76ers

Rookie Zhaire Smith an unlikely candidate to fill 'vacuum' created by James Ennis' injury

Rookie Zhaire Smith an unlikely candidate to fill 'vacuum' created by James Ennis' injury

A few months ago, the thought of Zhaire Smith getting warm applause from the Wells Fargo Center crowd as PA announcer Matt Cord announced he was checking in for his home debut — in a game against the NBA-best Bucks, no less — seemed improbable.

Smith, with a feeding tube in his stomach, was working on his shot not too long ago. He wasn’t close to a meaningful NBA game. Now, he’s not far from legitimate, non-garbage time playoff basketball.

James Ennis will be re-evaluated in approximately two weeks after aggravating a right quad contusion Wednesday night in Atlanta, the Sixers announced before tip-off against the Bucks. Ennis' injury created a hole in the Sixers' rotation, and Smith helped fill it vs. Milwaukee. 

He played 17 minutes and had six points, three rebounds and an assist in the Sixers' 128-122 loss Thursday to the Bucks (see observations). 

Smith’s night started on a high note, with him draining a three-pointer from the right wing 33 seconds after checking in, and the fans were poised to erupt again early in the fourth quarter when the rookie poked free a steal and took off toward the rim. 

Instead of a jubilant, high-flying dunk to put the Sixers ahead 96-88, Smith lost control of the ball as he went up and missed a layup. The Bucks grabbed the rebound, pushed the ball up the court, and cut the Sixers’ lead to three with D.J. Wilson’s three.

The sequence highlighted Smith’s fascinating blend of defensive ability, athleticism, rawness and rust, all of which Brown knows he has to weigh. 

Can he jump into NBA life quick? … Because he’s not a deer in headlights. This is a thing that I do like. He's not afraid of the moment. He touched the ball for 20 seconds and he made a three. It's just playing at a pace and dealing with reads on NBA athletes. … His breakaway layup — which really was a five-point swing — he had a great steal and kind of loses himself along that way, and that's just because he hasn't played basketball. So how quickly can he get into a rhythm of playing again? Because it's not like he's afraid. That's not it. That type of stuff I intend on growing over the next period of time, and who knows?  … With the vacuum of minutes now required to be filled, maybe he can grab some of those.

In the G League, the 19-year-old Smith had 11 games to develop confidence in his new jumper, sharpen his defensive skills, and get comfortable with the core principles of the Sixers’ offensive system. Blue Coats head coach Connor Johnson challenged Smith to be “an elite defender,” well aware that the Sixers were lacking players who could capably guard opposing ball handlers and hold their own in the pick-and-roll.

There’s no doubt Johnson and the Blue Coats helped prepare Smith for life in the NBA. In fact, Smith, Shake Milton and Jonah Bolden, all of whom suited up for the Blue Coats less than two weeks ago, combined for 55 of the Sixers’ 69 minutes off the bench Thursday.

The more pressing question for the Sixers is whether Smith can go from suffering a Jones fracture in his left foot, to enduring severe medical complications from an allergic reaction, to playing in the G League, to contributing in the NBA playoffs within a single season.

If Smith does indeed step into the rotation while Ennis is sidelined, his teammates have faith in him.

“We trust all our teammates,” JJ Redick said. “I love Zhaire's energy. I thought he actually played great tonight. When he had minutes the other night he played great, too. We have all the confidence in the world in him.”

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It sounds like Brett Brown has a long-term plan without Ben Simmons in mind

It sounds like Brett Brown has a long-term plan without Ben Simmons in mind

Updated: Tuesday, 5:09 p.m.

We now have a diagnosis on Ben Simmons' injury. Simmons suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back and will be re-evaluated in two weeks, a team source confirmed Tuesday to NBC Sports Philadelphia (see story). Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium first reported the news.

Speaking before the Sixers' win Monday night over the Hawks, head coach Brett Brown was unsure how long the injury would sideline Simmons. The 23-year-old sustained the injury at practice Wednesday going up for a rebound, according to Brown, and irritated it in the first quarter of Saturday night’s game against the Bucks.

