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5 Sixers summer league observations: Zhaire Smith shows flashes of brilliance in loss to Lakers

5 Sixers summer league observations: Zhaire Smith shows flashes of brilliance in loss to Lakers

If you stayed up into the early hours of Sunday morning on the East Coast to watch the Sixers take on the Lakers in their second MGM Resorts Summer League game, you got to see a number of incredible highlight-reel plays from Zhaire Smith.

However, you didn’t get to see much in the way of outside shooting. The Sixers shot just 38.3 percent from the floor and made only 3 of 29 three-pointers in a 96-79 loss to the Lakers.

Here are five observations from the Sixers’ defeat:

1. Friday night wasn’t a bad debut for Smith, but he showed lot more of why the Sixers think he could eventually be a special player against the Lakers. 

Smith scored his first basket of the night on a nice pump fake and drive to the rim for an authoritative dunk. 

Later in the first quarter, Smith made an impressive play in transition, attacking the lane and dropping off a no-look pass to Cameron Oliver for a dunk. 

At the start of the second, Smith found Oliver again after getting the fast break started with a steal, and Oliver’s dunk was high on style points.

Smith vs. Villanova product Josh Hart was a fun matchup to watch. Hart has a full season of NBA experience, but Smith held his own. Overall, Smith defended well, although he did get caught up on a couple screens.

Hart looked like the best player on the floor, showcasing his versatile offensive game. He finished with 24 points, most of it against defenders other than Smith. 

While it will continue to take time for Smith to get comfortable on the wing, he cuts well off the ball and seems to have a good feel for how to fit in an offense. The Sixers made a concerted effort to involve Smith more offensively. 

“We're trying to get him to be as aggressive as he can," Sixers summer league head coach Kevin Young told reporters after the game. "Especially with Shamet going out, there's more opportunity for someone to be that offensive guy. I don't think it's innately in his DNA, but this is a great environment for him to explore that."

In the second half, Smith forced a few shots and missed a couple open three-pointers. But he kept making incredibly athletic plays, throwing down a putback dunk, slamming in a lob off a baseline out-of bounds play and converting an and-one with a smart cut to the rim and strong finish. 

The hang time on the lob was absolutely ridiculous.

He scored a team-high 16 points, shooting 6 for 13 from the floor and 3 for 3 at the foul line, with three assists and three steals. 

"First one I might be a little nervous," Smith said after the game, "but this game I was relaxed. Talked to Coach [Brett] Brown. He said I played like a 'C' last game, try to get to a 'B.' I did good last game but just do better and be relaxed, play like yourself. It's the summer league; you're going to get better and you're going to learn." 

Smith probably won’t have many (if any) plays called for him in the regular season, so it will be important for him to contribute as a cutter, offensive rebounder and three-point shooter. 

2. Furkan Korkmaz couldn’t do it again. The night after his incredible 40-point performance against the Celtics, Korkmaz struggled to find that same shooting stroke against the Lakers. He had four points, shooting 1 for 9 overall and 0 for 7 from long range.

He missed an open three-pointer from the right wing on the Sixers’ first possession, and that set the tone. To be fair to Korkmaz, the Sixers’ offense didn’t generate many open looks for him, so he had to try to create scoring opportunities on his own. 

"In the game, I wasn't feeling good, wasn't feeling in shape," Korkmaz said. "It was back-to-back games. Everybody was focused but sometimes you are making shots, sometimes you are missing. Today was maybe one of my worst games." 

Can Korkmaz earn a spot in the rotation? He obviously shouldn’t be judged solely on this rough outing or on his offensive explosion Friday night. But he’ll have another opportunity to impress Brett Brown and make a case for earning minutes off the bench in the Sixers’ next contest Monday night against the Wizards at 5:30 p.m (NBCSP+).

3. Like in the first game, it was a mixed bag from Jonah Bolden. On a positive note, he seemed comfortable grabbing rebounds and quickly looking up-court to start fast breaks. 

