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.
Zhaire Smith makes 6 of 7 in the left corner. pic.twitter.com/Sgbo5OQNu0— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) July 4, 2018
Now, he’s letting the ball go on his right side.
More Zhaire Smith jumpers pregame: pic.twitter.com/4DUvOQiKbA— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) March 4, 2019
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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