The Philadelphia 76ers’ top sophomore showed out in Las Vegas.
Zhaire Smith‘s 2018-19 season was unique for mostly bad reasons. He fractured his foot before the season, then suffered a life-threatening allergic reaction to sesame oil — causing him to lose weight and leaving him sidelined until the season’s final six games.
As a result, Smith had very limited opportunities last season. He flashed promise as a garbage time piece in the Philadelphia 76ers‘ final games, but there was no extended sample size to base an opinion on. That’s why Summer League held so much intrigue.
The Summer Sixers were somewhat disappointing. A 1-3 record and severe offensive limitations put a stain on their week in Vegas, although those issues should have been obvious coming in. The Sixers just didn’t have the firepower to keep up with teams who could consistently dribble and shoot.
Even with three consecutive losses, though, Philadelphia had some bright spots. Smith was at the forefront, showcasing not only his strong presence on defense, but displaying immense growth on the offensive end.
He hit a few pull-up jumpers. Crossed someone into a made 3-pointer. Made a few gorgeous drives to the rim. Finished in traffic. It was a genuinely thrilling four-game sequence for Smith, who took on a featured role and thrived.
Coming into the 2018 NBA Draft, Smith was billed as a project. He lacked a functional handle, in turn lacking the ability to create his own offense. He was also a subpar 3-point shooter, with slow and clunky mechanics at Texas Tech. He was a strong on-ball defender and an elite athlete, but otherwise unpolished.
One should never draw conclusive opinions from Summer League. It’s a weird environment that tends to boost certain archetypes and drown others out. Smith shined, but looking good against fringe NBA talent doesn’t equate to NBA success.
It’s still a step in the right direction. If Smith can successfully hit spot-up 3s, attack closeouts and make the right decisions, his ceiling vaults higher. He has the athleticism to support a high ceiling — his interior finishing is already bolstered because of it. But if he’s hitting jumpers and dribbling in traffic, Smith becomes a far more dynamic weapon.
In addition to his offensive growth, Smith was his normal self on defense. He brought energy, was stout on the ball and managed to play the passing lanes. His athleticism — not only hops, but lateral quickness — remains underrated. He has the length to guard three positions, the foot speed to contain explosive point guards and the strength to fight through screens.
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There’s a reason Avery Bradley was a bad option for Philadelphia. He’s not just on the decline, but he’s also redundant. Smith provides similar, if not more value as an on-ball defender — the main source of utility for Bradley at this stage in his career. If Smith can even hit 30-35 percent on 3s, he’s leaps and bounds better than what Bradley provides.
The Sixers’ core rotation pieces are shaping up to be James Ennis, Mike Scott, Kyle O’Quinn and Raul Neto. Expect Brett Brown to lean on veteran experience in a season with well-defined championship aspirations.
Even so, Smith deserves minutes. He can slide into multiple positions, fit into multiple lineup variations, and fill a role next to all five of the Sixers’ core pieces. He’s being molded into a Sixers reserve — someone who guards, can hit spot-up 3s, function in dribble handoffs and move without the basketball.
Joel Embiid, Al Horford and Ben Simmons are all equipped to find Smith on backcourt cuts. He will get open 3s as the opposing defense commits attention to Philadelphia’s more explosive threats. As long as his handle and shot continue to progress, Smith will find ways to contribute on both ends.
The Sixers are pursuing title contention, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of development. Smith is an important piece of Philadelphia’s future — someone who could, in the long run, become an integral rotation piece on a championship team.
He’s too good to overlook now, and he’s too good to overlook long term. Brown should offer Smith a legitimate role on day one.
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