Player development can be a tricky balance for a head coach. The coach is tasked with winning games in the short, medium, and long term. Brett Brown stated in his preseason media luncheon that he wanted the 1 seed in the NBA Eastern Conference. In the simplest interpretation, Brown told us “the time is now.” Zhaire Smith is a counterpoint to Brett Brown’s timeline and effusiveness. The soft spoken and understated Smith may not fit the Sixers timeline.
When a team has those immediate goals, it can be difficult to get the younger players in the talent pipeline the playing time needed to gain experience at the NBA level. Matisse Thybulle has a similar physical profile of a player like Zhaire Smith. Thybulle, however, developed his defensive identity and role for four years in college at the University of Washington. Zhaire, on the other hand, entered the 2018 draft after just a single season at Texas Tech. He was playing a very different position than the Sixers would ultimately like him to play. At just 6’3″ tall, he was asked to play a 3/4 role in college and use his extreme athleticism to overcome his size disadvantage and impact games. He scored 11 points per game to go along with 5 rebounds at Texas Tech.
In many ways, Zhaire’s rookie season was derailed by injury and an allergic reaction that made survival the priority over development. He returned to play in March and played 11 games in Delaware where he was just getting used to the speed of the game. He was basically learning on the fly late in a G League season. Smith scored 7 points per game based more on his activity and opportunism than any actual defined role in the Blue Coats offense.
Signs of Progress
So far this season, his numbers have only increased to 12.7 points per game in his first 7 games for the Blue Coats, but signs of progress are there. His ability to handle the ball and “turn the corner” on drives is something that Connor Johnson noted, as the Sixers and Blue Coats player development staff works with him. Even so, he has not taken the leap that many might have hoped, and honestly the G League is full of guys like Zhaire who have good athleticism but need to round out or refine their skills to make the next level.
Zhaire Smith has begun to look for his 3pt shot more this season (over 3 attempts per game), and he continues to work hard on improving in that area, as evidenced by warmups tonight prior to the Blue Coats game against Capital City.@76ersTPL | @BlueRouteTPL pic.twitter.com/SPnBdyuQma— Bryant Baker (@BryantBakerTPL) December 6, 2019
Zhaire Smith is shooting just 27.3% from three so far this season. However, his willingness to take them, at a rate of 3.1 attempts per game, and his form on those shots are encouraging. His handle, similarly, is improved. There are times when you can get glimpses of him being someone who will be able to attack off the dribble and “turn the corner” when dribbling off screens. When he does this, it opens up some lob opportunities and allows him to have a much bigger role in a professional offense.
Why it matters
And honestly, that is crucial to his long term upside. With this in his arsenal, he becomes a viable attacking guard in the flow offense. Without it, he becomes just an undersized wing who sprints to the corner and gets some back-cut opportunities. Without it, Smith mostly plays a role offensively similar to James Ennis. Ennis, who has elite timing for baseline crashes on the offensive glass, is someone Zhaire should be in constant contact with to try to figure out those tricks. There are definitely times where I see Ennis level ability in Smith. However, with all due respect to Ennis who is contributing, the Sixers had to hope for more when they drafted Smith.
Areas of Concern
When condensed into a highlight reel, it can be easy to see Smith’s upside. But when spread over a full 30 minute per game run, there are significant periods of time where Zhaire does not seem to impact the game all that much. For a player touted as a defensive stud, he is averaging just under 1 steal per game with just 0.4 blocks per game. The advanced metrics are similar to Haywood Highsmith, another second year player who does not have the vertical leap of Smith but is bigger and a better shooter from three. Highsmith also seems to have a better overall feel for the game of basketball. This is likely due to an age difference and experience gap.
What you would hope to consistently see is Zhaire Smith “leveling” his man when defending the ball handler. This means keeping the opposing guards from getting into the heart of the defense. The Blue Coats have not been great in limiting guards and are often relying on their massive big men to bail out perimeter defenders by getting blocks. Smith is working on fighting over, or “blowing up” screens, and he consistently puts in the work. But what comes across, so far, is a young player still getting a feel for defending out on the edge.
If you think of defense on the perimeter, it is somewhat like being on an island. Your back is often to the basket, facing your man while things happen behind you. Screeners step up to your left or right, people move off ball, all outside of your field of view. To become elite at defending in a modern pro game is more than just getting in a stance and guarding your man. This takes time to learn.
You could equate this, in some ways, with the challenges that Joel Embiid has offensively. Embiid, for all of his talent and package of skills, struggles to quickly identify and pass out of double teams. Much of this is because a center often has the ball with his back to the basket, where things are happening off ball behind them. The doubles often come late, as he puts the ball on the floor and players begin moving.
The Sixers have tried to simplify things for Embiid by creating mostly stationary targets for him. Embiid needs to know where to pass when a double comes, but that has its own set of problems. Stationary targets are easier to defend than moving targets. The net result is often a turnover. The root cause of much of this is inexperience on the part of a player who essentially started playing basketball in 2011. But I digress…
Zhaire Smith is a relative novice to playing a perimeter position against high level competition. Smith attended high school and played Nike AAU in Dallas, where he essentially was a dunker and human highlight reel from the 4/5 position. This allowed him to utilize his immense verticality to block shots. Playing against opposing bigs at that level also gave Smith a huge speed advantage against bigger but not necessarily stronger players. Zhaire was uncommonly strong for a teenager, so he could match up against taller players without hurting his team. All of this made Smith an unconventional recruit when it came to colleges. He was rated a 3-star prospect out of high school.
But when you look back, it’s hard not to view those years as missed opportunities for Zhaire to work on his weaknesses. Coaches exploited the matchup nightmare he could cause, but those factors don’t help the player develop his game. It all sort of looks like wasted time in retrospect. “It’s the story of my life, being too unselfish,” said Zhaire after the season opener. You could argue that ball handling and attacking off a dribble should have been the primary development goal since Smith was in middle school.
But sometimes the coaches’ goals outweigh what’s best for the player. You see this all the time with bigger players in the 6’6″-6’9″ range who are called to play as big men in lower levels. Those players often struggle to adapt to a bigger, stronger, faster level in college. To Zhaire’s credit, he has been able to adapt and show his ability regardless.
Where to Go From Here
It’s easy to forget just how young Smith is and how few games he has played at the professional level. The signs of progress, as mentioned, are there. The only question really is how do you project the development timeline. It’s not hard to see what the Sixers fell in love with in Smith. He is a hard worker, he is unselfish, he is coachable. Those elements are catnip to an organization that has devoted so much blood, sweat, and tears into player development.
But it is also hard to ignore that the pivot from “longest view in the room” to “let’s go win a ring” has happened. The Sixers have some holes in their roster, specifically around shot creation and shot making from the perimeter. Smith is unlikely to make the leap this season into that player. His progression timeline may not match the Sixers’ level of patience.
His contract pays him $3 million this year. When combined with other players such as Jonah Bolden, this may help facilitate a trade with another team. The Sixers are looking for a top 8 rotation type player to get the 76ers over the hump in a ring chase. If the Sixers truly are unable to wait, then Smith may be a crucial piece in a transaction to get them over the last hurdle. Should we believe Brown when he stated his desire for a 1 seed? If, so, then patience may be a luxury the Sixers have exhausted.
So, like Bolden, Smith continues to play in Delaware, showcasing his talents, and showing off his gifts. All while continuing to develop in those areas of growth. For now, at least, he is one of the most interesting projects in the franchise.