Zhaire Smith is 'a pogo stick,' hammering home advantages, more from Day 3 of Sixers training camp

Zhaire Smith is 'a pogo stick,' hammering home advantages, more from Day 3 of Sixers training camp

CAMDEN, N.J. — The 2019-20 Sixers play in front of their fans for the first time in two days, when the team will hold its annual Blue X White Scrimmage at 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware.

For now, the scrimmaging is mostly happening behind closed doors — unlike Wednesday, the media wasn’t permitted to watch any 5-on-5 action Thursday at Day 3 of training camp, just some individual shooting drills at the end of practice. 

Here are a couple of notes from Day 3: 

The ‘pogo stick’ jumps out 

Zhaire Smith started out as “just a skinny kid who could really, really jump,” his high school coach, JT Locklear, told NBC Sports Philadelphia in June.

Landry Shamet called him a “freak athlete” after a few days at summer league minicamp last July.

Josh Richardson recalled Wednesday that Smith had a block where he “came out of nowhere.”

Brett Brown, though, might have had the best description yet Thursday of the 20-year-old Smith.

Just a pogo stick. … You know, he had one or two plays today where you’re like, OK, just an incredibly gifted athlete. He's making some shots, he's playing hard. I think we're all going to enjoy, you know, how this plays out with Shake [Milton] and Furkan [Korkmaz] and Matisse [Thybulle] and Zhaire — that's an interesting group. And you know, when you talk about the young guys, I think that he's had a real bounce and has been excellent. Defensively, especially.

In May, Brown labeled Smith’s shot as “the thing that ultimately makes his package whole.”

It was interesting that Al Horford, instead of turning to Smith’s defense or athleticism when asked his thoughts on the 2018 first-round pick, first highlighted Smith’s jumper.

“He’s really shooting the ball well and that’s something that’s impressed me,” Horford said. “Probably coming into the league he wasn’t labeled as a shooter, but from what I’ve seen he’s shooting the ball really well, and that’s encouraging.”

Smith, with the assistance of Sixers player development coach Tyler Lashbrook, has done extensive work on his jumper after a rookie year that contained injury, a severe, terrifying allergic reaction and a grind behind the scenes to eventually return to the floor. 

The focus with his shot, Smith said, is “just the little things, not bringing it down and getting it off quicker.”

Here’s what it looked like Thursday:

We’ll surely have opportunities down the road to dissect the other names Brown included as part of the competition for bench minutes on the wing, but it’s worth noting Brown has consistently included Korkmaz. 

The third-year Turkish player said at media day he’d cut his body fat from as high as the 13-14 percent range to around 8 to 9 percent. Legitimate questions exist about whether Korkmaz can play passable defense, but Brown seems to find the outside shooting Korkmaz can theoretically provide appealing, and he praised the “swagger” he played with last season.

The 22-year-old averaged 5.8 points and 2.2 rebounds per game in 2018-19, shooting 32.6 percent from three-point range. You’d assume he’d have to increase that percentage significantly to earn a rotation spot.  

‘How are they going to match up versus us?’

“Arrogant” is far from the first word that comes to mind when you think of Tobias Harris or Horford. Both players, however, had answers that were high on confidence when asked how they expect opponents will approach playing against the Sixers’ starting forwards, who stand at 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-10, respectively. 

“I always say this: How are they going to match up versus us? Whoever’s out there, at the end of the day, they gotta match up versus us first,” Harris said. “We kind of are a team with our size, our skill and ability that can control the narrative on a lot of things that we want to do. Obviously there will be a lot of different schemes, playing teams that go small. They gotta guard us, also.”

At first, it appeared Horford was going to effortlessly deflect the question. He talked a bit about his focus being on learning the Sixers’ terminology and concepts, and said he felt “kind of like a rookie a little bit” with all the new information he was having to process. 

Then, Horford added, “Teams are going to have to do something, that’s for sure.”

Concerns about how the Sixers will cope with quickness disadvantages or what they’ll do to adjust when Harris or Horford face a difficult matchup defensively are valid. Still, it sounds like the Sixers recognize they have plenty that should concern opponents and are determined to hammer home their advantages.

Random observation: As Brown was walking over to meet with the media, Ben Simmons drained a half-court shot. His jumper was a popular topic Thursday (see story).

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Ben Simmons hitting a 3 is nice, but everything else he did in Sixers' win over Knicks even more impressive

Ben Simmons hitting a 3 is nice, but everything else he did in Sixers' win over Knicks even more impressive

Ben Simmons hit his first NBA three Wednesday night against the Knicks.

By the end of the game, it almost felt like a footnote to those who watched the entirety of the Sixers’ 109-104 win at the Wells Fargo Center Wednesday night (see observations). That’s because the Knicks stormed out of the halftime break with a 15-0 run and led by as many as 17 before Simmons willed the Sixers to the victory.