But Bolden couldn’t ever assert his will on the game. He’s 3 for 10 from the floor overall in summer league. A second quarter air ball from long range was a low moment. Just like last summer, there’s a lot to like about his game, but it also seems rough around the edges. He's said he plans on playing for the Sixers this season, but you'd think the team would feel a lot better about the idea of bringing him over if his game was more refined.

Bolden had five points, four rebounds and three steals in 23 minutes.

4. The Sixers’ offense was not the prettiest thing to watch, which you expect in the second game of summer league. 

Down 17 early in the third quarter, the Sixers found a little more of a rhythm to avoid being completely blown off the floor, though the Lakers extended their lead late after the Sixers cut it to single-digits at one stage. Demetrius Jackson had a couple strong drives to the hoop in the second half, while Askia Booker had nine points on 4 for 11 shooting after going scoreless against Boston. 

Oliver was another bright spot, posting 12 points and eight rebounds. 

5. It’s a shame for the Sixers that Landry Shamet’s summer league campaign was cut short by a right ankle injury (see story). You sense that Shamet, a smart playmaker at Wichita, could’ve helped get the Sixers’ offense flowing.

It also just would’ve been great to experiment more playing Shamet both on and off-ball. For Shamet, it’s a missed opportunity to acclimate to the increased physicality of the NBA and start to find his niche at the next level, although he said he can still gain something from his summer league experience. 

"Just watching and learning," Shamet said. "I've been in this situation before where I've had to watch with my foot injuries. There's a lot of information still to be taken in, lot of learning. That'll be no problem, it'll just be something where I continue to take information in." 

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'Potential' is a dangerous word, but Sixers have players to realize it

'Potential' is a dangerous word, but Sixers have players to realize it

On paper, a lot of teams in the NBA look awfully good.

Both L.A. teams look like juggernauts. The Warriors lost Kevin Durant, but they’re still the Warriors. The Bucks have the reigning MVP and perhaps the deepest roster in the NBA.

Then there are the Sixers, who have as much potential as any team. Their starting five could be the best in the league. One prominent statistical model even gives them the best chance to win the Finals.

But the word “potential” can be dangerous. Al Horford may be the steadiest player there is. Joel Embiid is still ascending and has work to do, but is already arguably the best big man in the league. 

The other three members of the starting unit all have to tap into their full potential for the Sixers to accomplish their goals.

Does anyone in the league have more to prove than Ben Simmons? It seems weird typing that sentence for a 22-year-old who’s won Rookie of the Year and already made an All-Star team, but here we are. Simmons was given his rookie max extension Monday — which was 100 percent the right move — but questions still linger over his jump shot. He’s been working with famed trainer and shooting coach Chris Johnson in Los Angeles this summer. He also has decided not to play for the Australian national team in the FIBA World Cup so that he can focus on getting prepared for the NBA season.

Recently, Tobias Harris joined Simmons for a workout in L.A. and he came away impressed with Simmons’ progress.

“We played a lot of 1-on-1. He’s in the gym religiously every day – grinding, getting better. He’s in great shape,” Harris said at a press conference last Friday. “Everyone was trying to figure out why I was guarding him at the three-point line. It was really because he hit two of them. I dared him to hit two of them and he hit two in a row that’s why I was there. He’s made big improvements on his game. His jump shot is looking really good. He has confidence to shoot it. I just kept telling him there, even in these workouts when you’re playing, have the confidence to shoot them and don’t’ get discourage when you miss.”

Harris is another player with something to prove after being given the richest contract in franchise history. GM Elton Brand gave up a haul to acquire the 27-year-old from the Clippers and the results were mixed.

Harris came out on fire with the Sixers, averaging over 20 points a game and shooting 40 percent from three in his first 13 games. He then really struggled down the stretch, averaging 16.1 points a game and hitting only 23 percent of his threes. He was also inconsistent during the team’s postseason run.

