There was a time during Zhaire Smith’s odyssey of a rookie season when he preferred not to be seen in public.
When Sixers player development coach Tyler Lashbrook met Smith last summer, Smith had recently turned 19 years old and was excited about playing in summer league. The 6-foot-4 guard was healthy, around 200 pounds, described by his teammates as a “freak athlete” and showing early glimpses of why the Sixers acquired him in a draft-night trade.
“It’s so understandable,” Lashbrook said to NBC Sports Philadelphia. “This is such a business where it’s mano a mano. You don’t want to be seen by your teammates, you don’t want to be seen by the public. I understand all that — you don’t want to be seen like that. I always told him, ‘I don’t care, dude. It doesn’t matter to me. We’re still going to be able to get better, even though you lost some weight.’”
Smith is 20 years old now, carrying a few more pounds of muscle than when he was drafted, and thrilled again about the prospects of summer-league basketball. He’ll be on the Sixers’ team in Las Vegas, according to a source.
“Just to see where I’m at,” Smith said at his exit interview on May 13 of playing in summer league. “See if I still got it. It’s been awhile.”
As a rookie, Smith played 116 NBA minutes, if you count two very brief playoff appearances. It was, in his words, “a long journey” to return to the sport he’s obsessively devoted to.
But Smith isn’t dwelling on all the suffering — the broken foot in August, the allergic reaction in September, the conversations with Lashbrook in his hospital bed. Sometimes the two would watch film and Lashbrook would ask Smith what he saw. Mostly, Lashbrook said, Zhaire’s mom, Andrea, just needed a break here and there and he was happy to sit with someone he’d grown to love.
(USA Today Images/Mark J. Rebilas)
JT Locklear, Smith’s head coach at Lakeview Centennial High School in Garland, Texas, calls Smith “one of my favorite topics to talk about.”
Smith himself, though, didn’t talk much to Locklear in the early years of their relationship.
“I’m not sure he said 10 words to me our first two years together,” Locklear said in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. “His freshman and sophomore years he was extremely quiet.”
The two did have a discussion — it may have been rather one-sided — after Smith missed making the varsity team as a freshman. Locklear was immediately sold on Smith’s athleticism, but the teenager didn’t have much in the way of basketball skills and Locklear told him as much.
“He was just a skinny kid who could really, really jump,” Locklear said.
And Smith, according to his coach, “took that personally.”
He really put the work in shooting the ball over that summer, working on his ball handling, being able to make decisions — he’s always been a good passer, it was just putting the other parts of his game together to allow him to play at the varsity level. And every year he got better. … It was about Christmas of his junior year when the light bulb went off, where he got the confidence to just take off.
He bought into the fact that he had to go out and make 500 shots a day, which he did. His shot when he walked in as a freshman was not real pretty to look at. Over the course of the next three years he really developed a lot of confidence by just getting in the gym, allowing us to coach him, allowing us to mold him. He did a great job of buying into it.
By Smith’s senior year, Locklear recalls, he shot over 40 percent from three-point range, guarded centers out of necessity, did a little bit of everything offensively and elevated himself from unranked recruit to a scholarship at Texas Tech. A year later, he was a first-round pick.
Like his jumper as a freshman in high school, the first shot of Smith’s professional career was not pretty. It was hideous, in fact, a three-point attempt from the left wing that thudded hard off the backboard in front of 2,310 fans on a spring Friday evening in Portland, Maine.
He didn’t stop shooting, though, scoring 12 points and knocking down a mid-range jumper a couple of nights later in his home debut for the Delaware Blue Coats.
Smith’s explosiveness was intact but the form on his shot had clearly changed. He’d moved his release point over to the right side of his head.
“That just came naturally when I lost all that weight,” he said. “When I hit the gym for the first time, right when I put it up, it was just right there. It’s just been there ever since — it just came natural. I didn’t really put it there. It came there alone, by itself.”
Lashbrook asked Smith about his new form and got the same response. From there, the two attacked the challenge of rebuilding Smith’s jumper.
I didn’t want to make it a big deal,” Lashbrook said. "It didn’t need to be a big deal. It happened and we were going to work through it. And remember now, he can’t be cleared to do everything immediately. You can’t do full-speed reps, so we had little mental cues to start bringing it back to where it is now and where it was. I didn’t push it or make it a big deal when it was early in his process because he couldn’t really go at the necessary speed to fix it. So once we got to that point — to his credit, the kid works so hard — it was never going to be that big of a deal, I didn’t think. He puts so much effort and time into everything that any issue he had is going to be fixed. And all it is at that point is repetition, quality over quantity and good reps.
The two drilled the fundamentals of footwork, following through and consistent form. Eventually, Lashbrook said, “it just reverted back to where he’s comfortable.”
Smith made the first jumper of his NBA career, a three-pointer from the top of the key in Orlando.
His shot figures to be an important component of his game next season, though his defense remains his calling card.
That’s always been the part of basketball Smith values most, and it just so happens to be where he’s most talented.
“That kind of goes along with his athletic ability,” Locklear said. “At the high-school level it was almost unfair because he was so fast that he could make a little bit of a mistake defensively and then make up for it just because he could beat you to the place on the floor you wanted to get to. More importantly, if you went up he was going to jump a foot and a half, two feet over you. … He’s truly, truly gifted there.”
