For the first time since July 15, 2018, when the Sixers were knocked out of summer league play in Las Vegas with a loss to the Grizzlies, Zhaire Smith played in a competitive basketball game Friday night.
As you’d presume, the rookie displayed plenty of rust in his professional debut as the Delaware Blue Coats fell in Portland, Maine, 124-102, to the Red Claws.
Still, Smith, acquired by the Sixers in a draft-night trade along with the Miami Heat's unprotected 2021 first-round pick in exchange for Mikal Bridges, successfully returned to the court and played 15 healthy minutes. If you’re unfamiliar with Smith’s story, he was coping with bigger problems than basketball a few months ago.
After suffering a Jones fracture in his left foot in August, Smith needed to undergo a thoracoscopy in September following an allergic reaction. Per a team source, Smith had serious medical complications and lost significant weight after consuming sesame, an allergy the Sixers later discovered after conducting a full allergy panel on Smith (see story).
It’s obviously important to have that unusual start to Smith’s professional career in perspective when analyzing his performance on Friday.
Here are a few observations from his debut:
• Smith didn’t get a touch on his first couple of trips down the floor. Once he did, off a dribble handoff from Ryan Anderson, he put up a shot — and missed badly. His three-pointer from about 24 feet away at the top of the key looked like it would have been good from 32 feet out, thudding hard off the backboard. He clearly did not want his first attempt to fall short.
• For the most part, Smith lingered off the ball. One notable exception came early in the second quarter, when he filled the lane well on a fast break and laid it in off a feed from Keenan Evans, a teammate of Smith’s at Texas Tech. That was his only basket of the night — he finished with two points on 1 for 4 shooting, three rebounds and two assists.
• Defense and athleticism will be Smith’s calling cards early in his NBA career. He was solid defensively vs. the Red Claws, though Maine didn’t make much of an effort to attack him. He did have one lax moment late in the second quarter, allowing Archie Goodwin to cut past him on the baseline and draw a foul.
• There were a couple of moments when you saw Smith make a decent initial read and then either doubt his instincts or not yet possess the natural feel to finish the play.
For instance, on one play he pump-faked, drove by his man and then pulled up from about 10 feet away instead of taking the ball all the way to the rim. He hung in the air longer than usual, seemingly less than confident in his decision to shoot, and air-balled the jumper.
On another play, he made a strong drive from the left wing to the foul line and spotted an open D.J. Hogg in the corner. The idea was right, but Smith’s execution wasn’t the sharpest. His pass was well off target, forcing Hogg to catch it out of bounds.
• On Feb. 7, general manager Elton Brand said the Sixers’ moves before the trade deadline did not alter his expectation that Smith would play this season. Head coach Brett Brown has said he doesn't think Smith will see the floor for the Sixers this year.
Smith’s rusty debut doesn’t tell us much about when he might join the Sixers, though it’s safe to say he needs some more time in Delaware. His first home game will be Monday night at 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware, where the Blue Coats will play the Fort Wayne Mad Ants at 7 p.m.
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