Zhaire Smith looks aggressive
Zhaire Smith looks much more aggressive the last couple games. Photo by Wayne Terry, TPL.

Zhaire Smith’s path to the NBA has been anything but conventional. Drafted out of Texas Tech in 2018, many expected a somewhat-immediate impact from the Red Raiders star. A health scare last season, followed by a crowded bench this year, left Smith without a clear track to the Sixers’ rotation. But during Philadelphia’s 115-104 win over Golden State, we got to see a bit of what makes Zhaire Smith such a tantalizing prospect. Of course, there are quite a few things that indicate that the road to an NBA career is far from complete. So let’s dive into the limited minutes of the Sixers’ ‘forgotten man’ and see how Smith has progressed.

CARVING A DEFENSIVE ROLE

Smith came into the NBA with a laundry list of things to develop on offense. Defensively, however, is where the 6’3″ wing with an impressive 6’9″ wingspan starred. Known as a high effort defender, Smith made his name as an aggressive and versatile ball-stopper. Zhaire’s unique combination of length and foot-speed, coupled with a 41 inch vertical, allowed him to toggle between defending guards to smaller forwards. In Tuesday’s win, we got to see what makes Smith such a difficult defensive matchup. Here is a sequence that highlights those individual traits. 

The first clip is a great example of where Zhaire Smith’s athleticism shines in waves. The Sixers wing uses his extreme lateral quickness to deny dribble penetration and force Alec Burks into a highly-contested fadeaway jumper. Smith, who tested an elite 3.04 seconds in the NBA Combine’s 3/4 sprint, displays immense acceleration to get to his spot without hand-checking the ball-handler. Burks quickly runs out of options and is confronted by Zhaire’s length at the shot location. Possession over.

In the second clip, Smith combines those traits to generate a critical transition opportunity. Zhaire again greets Burks with his quickness to force the pass. Once recovered, he displays the fast hands that created 42 steals his freshman year. The Sixers deliver two defensive possessions with Zhaire Smith at the forefront of both. 

A PLAYER ALWAYS IN MOTION

One of the traits that made Smith an interesting offensive fit in Philadelphia was his high understanding of off-ball movement. As Brett Brown has stated on many occasions, ‘the pass is king’. And in order to construct this pass-centric offense, Brown requires constant motion from his players. In Zhaire’s case, the fit is ideal. During his freshman season, the majority of Smith’s offense came through motion–that is, cutting, sprinting and running past defenders into space. Smith scored 22% of his points through those actions while amassing 1.34 points per possession in transition (90th percentile)–a tremendous quality to surround the Sixers’ core pillars of Embiid and Simmons. The Sixers center generates an abundance of cutting lanes by demanding extra attention on the block, while Philadelphia’s point guard loves to run in transition. On Tuesday, both of those scenarios came to fruition with Zhaire on the court. And here is how it looked.

Again, we see how the fit can work. With Embiid drawing the extra attention, Smith has the awareness to fill the open space. He quickly makes himself available to Joel’s line of vision and creates a passing lane for the big man. While not able to finish, Zhaire alleviates the pressure from Embiid by attacking the rim. This type of action can turn Embiid into a more willing passer and reduce turnovers from pounding the ball in the post. But, most importantly, it creates an abundance of scoring near the basket.

With Simmons, the fit is even clearer. The Sixers point guard is constantly looking to run. With Zhaire Smith, he has a more-than-willing running partner. Off the Warriors’ miss, Ben Simmons finds himself at mid-court with all 5 Golden State defenders behind the ball. It is there where Zhaire’s athleticism kicks into action. Once again, Smith fills the open lane and bursts directly to the basket. He turns this possession into a quick-strike opportunity, enabling Simmons to do what he does best–run and pass. 

WHAT’S NEXT FOR ZHAIRE

While Smith continues to show some of the electrifying traits we saw at Texas Tech, he has also displayed many of the deficiencies that label him as a project. The primary concern circles back to the (reworked) jump shot. Without a reliable jumper, playing him during critical NBA minutes is difficult–especially for a team thirsty for consistency from beyond the arc. The Sixers appear willing to be patient with Zhaire. But with the trade deadline around the corner, Smith is a name that is constantly mentioned as possible trade bait. In turn, it is critical that Zhaire rewards the Sixers’ patience with smart NBA minutes. Often times, you can find him meandering from his defensive assignment or lost in an offensive set.

It may be unfair to ask for a guy with barely 100 NBA minutes to know what he’s doing at all times. But, thus is life for a team built to win right now. Zhaire’s tantalizing ceiling is exciting. But, the Sixers will soon be at a crossroads with the second-year guard. Develop and (eventually) pick up his option, or flip him for an established player that can contribute immediately. For Smith to be part of this championship core, it is important that those improvements come sooner rather than later.