Still, there’s plenty of optimism surrounding Harris’ fit with the team — especially with Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick gone. He admitted that uncertainty surrounding his role affected his play, but these new pieces could unlock more of his potential. Harris had a borderline All-Star season and was one of the most prolific shooters in the league in a more featured role with the Clippers. He’s improved every season he’s been in the NBA and there’s hope that ascension will continue.

Harris hopes that ascension continues in Philadelphia — and only Philadelphia.

“Everybody knows over the course of my career I've been in a lot of situations,” Harris said. “Hearing in my meeting the possibility of getting these guys that are sitting up here with me was also one of the most appealing things in the pitch. For me, it was just a win-win, to come here in a situation where I can continue to develop and to be somewhere for many years to come. I'm excited for that and, obviously I signed a five-year deal, so I'll hopefully finish my career here, God willing."

It makes sense that Harris would be excited for the arrival of Josh Richardson. Other than Richardson proving to be a strong two-way player, the two have an existing relationship. While they missed playing with each other by a season at Tennessee, the two still crossed paths. Harris was stuck in Tennessee during the NBA lockout in his draft year so he took the incoming freshman Richardson out to dinner. 

Harris remembers an assistant coach saying around that time that Richardson “was going to be a pro” because of how hard he worked. It was a rather bold statement when you consider Richardson was a two-star recruit coming out of high school, but he made that unnamed coach look awfully prophetic.

Richardson, a second-round pick in 2015, had to earn his way onto the floor in the NBA with his tenacious defense and high energy. Much like Harris, Richardson’s offensive game has grown every season in the league. At times, he ran the Heat’s offense last season as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll and took the most threes of his career by a healthy margin — though he was only right around league average percentage wise.

While the team looks like a defensive monster, spacing is still a question mark. The Sixers are relying on all three players — and really even Embiid and Horford — to have the best shooting seasons of their careers.

"I look forward to training camp, figure all that out,” Brand said. “Defensively, of course that's where we're going to hang our hat. We should be one of the top defensive teams in the league, in my opinion. But we'll figure out the spacing. We have a lot of versatility. Al Horford can space, Joel Embiid can space, Ben's working on his game, Josh is a high-level scorer and Tobias is a high-level shooter and scorer also, so we're looking forward to making that work in training camp. But it's going to take some time. It should take some time."

With how much work Simmons, Harris and Richardson have put in, all that potential could be realized.

That could make the Sixers a very dangerous team.

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FiveThirtyEight's statistical model gives Sixers best chance of any team to win NBA Finals

FiveThirtyEight's statistical model gives Sixers best chance of any team to win NBA Finals

The Sixers, according to the statistics-centric website FiveThirtyEight, have a 55 percent chance to make the NBA Finals and a 27 percent chance to win it all — both the highest of any NBA team.

FiveThirtyEight's "Way-Too-Early Projections" for the 2019-20 season give the Sixers a greater than 99 percent chance to make the playoffs. The Houston Rockets have the next-best odds to win the title at 24 percent.

It's important to note, of course, that teams' rosters will change between now and the start of the regular season, and we still don't have a schedule.

Its model incorporates heaps of data and does "50,000 simulations of the schedule." A new element this year is the DRAYMOND defensive metric, which gives greater weight to how a defender impacts opponents' shooting percentage.

The fact that Joel Embiid has the second-best DRAYMOND rating since the 2013-14 season might, in part, explain why this year's model is so high on the Sixers. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Milwaukee Bucks (26 percent chance to win the East, 10 percent chance to win the championship) and star-studded Los Angeles Lakers (13 percent odds to win it all) and Clippers (5 percent chance to win it all) have a better shot than FiveThirtyEight gives them.

In case you somehow missed it, a lot has changed for the Sixers this offseason. The team's new starting unit of Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Embiid is locked in for the long term, while Mike Scott and James Ennis are again expected to feature off the bench. It's a big, defensively imposing team.

Ennis has said he thinks the Sixers can "walk to the Finals in the East." If you trust FiveThirtyEight's model, his view might not be so outlandish.

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