76ers

Basketball-obsessed Zhaire Smith isn't exactly the same player he was before Jones fracture, allergic reaction

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Kevin Gallagher

Basketball-obsessed Zhaire Smith isn't exactly the same player he was before Jones fracture, allergic reaction

WILMINGTON, Del. — Plenty of us like basketball. We enjoy playing it, watching it, thinking about it.

Zhaire Smith is obsessed with basketball.

“I eat, sleep and dream basketball,” he said Monday after scoring 12 points in the Delaware Blue Coats’ win over the Fort Wayne Mad Ants (see observations). “I live for basketball. Being able to play, no matter which level it is, I’m glad.”

So, how’d the 19-year-old rookie cope when the sport was taken away from him as a result of a Jones fracture in his left foot in August, followed by serious medical complications stemming from an allergic reaction?

“I went to the gym,” he said. “Tube in my stomach and all, I was in the gym shooting.”

Smith is healthy now, smiling, throwing down put-back dunks and locking down opposing guards. On the surface, it’s like nothing has changed. 

He still has the athleticism that former teammate Landry Shamet described as “sneaky” and “freaky” back in July.

He still has the tools to be an elite defender — the No. 1 thing Blue Coats head coach Connor Johnson said himself and the Sixers want to see during Smith’s time in the G League.

But a few things are different about the 6-foot-4 wing. After dropping as low as 164 pounds, he’s now at 206. That’s seven pounds higher than he was listed at in the Sixers’ media guide, and he says he feels like a stronger player.

The form on his jump shot has also changed. 

In the summer, Smith was releasing the ball directly over the top of his head. 

Now, he’s letting the ball go on his right side. 

According to him, the change did not happen intentionally. 

“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.”

When asked if his new form feels comfortable and replicable, Smith gave an emphatic “yes.” Though he only made 1 of 4 jumpers Monday, his shoot was smooth and he fired without hesitation.

A solid jumper will likely need to be part of what Smith brings to the table offensively in the NBA, but Johnson’s emphasis is on helping him become “a well-rounded basketball player.” Given that he played mostly at power forward at Texas Tech, Smith’s pull-up jumper Monday from the right elbow after sizing up his man with a few between-the-legs dribbles was an encouraging sign that he might be expanding his offensive game.

That sequence is illustrative of why it might be too simplistic to characterize Smith as the same player he was before his injury and medical situation — even if doing so is a compliment.

He’s shown a knack for learning quickly, a quality Johnson appreciates.

What’s fun for me is his improvements from the first time he went in to the second time he went in … in terms of getting to the ball, forcing it in a certain direction. I say to him, ‘OK, Zhaire, this is what we want.’ And then boom, he’s getting the guy to his weak hand, forcing a tough shot, sticking to his body — all stuff we like to see. To see that amount of growth within a game — it’s not even within years or within months … we’re seeing a lot of growth, and that’s something to be excited about.

The first priority now for Smith is getting minutes, staying healthy and unlocking his defensive potential. Whether he joins the Sixers once the Blue Coats’ season is over and contributes in the playoffs remains to be seen.

That said, we're talking about a player who went from an unranked high school senior to a first-round pick after a year in college. There's no way Smith is done growing.

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Joel Embiid listed as doubtful for Sixers-Nets Game 4

Joel Embiid listed as doubtful for Sixers-Nets Game 4

Joel Embiid is listed as doubtful with left knee soreness on the NBA’s official injury report for Game 4 of the Sixers’ first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets.

He missed Game 3 in Brooklyn, a 131-115 Sixers’ win. About an hour before tip-off, Embiid discussed his knee pain, which he described as "tendinitis," saying he feels he’s getting better “slowly but surely" (see story). 

That said, it sounds like Embiid’s progress is non-linear and difficult for him to predict.

“At the end of the day, what cures it is just loading,” he said. “You gotta load in the right way. Can’t do too much and then also can’t sit out and do nothing. It’s hard to manage, but gotta do it. Gotta push through the pain and see where it goes.”

Embiid began practice Friday by firing a few three-pointers in his slippers.

He then laced up his sneakers and went through an individualized workout.

Brown said early Friday afternoon that his holistic “gut feel” Thursday was that Embiid would not play. He said he didn’t yet have a sense for Embiid’s Game 4 availability. 

Though the Sixers’ athlete care team is closely monitoring Embiid’s “loading,” all the factors behind the decision of whether he plays remain nebulous. Brett Brown has characterized that choice as being dictated both by how Embiid feels and the recommendation of the medical staff.

The center tandem of Greg Monroe and Boban Marjanovic combined for 23 points and 21 rebounds Thursday night. Marjanovic has been impressive in this series and quite possibly the Sixers’ most consistent player (see story). 

While he’s officially doubtful, it’s still very possible Embiid plays in Game 4. He went from being doubtful for Game 1 to playing and posting 22 points and 15 rebounds in the Sixers’ 111-102 loss.

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Boban Marjanovic's size is impossible to ignore, but he's more than a novelty

Boban Marjanovic's size is impossible to ignore, but he's more than a novelty

Boban Marjanovic sometimes seems like a walking punch line. Not in a mean-spirited way, mind you — he’s far too charismatic to be teased, and far too good-natured to mind if he was. But the simple reality that he is probably the largest human being you will ever encounter is impossible to ignore. 

While his size remains his most important attribute as a player, Marjanovic has shown through the first three games of the Sixers’ first-round playoff series against the Nets that he is no joke.

He’s averaged 14.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in just 17.3 minutes per game this series. Thursday night in Brooklyn, he posted 14 points, made all eight of his foul shots during the Sixers' 131-115 win, and was so vital that Brett Brown inserted him into the game with five fouls and just under nine minutes to play.

It was a reasonable choice, too, given how much better the Sixers were playing with Marjanovic on the floor than Greg Monroe. Marjanovic, who fouled out with 7:05 left on a suspect offensive foul call, was a plus-18, while Monroe was a minus-9.  

The Nets haven’t had much success drawing Marjanovic away from the rim and exposing his lack of foot speed. He’s generally dropped deep in pick-and-roll coverage, giving the Sixers’ perimeter defenders time to recover when they fall a step behind, and he’s even survived on one or two switches against guards like D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert.

“I’m pretty tall, you know,” Marjanovic told reporters, an understatement. “The effect is my size. Sometimes just to be there, my size helps me to protect the basket. We work on that, we prepare for that … we must stick to the plan.”

Brooklyn has shot a combined 5 for 13 against Marjanovic in Games 2 and 3, per NBA.com/Stats. The unlikely duo of Marjanovic and Monroe is not in Joel Embiid’s league defensively, but the idea of Marjanovic helping to hold down the fort if Embiid misses Game 4 shouldn’t be terrifying to the Sixers.

Marjanovic, though an historically efficient player, might eventually regress in these playoffs.

Monroe’s comment that Marjanovic “hasn’t missed from midrange since I’ve been here” is not a massive exaggeration. The odds are his jumper will cool off a little, and some of the shots the Nets are missing around the rim will start dropping.

In that event, Brown likes Mike Scott as a small-ball five contingency plan, as he showed Thursday. It appears rookie Jonah Bolden and Amir Johnson will not play significant playoff roles — although we would have said the same thing about Monroe a week or two ago.

For the time being, Brown can rely on Marjanovic. As Embiid’s absence highlighted, the 7-foot-3 Serbian — always eager to praise his teammates — is more than a mere novelty.

“We need to hold each other,” Marjanovic said. “Sometimes this happens — [Embiid] can be out or somebody else. We’re here together and we helped each other to get this win and play the game better and better.” 

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