the Indiana Pacers, Smith ran the floor, caught a perimeter pass and hit a 3-pointer. It was one basket. Just three points. And yet, it was the start of something new — a much-needed upgrade for a player burdened by high expectations from a team that demanded playoff excellence.

The midseason trade that sent Smith from Phoenix to Indiana in February introduced the Baltimore native and former Maryland star to a team with very different expectations. The Suns were in winning mode; The Pacers were building. The pressure of learning what it takes to compete in the NBA has eased a bit — enough for Smith to exhale as he knocks down his first shot.

“That big cloud has come off me,” Smith, 22, said during Friday night’s pregame shootaround against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena. “All that weight just lifted off of me and I was back to having fun again.”

It’s not that Smith didn’t enjoy his time with the Suns. He learned a lot from the coaching staff and teammates. But for a player who knew nothing but what it was like to be a star, being on the bench — and, for a time, in the NBA’s G League — was a challenge.

Smith needed a fresh start. And it came via a trade, a lifeline for a pro career that was teetering and in danger of collapsing before the Pacers bought Smith’s potential.

The attention paid to Smith since his youth masks the reality. He featured a five-star recruit, a McDonald’s All American, an NBA lottery pick. He played for Mount Saint Joseph under coach Pat Kletchy, made the Terps’ All-Freshman team and dramatically increased his draft stock as a first-team All-Big Ten selection while helping Maryland capture its first Big Ten championship in program history in the season 2019-20.

But at each stage, Smith required a period of adaptation. As a freshman on Cletchy’s varsity team, he had a hiccup before the triumph of the long-limbed kid affectionately known as “Stix.” His freshman year at Maryland ended in tears as teammates cheered him on as he walked off the court after losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

The NBA was no different.

But, naturally, it was more difficult in the NBA.

“If it was tough in high school, and tough in college, it’s going to get tough now,” said Lisa Smith, Jalen’s mother, who watched Friday’s game in Washington. “Even though the outside world looked at it as doom and gloom, we saw it as part of its normal process. It was just a lot harder than all the other times. And how he experienced it will determine how he will act in the future.”

During Smith’s evaluation process, the idea that he would be accepted as a lottery pick surprised his family. Several teams extended that faith to Smith, but others confirmed he was at least a first-round talent.

As Smith’s representatives explained, the sooner he was picked up, the better. A rebuilding team that picks early in the draft will have more room for Smith to grow. He will have room for error without the pressure of the playoff hunt.

But the Suns were in a unique position with future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul leading a promising lineup and Smith averaging 4.1 points in less than 10 minutes per game.

“I think the Suns looked at it as we have a two-year window to try to win an NBA championship and develop a young player despite his draft [status], is not a priority for us,” Kletchi said. “I’m sure he was disappointed. But he’s also smart enough to realize that, “Hey, this is a business. How can I turn this into a positive?”

At Mount St. Joseph, Cletchy and his staff preach to their players that it’s not what happens to them that matters; it’s how they react and respond.

In text messages to Smith after the trade, Kletchy reminded his former star to control what he can control. And in a text from Suns star Devin Booker, you can find a similar message: “Make sure you’re one of the hardest workers.”

Both faced Smith, who arrived in Indiana with an expired contract but played well enough to convince the Pacers to re-sign him to a two-year, $9.6 million deal. In the second half of last season, Smith averaged 13.4 points and 7.6 rebounds in 24.7 minutes per game. And in his first six contests this season, including Friday night’s 127-117 win over Washington, Smith is averaging a near double-double.

“He’s on his way to proving that he’s not just in the NBA,” Klatchy said. “He’s on his way to being a very consistent, productive, good NBA player at just 22 years old.”

According to Lisa, this season is her son’s true rookie year. He finally has a chance to prove himself on the floor every night, developing into the player he knows he can become. The expectations at the beginning of the career, the external perception – all disappeared with the transition to the Pacers.

Smith is right where he belongs, and the exhalation that accompanied the 3-pointer in his first game only lifted the weight off his chest.

“From the very first game, you could see he was happy,” Lisa said. “It had to work.”