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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Sixers' James Ennis makes donation to a cause close to his heart

Sixers' James Ennis makes donation to a cause close to his heart

When James Ennis learned about ACHIEVEability, it hit home. ACHIEVEability is a local nonprofit in West Philadelphia focused on homelessness and breaking the generational cycle of poverty.

This summer, Ennis returned to a place that brings back a lot of memories. After hosting a free kids day camp at Westpark in Ventura, California, Ennis traveled a few blocks down the road to Westview Village, a public housing community where he grew up. Ennis hadn’t been back since he left to play basketball, and this time it looked a little different. A brand-new basketball court, which was being dedicated in his name, was now standing in place of his childhood home.

“The West Village projects,” Ennis said to NBC Sports Philadelphia when talking about his childhood. “Where the basketball courts are right now, that's where our place was at. … It's where we used to live.”

Ennis can remember multiple times when his family needed a helping hand growing up.

“We were unstable a lot. I went to four different high schools my freshman year.”

There was one program his family was in for a few months where he remembers his entire family staying in one room with five beds.

There was another that he simply said was much worse. There was also the hotel in Oxnard, Budget Gardens, that they stayed in while waiting for housing.

“There was this one room. One bed. And that was when I was a freshman in high school — this was all during high school. I stayed in a hotel in Oxnard, and every morning we had to walk to the bus station and take the bus to Ventura High School, but no one knew where we were going. We just always got on the bus and left. It was tough, but I'm glad everything worked out and we're here now.”

Ennis credits his father with keeping his family together through such difficult times.

“I respect my dad a lot,” Ennis said of his father keeping the family together. “I thank my dad. … I feel like if my dad just left, we would've all split up and gone different ways, but he stayed, and that's how we stayed together.

“I'm glad everything worked out and we're here now.”

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According to the most recent 2018 U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate in the United States is 11.8 percent.

In Philadelphia, nearly a quarter (24.5 percent) of residents — and 34.6 percent of children — live below the poverty line, making it the poorest of America’s 10 largest cities.

Harold Barrow, now the programming and outreach manager for ACHIEVEability, was just another statistic. After growing up in an abusive household and using drugs at 11 years old, Barrow dropped out of school and was living on the streets by 14.

By the time he was 30 and living in an abandoned house across from Carlton Park in Germantown, he also had an infant daughter, Deiana. Thankfully, ACHIEVEability was there and took him in.

“For me, I came to this program not really knowing that I could be anything but a heroine addict, homeless,” Barrow said. “That was going to be my plight in life and that nothing else was going to happen good for that — that I was just going to die being an addict. They were like no, you can re-write the story, but you've got to work hard.”

So that’s what Barrow did. Incrementally, with affordable housing through ACHIEVEability and a manageable action program that held him accountable, Barrow held his first job at Popeyes and received an academic scholarship to Drexel University (after graduating from community college with a 3.87 GPA). When he struggled with classes at Drexel, they helped him find a learning psychologist and a tutor. 

For eight years, Barrow was a beneficiary of the program. And ever since, he’s been giving back to those that come aboard.

“We take families at different levels … all of them are homeless, all have addiction or domestic violence. Some of it is generational poverty. For us, it is important for us to see families move from impoverishment to self-sufficiency. When I started working here was when my social worker said no more food stamps for you. You've got to learn how to do without that. We are there for families throughout this whole process.”

And being here with families throughout this whole process is something that Ennis can really relate to, and one of the reasons he chose to donate $15,000 to the program.

“I feel like this program was a lot different than the program that I was in (growing up), because basically once you got on your feet, they think you're OK and they put you back on the street,” Ennis remembers of similar programs growing up. “But [ACHIEVEability] makes you accomplish things to stay there. I think that's really good. I wish they had that back then.”

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And accomplishing results is exactly what ACHIEVEability has, well … achieved.  Since 2014, 100 percent of high school seniors associated with ACHIEVEability have graduated and 80 percent have enrolled in college.

“One of the things I remember the executive director (Jacques Ferber) saying is that we really want you to build a life that once you look at the life you have now, you'll look back and never want to trade that in,” Barrow said. “That really became reality for me. I ain't going back to that. No matter what I had to do.”

In the past year, ACHIEVEabilty has served over 115 families and 215 children.

“If you talk to our families and ask them why they are doing this, they will give a lot of reasons, but almost everyone says because I want a better life for my kids,” Jamila Morris-Harrison, current executive director, said. “I want a better life for my family. I want to give them something that I wasn't able to get, that sort of commitment to the kids is a really powerful motivator.”