He's gifted, yes, and already savvy when it comes to the nuances of fighting through or dropping under ball screens, pick-and-roll coverages and funneling his man in a specific direction. It helps that he has a knack for learning at a rapid pace.
However, Smith isn’t satisfied with where he’s at defensively.
“Every goal he’s ever told me about what he wants to do has to do with defense," Lashbrook said. "‘I want to be All-Defense. That’s what I want to do.’ Love it. Love to hear that. Absolutely, man. Let’s do it. That’s a fun thing to hear from somebody. Especially when he’s so young, to know that’s what he cares about is really something.”
The final question of Smith’s exit interview was about Kawhi Leonard, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Smith’s favorite player and the man who’d just knocked the Sixers out of the playoffs in devastating fashion.
Smith had said a minute earlier that he was focused on “becoming the best me.”
But, when asked whether he thought he could develop into a player at or near Leonard’s caliber, Smith didn’t wait a second before answering.
“I feel like I’ll probably be better than him,” he said.
After a collective laugh from the stunned assembled media, Smith added with a smile, “I’ll try.”
In retrospect, there are plenty of reasons to believe Smith was serious.
Locklear said Smith is “one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met,” and it sounds like that’s the case for Lashbrook, as well.
He sees one of his main responsibilities as directing Smith’s hunger to get better in the right directions.
“I’ve heard this from several of our coaches: You’d rather have a kid who you have to rein in than one you have to amp up,” Lashbrook said. “Z, you have to rein him in. For me, it was always channeling that work ethic of, ‘I want to be in the gym for two hours’ to, ‘I want to be in the gym for an hour at a higher speed, at a higher game rep.’ It was about taking that energy and making it concise and efficient in his workouts more than length of time. The kid works hard. He gets excited.”
The short-term reality is Smith likely is not going to be better than Leonard, the reigning NBA Finals MVP, next season. He does, however, have an opportunity to play a prominent role on a championship-contending team. The Sixers have a heap of unrestricted free agents. Outside of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jonah Bolden, Smith and rookie Matisse Thybulle, the roster is uncertain.
Lashbrook thinks Smith can be a shutdown defender in 2019-20.
“From my position, I think he’s capable of doing anything defensively,” he said. “Anything. I hope that he believes the same thing and I hope he’s able to show the bench coaches that that’s what he does. I think he definitely can guard the best player.”
Head coach Brett Brown gave an extended, impassioned answer about Smith's chances of being a key part of the rotation during his end-of-season press conference.
Do I think he can factor into next year? Yes, I do. … His perseverance and love of basketball is completely evident. The kid lives in a gym. Because of that he’s been able to, with the help of Tyler Lashbrook, improve the shot that people questioned. That will be the thing that ultimately makes his package whole. I think that is improving. We saw, albeit in brief glimpses, he’s not gun-shy. He’s not afraid of the stage. He’s not afraid of the environment. He plays. He has that human characteristic, that personality trait, that lets him not worry so much, ‘how’s my shot look? How’s my shot look?' … Then, there is an athleticism that allows him to play defense.
If we need to do anything, we need to play defense in this city. … And so with Zhaire Smith, I think it’s a huge summer for him, and he understands it completely.
If you ask about Smith, you’re bound to get some good stories — about the athletic feats, the resilience through trauma, the sense of humor behind the scenes.
His father, Billy Ray, has his own story to tell. After surgery to address a herniated disc in 2013 went wrong, Billy Ray was a paraplegic.
Zhaire inspired Billy Ray to push himself out of his wheelchair.
"When I saw him, he wasn't able to speak of course and he wasn't able to walk,” Billy Ray told Jon Sokoloff of Fox34 in Lubbock, Texas. “I just looked at him and thought, 'I can't do anything for you and you're looking at me and you can't speak.' That kind of clicked for me and I looked at him and told him that he will never see me in a wheelchair again."
Billy Ray, who played basketball at Kansas State and walked on to the football team as a senior, is back on his feet. A lot has happened for the Smith family in the past year, to put it mildly.
(USA Today Images/Eric Hartline)
There’s one story, though, that might do the best job of illustrating who Zhaire Smith is and what could be possible for him as he trains in Los Angeles and gears up for the Sixers’ first summer-league game on July 5.
Sixers players receiving little to no playing time often scrimmage against each other, aiming to stay sharp and in shape. Smith took those games very, very seriously.
“The low-minute games, he played so hard in all that to where I bet it could be a little off-putting,” Lashbrook said, “because it’s like, ‘What are you doing, dude?’ He’s picking up full court, he’s playing hard, he’s diving and stuff. That’s how he is — that’s how he’s wired.”
While Smith did look good in the rare portions of practice open to the media and in his workouts with Lashbrook hours before games, we’ll mostly have to trust Lashbrook’s word on his effort in those settings.
Almost all of Smith’s rookie year took place away from the cameras, away from his teammates and away from the public. His sophomore season seems like a good time for a proper introduction.
“You really love him when you’re around him more,” Lashbrook said. “Those [G-League] teammates loved him and thought he was hilarious, and grew to understand him. I think that same thing will happen here once people get to know him. … You’re around him enough, you really start to love him. He’s easy to love and care for.”
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