76ers

Joel Embiid loves the big burden on him and all the criticism that comes with it

Joel Embiid loves the big burden on him and all the criticism that comes with it

Joel Embiid said at his exit interview Monday in Camden, New Jersey, that he hadn’t been on social media.

But, judging by how he responded to a question about the criticism he faced during this season for his diet, conditioning, untimely illnesses and more, it sounded as if he’d seen every unkind word about him.

“I love it,” Embiid said. “I love when you guys or anybody else just talks s---. I haven’t been on social media, but I see it all. I love when people tell me that I can’t do something because I’m going to go back and work hard, and I’m going to get it right. I’m excited. Tough ending to the season, but I feel like everybody did their job. We played hard and we’re going to be back here.”

There is, you sense, a part of Embiid that wants to respond to the parts of the criticism that don’t come close to being fair.

The sentence after saying, “I’m fine with taking the blame,” he added, “Obviously I can’t control being sick at the wrong time. I still try to push through it.”

Fair enough.

Embiid said he played through his illnesses and his left knee tendinitis, with the exception of Game 3 in the first round of the playoffs against the Nets, because he kept being reminded of how massive an impact he has for the Sixers. The Sixers had a plus-20.7 net rating in the playoffs when Embiid was on the court and a minus-19.7 net rating when he was off it, per NBA.com/Stats.

A reasonable interpretation of that stat is that the Sixers’ failure to advance beyond the second round falls largely on their lack of a capable backup center who could stop the ship from sinking when Embiid wasn’t playing. Embiid doesn’t see it that way.

Even if I’m not producing offensively, defensively they’re always telling me that the numbers show it. That’s why I played — I couldn’t let them down. It’s fine. I’ll take it all. You can put this loss on me. Don’t just put it on the coach or anybody else. I should play better. I think I didn’t shoot the ball as well as I did in the regular season. I didn’t have the same impact as I’d had offensively — mainly because of the game plan they had, but that’s what it takes. I have to find ways to get through that and get around other teams’ game plans. I didn’t do that. I’m definitely going to be a better player. It’s all on me.

Beyond valuing his body — Brett Brown said Tuesday he believes Embiid will enter training camp “in the best shape that he’s been since he’s been a Philadelphia 76er” — Embiid has ideas in mind for how he’s going to build on a regular season in which he averaged 27.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game and started his second consecutive All-Star Game. 

He enjoys being labeled “the best big man in basketball,” and he’s called himself “unstoppable,” but he thinks he needs to expand his game. The three-point shot is not going to disappear from his repertoire, though he only shot 30 percent from long range this regular season on 4.1 attempts per game.

“You kind of have to get the ball out of my hands, and that’s what Toronto did,” he said. "I think the ball was in the air and there were already two guys on me the whole series. … I just can’t be a post player. I have to do more. I have the put the ball on the floor, which is probably going to bring my efficiency down, which is fine. 

If I’m open, like they always tell me, shoot it. If I’m not, find guys and get them open by setting screens, doing anything. I think I’m definitely going to turn into more of a complete NBA player.”

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2019 NBA free agent targets: Danny Green, Seth Curry among wing options for Sixers

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USA Today Images

2019 NBA free agent targets: Danny Green, Seth Curry among wing options for Sixers

June 30 at 6 p.m. is getting closer and closer.

After Paul Hudrick looked at free agent point guard options for the Sixers yesterday, we’ll review five wing options today.

We’re not going to touch on marquee names like Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, all of whom seem like distant possibilities for the Sixers. 

Danny Green

Green is a logical option for the Sixers, especially if JJ Redick departs. The 32-year-old shot 45.5 percent from three-point range last season and has a strong track record as both a shooter and a defender. He wasn’t at his best this postseason and didn’t see the floor during the Raptors’ decisive stretch in Game 5 of the Finals, but he has ample playoff experience and doesn’t shy away from taking big shots. 

Reggie Bullock 

Bullock is a tier below Green but might be in the Sixers’ price range. For his career, he’s a 39.2 percent shooter from long range, though his production and efficiency dipped after he was dealt from Detroit to the Lakers in February. While he’s played almost 30 minutes per game the past two seasons, Bullock would be well suited for a bench role in Philadelphia. If James Ennis were to sign elsewhere, Bullock would be a strong replacement.

Seth Curry 

You may be starting to sense a theme here. At 28 years old, Curry has firmly established himself as a legit NBA player, not just Steph’s brother. Again, his standout skill is his three-point shooting — 45 percent on 3.9 attempts per game for Portland last year. The Sixers hope Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle can be effective three-point shooters, but both still need to prove they’re capable in that area. Though a player like Curry might not be in Smith and Thybulle’s class athletically, you know you’d be getting an excellent shooter. 

Thabo Sefolosha 

Even at 35 years old, with his career presumably on its last legs, Sefolosha could help a contending team. He’s a long, smart player who does a lot of little things very well and posted a plus-8.6 net rating last season, higher than Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles. That’s not to say Sefolosha is better than those players, but it’s clear he’s not done quite yet. General manager Elton Brand said on draft night that he doesn’t want to lean too heavily on young players, so expect the Sixers to place a high value on reliable veterans. 

Garrett Temple 

One of Temple’s most attractive qualities for the Sixers would be his ability to defend multiple positions at 6-foot-6. He’s had some fluctuations as a shooter, with his career average at 35.3 percent. Temple likely wouldn’t immediately slot into the Sixers’ playoff rotation, but, if he can be had at a low price, would be a solid option off the bench. 

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After an odyssey of a rookie year, it's time for a proper introduction to Sixers' Zhaire Smith

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AP Images/Chris Szagola

After an odyssey of a rookie year, it's time for a proper introduction to Sixers' Zhaire Smith

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.

Months later, with Smith down 35 or so pounds and out of the hospital after a terrifying allergic reaction, he went in the gym, away from curious eyes, and put up shots with tubes in his stomach.

“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.


(Kevin Gallagher)

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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