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This past Friday night, at the Sixers’ final preseason game against the Washington Wizards, Ennis and Barrow got to meet up for the first time. A group of 50 people from ACHIEVEability were in attendance. Ennis took pictures and signed Sixers souvenirs, but most impactfully told the group that he understands where they all came from and reminded them to believe in themselves and stay strong.

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For Harold, he hopes Ennis understands the impact that his donation will have.  

“You just don't know the impact that that money is going to have on some homeless family, some struggling family, it's just going to make all the difference in the world, man. And I would tell people all the time, stories like mine don't happen in a vacuum, it happens because people care enough to give and get involved and volunteer and become a part of it, because in poverty and homelessness, there is no such thing as delayed gratification.

"You don't know about working hard for something now to have it later, you’re just kind of like, I hope tomorrow I have some food or tomorrow I have somewhere to lay my head. You're not hoping anything beyond tomorrow or tonight. I hope tonight I have somewhere to go that's safe. Donations for people like himself make all the difference in the world. Some person is going to have another story, a success, donations from people like them, that just care. I don't know why he looked at our organization and we touched his heart in some way to make him want to give, but it makes all the difference in the world.”

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'It's not just another game' for Al Horford against the Celtics

'It's not just another game' for Al Horford against the Celtics

Al Horford is a seasoned veteran. The 33-year-old is entering his 13th NBA season for his third team. GM Elton Brand brought him in hoping he'd be one of the final pieces on a championship roster.

So Wednesday night’s season opener against the Boston Celtics, where Horford spent the last three seasons, will just be another game.

Right?

“Yeah, you know, it's definitely going to be weird for me — different — facing my former team,” Horford said after practice Sunday. “It's probably as good of a scenario as it can be, first game of the year. It's definitely going to be different. It's not just another game. It's a big game given the rivalry between Philly and Boston.”

A rivalry that he’s helped add another layer to.

Horford is the epitome of what an NBA veteran should be. When his teammates and head coach have been asked what’s stood out about the starting power forward, professionalism is generally one of the first words uttered.

With that in mind, it was a bit surprising — and perhaps a bit refreshing — to hear Horford acknowledge that Wednesday won’t just be one of 82. Horford left an indelible mark on the Celtics’ franchise. He was their first marquee signing after head coach Brad Stevens had returned Boston to respectability.

Players there still talk about his leadership and what he meant to them. None of that is lost on Horford.

“It's the way this business is. I've learned that throughout the years,” Horford said. “The one thing I always take from those groups [on the Celtics] is [it’s a] great group of guys — always competing, always playing hard for one another. I really felt like I made the most out of my time when I was there.”

This won’t be the first time Horford has had to go up against his former team. He had to face the Atlanta Hawks, a team that made him the third overall pick in 2007, when he signed a big free agent contract with Boston in 2016.

The last season Horford was in Atlanta, the team won 48 games. The first season after Horford left, they won 43. By 2017-18, the Hawks won just 24 games and parted ways with head coach Mike Budhenholzer. Meanwhile, the Celtics went from 48 wins to 53 in Horford’s first year and 55 in his second season — before Kyrie Irving came in last season and ruined everything.

For the Sixers, it’s fair to wonder what’s better: Horford’s presence helping them or his absence hurting the Celtics. He'll now look to improve the Sixers, a team that's won over 50 games and a playoff series in back-to-back seasons and that has championship aspirations.

For the past couple seasons, he’s been a thorn in the side of the Sixers — especially Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Horford might be the only player in the NBA that’s had success guarding both of the Sixers’ young All-Stars. Now practice will be the only time that happens.

And both players are quite happy about that.

So is his new head coach, who’s already seeing the positive influence Horford is having on his team.

“I think for him, probably internally more than me or his teammates, he feels something I'm sure, a little bit differently than then we would feel,” Brett Brown said. “I bet he feels internally a heck of a lot more than us. 

“I think he is a resource. I have him speak to the team, ask him what he thinks — like what do you think you'd like to share with us as it relates to opening night and Celtics? And he's great. He's thoughtful, he's smart, he's a veteran. And he helps me.”

Will it be different? Of course. Will it be weird? A little.

But Horford is a pro’s pro. He’s unassuming and doesn’t put up eye-popping stats, but he affects the game as much as any player on the floor.

Starting Wednesday, he’ll have that effect for the Sixers against the Celtics.

“It's the first game so once we play it, I think both sides will be able to move on with their season,” Horford said. “I think that now we're all shifting our focus on the beginning of the regular season. Obviously, Boston's our first matchup, getting that going and that's that.”

Horford seems anxious to get the reunion over with and help the Sixers try to win a title.

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