I’ll be honest, I really thought this day would happen three weeks ago. Zhaire Smith has been rehabbing in Delaware since January, and all indications were that he would debut for the Blue Coats sometime around February 7th. As it turned out, that debut was delayed but finally came on a Friday night in Portland, Maine. 

Portland is the home of the Maine Red Claws, G-League affiliate of the Boston Celtics franchise. I’ll be honest about something else, I love Portland. It’s, hands down, one of my favorite cities in the United States. I’ve traveled to more than 100 cities in the U.S. so I don’t say this lightly, I do love Portland. I’ve taken weekend vacations in Portland, ME. 

When word came that Zhaire Smith, the Sixers highly touted rookie, would debut on Friday in Portland, I already knew I would be in Boston for the MIT Sloan Analytics conference. So the question was simple, do I rent a car and drive the 112 miles to go see Zhaire finally play in a live game? I reached out to Twitter, and not only was the response an overwhelming “yes please,” it was more “ummm, you better.”

Maine Red Claws

Arriving at the Portland Expo Center, a 105 year old arena, at 5:30, I approached the will call window and asked if they had my media credential. He said there was a table inside the lobby. Approaching the table, the PR person said “Jason?” Turns out, I was the only media member who requested a credential for the game. Imagine, an entire table just for me!

Zhaire got a little warm-up in soon after I arrived. 

But in all seriousness, the contrast between the 76ers Fieldhouse and the Expo Center is as stark as the play-styles of the 76ers and Celtics. The Fieldhouse, which opened less than 60 days ago, in its extremely bright, modern glory in Wilmington, Delaware is polar opposite to the classically warm, vintage patina of the Expo Center. When asked just before 6pm where I could find the visitors locker room for the pre-game interview with Connor Johnson, a facilities employee guided me to a freight elevator and took me down into the bowels of the arena. 

Down there, I met Coach Connor Johnson in an ancient locker room that is fit for a period piece about basketball in the Naismith era. 

Connor and I talked about his multi-pronged mission as head of the Blue Coats program. “We can be proud of our developmental work that we’ve done with our guys,” Johnson said around the first priority of player development. The other priorities are winning and experimenting with scheme. 

When discussing specifically the goals for Zhaire Smith in his first game, Johnson cited, “Getting into a rhythm, getting a feel for being out there, working on being the best defender he can be and playing as hard as he can.” 

Defensive Goals

Johnson elaborated more about the defensive mission for Zhaire and Haywood Highsmith. He said that he would look to both to guard the other teams’ better offensive players. “One, it helps our team, and two because it helps them grow to be elite NBA defenders, and that is the end goal of what we are working for.”

I’ll admit something else, it was a little weird being perhaps the only person in the arena, outside of the Blue Coats themselves, who knew who Zhaire Smith was at this game. The feeling was palpable that Zhaire was aware of me being there and aware of my camera. As much as it’s easy to think “well, he will be playing in front of 20,000 people eventually,” there can be an oddly uncomfortable intimacy at a G-League game even between media and players. Everything is closer, more immediate. In an industry where players and teams are increasingly wary of saying the wrong thing or being caught on video making mistakes, it can make for an odd dynamic at times. And yet, we each have a role to play and a job to do, so I proceeded to get my video. 

I even decided to “Go Live” on Twitter for this event. You can see just how close the media table is to the court. The game itself was streamed on Facebook Live, but I wanted to give another angle, closer and more immediate so that maybe people might feel they were watching from the bench. 

Red versus Blue

As the game began, it was clear that the mission from the coach was to attack the paint. The Blue Coats, however, struggled to finish early inside and suffered from some run-outs and lapses in transition defense that led to open transition threes from the Red Claws. The game quickly got to a point where Maine was ahead by double figures, and the Blue Coats never quite mustered the run that has led some to dub them the “Comeback Coats.” The final score was 124-102 in a game that never quite felt winnable after the opening moments. 

“It was a combination of things… we lost a little bit of fight and toughness,” said Johnson. He went on to say that the focus is getting back to being a tough and scrappy team. Admittedly, fatigue and wear-and-tear of a season is affecting the team. “But what can we control? What’s our toughness and tenacity on defense?” 

As for Zhaire Smith, he finished the game just 1-4 from the field for 2 points to go with 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 15 minutes of play. The 15 minute restriction as part of his program to get back to playing shape is similar to the progression that Justin Patton saw over the last three weeks. 

Randall Shines

In other news, Kyle Randall led the Blue Coats with 18 points and was the only player on the team to have a positive +/-. Randall was able to attack the paint and get to the line effectively as the backup point guard. “Unfortunately, it came in a loss,” said Randall after the game. “We wanted to get downhill, and that’s my game too.”

Keenan Evans, who played with Zhaire Smith at Texas Tech last year, talked about Zhaire’s debut. “His wind was good, he knew where to be.” Despite the underwhelming debut, Evans said that fans can expect Zhaire to do much better and raved about how good Smith has been in practice. “A game is a totally different environment. I could tell there were jitters,” said Evans. 

The Blue Coats return home Monday, March 4th to play at the 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware. Zhaire is expected to make his home debut against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Game time is 7pm.