“I don’t know,” Brown said. “And it really is like how long is a piece of string — who knows? Who knows? … Whatever the time equals on days, games, period of time, we can talk more honestly as this thing shakes out.”

However, it sounded as if Brown was preparing for his two-time All-Star point guard to be out for a while. He framed the situation as one the Sixers can cope with if other players take advantage of the chance to play expanded roles.

There’s 25 games left. … It’s an eternity,” he said. “Just keep going back to the end game. What’s the bottom line? I’ll say it again — if you get their health and their spirit, it’s got a chance to equal form. … And it’s all about landing the plane. And so with 25 games left, we’ve taken a hit with Ben. 

"I do see it this way. I’m not spinning it. It’s an opportunity for us to learn and something will emerge. And we need something to emerge. It’s not like we were all saying, ‘Oh, here it is, it’s anointed.’ It wasn’t that. So, I think we’re going to learn something and find something. If this was six games out, I wouldn’t be telling you this story. When it’s 25 games out, it is, with all my heart, what I think. That’s what I said to the team, that’s what I really think and that’s what I’m going to try to pull off.

Who specifically will take over ball handling duties? Brown said it “will be done by committee” for the time being, and he named a few players who he expects to be in that mix. Monday night, the team started Shake Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. 

“The candidates could be Raul Neto or [Furkan Korkmaz] or Alec Burks or J-Rich, Shake," he said. "So, you have capable people that aren’t traditional point guards but have the ability to get the ball up the floor. Then at that point, you’re probably going to have to be in something that has motion and continuity instead of just giving Chris Paul the ball and saying, ‘Go to work’ out of a pick-and-roll, as an example.”

Regardless of Brown’s attitude, the tangible impact of not having Simmons will clearly be significant. He leads the league in steals, has assisted on the most three-pointers and is a highly athletic, versatile and talented player.

The loss of all those attributes will no doubt be difficult to overcome.

“When there is a vacuum, as there is right now with Ben, something will happen,” Brown said. “Somebody will step up. I’m trying to see the world through those eyes, and I really do — it’s not even creative coach speak. I see it as an opportunity, and I think I need to see it that way.”

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons suffered nerve impingement in lower back

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons suffered nerve impingement in lower back

Ben Simmons suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back and will be re-evaluated in approximately two weeks, a team source confirmed Tuesday to NBC Sports Philadelphia. Simmons will undergo daily treatment. 

Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium first reported the news. 

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports “there's little expectation that [Simmons would] be ready to return to lineup that soon,” and says “doctors are hopeful treatment can drive improvement, but Sixers are preparing to play without him." 

According to head coach Brett Brown, Simmons was first injured at the team’s practice last Wednesday. The 23-year-old All-Star missed the team’s first game after the All-Star break, a win Thursday over the Nets. 

“It was a play where he went up for a rebound and I looked over and he left the court, and went and got treatment,” Brown said Thursday. “And it has played out as it has played out. We don’t believe it’s anything too significant.”

Simmons sat out the Sixers’ game vs. the Nets on Thursday and played Saturday in Milwaukee. He appeared to be in discomfort after drawing a foul in the first quarter on the Bucks’ Brook Lopez. The 23-year-old stayed in the game to make 1 of 2 free throws, then exited when Matisse Thybulle committed a foul to create a stoppage of play and ensure Simmons could return to the locker room.

Ahead of the game against the Bucks, Simmons had averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 assists, 7.9 rebounds and a league-best 2.2 steals. He’d played 36.3 minutes per game, most on the Sixers and third-highest in the NBA ahead of Saturday’s games. 

Brown talked before the Sixers’ win Monday over the Hawks as if he was prepared for a long-term absence. He said the team would split up ball handling responsibilities by committee, with Shake Milton, Josh Richardson and Alec Burks among the possible candidates. Milton started on Monday. 

The 36-22 Sixers are fifth in the Eastern Conference and play the Cavaliers on Wednesday night in Cleveland. 

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