Sure, it was great to see Simmons hit the three.

But the defensive effort he gave and the way he ran the team in the third quarter showed what makes Simmons truly special.

I thought Ben's defensive intensity was as good as it's been,” Brett Brown said. “I think that him in his leadership, sort of controlling the game and giving him the freedom to make play calls after free throws, as an example, and him doing a great job of being smart of what that looked like. I thought he was outstanding with his presence. I really thought he helped change the whole landscape, especially in the second half.

The stat line looks good: 18 points (7 of 9 from the field, 3 of 4 from the line, 1 of 1 from three), 13 assists, seven rebounds, a block and a steal.

But that doesn’t even come close to telling the story. 

The Sixers were up two at the half on the Knicks, who were shooting the lights out. Then New York came out of the break guns blazing, led by guards Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. Furkan Korkmaz, starting for Josh Richardson, struggled mightily on the defensive end. Brown then turned to Shake Milton, who didn’t fare much better.

At that point, Brown stopped messing around and put Simmons on Ntilikina. Simmons not only stopped the bleeding defensively, he pushed the basketball up the floor at every turn.

With his unique skill set, Simmons has Defensive Player of the Year potential. His explosiveness and guard skills at his size are what made him the No. 1 overall pick and an All-Star.

Yes, it was against the Knicks, but all of that was on full display.

“I wouldn't say like my role, it's just how I am as a player,” Simmons said when asked about jumpstarting his team in the third. “I hate losing, hearing our fans boo — I mean, that annoys me also, that fuels the fire. So, for me, I'm all about winning. However I gotta get it done, I'm gonna get it done.”

Oh, and by the way, Simmons hit a three.

Early in the first quarter, Korkmaz took a couple dribbles to his right and got the ball to Simmons in the corner on a bounce pass. Then Simmons rose up with no hesitation and … swish. He then trotted down the other end of the court as if he’d made 100 threes before it.

It only took 172 games, but Simmons did it. When asked about his reaction, Simmons downplayed it in typical Simmons’ fashion.

“You saw my reaction,” Simmons deadpanned.

When pressed further, Simmons did admit that he was glad to see the fruits of his labor this summer pay off.

“I mean, it feels good. Yeah, you put work into something and it pays off.”

The Sixers have been unbelievably patient with Simmons’ unwillingness to shoot. So much so that there’s been criticism of Brown for not “forcing” Simmons to shoot more.

To hear Simmons tell it, it sure sounds like he’s grateful for his coach not going that route.

“I think it's getting better with time and different experiences,” Simmons said. “I think I'm just growing as a player and that's what happens when you give somebody a little bit more leeway and trust in them a little bit more.”

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Joel Embiid keeps his new vow, though he thinks technical and flagrant fouls are 'starting to get ridiculous'

Joel Embiid keeps his new vow, though he thinks technical and flagrant fouls are 'starting to get ridiculous'

Joel Embiid has one suspension in his career, a two-game verdict handed down by the NBA on Halloween for a fight with the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and subsequent “escalation” that included shadowboxing to the delight of the crowd at Wells Fargo Center and jabs on social media in the wee hours of the morning. If he’s true to his word, that will be his last.

That’s what Embiid said Wednesday night after a second-quarter incident with Marcus Morris in the Sixers’ 109-104 win over the Knicks for which he was assessed a technical foul and Morris was given both a technical and a Flagrant 1.

“Obviously get away from the whole situation, which I did,” Embiid said. “I backed away. I vowed to never get suspended again, so that’s never going to happen. I’ve gotta limit my technical fouls. If someone is going to push me on the ground, that’s something I can’t control. But what I can control is I can’t be the instigator and actually start it. Going to do my job. My teammates need me to be on the floor, so that’s what I believe.”

Embiid was strong in his criticism of the referees’ decision to give him a technical. 

I didn’t have anything with him. I just got thrown on the ground and I literally don’t know why I got a technical foul, being the victim. I didn’t do anything. I feel like it’s starting to get ridiculous with the flagrants. Even the last one — I mean, I make a play and they still call a flagrant. This one, I have nothing to do, and I get thrown on the ground, and I get a technical foul. … It’s just annoying.

In the midst of his comments, he seemed to catch himself. A player who wants to avoid fines, suspensions and the like would probably be wise to adopt a more diplomatic approach.

“I feel like we’re all humans,” he continued. “Referees, they’re great guys, they’re great people. Maybe they see something else. I guess I trust whatever they feel that they see.”

Brett Brown surely remembered what happened in a near-identical spot on the floor a little over three weeks earlier, when much of his team ended up in an angry mass of bodies on the ground after Embiid and Towns got tied up. He was quick Wednesday night to plant himself between Morris and Embiid, extending his arms just in case it was necessary to separate the two. He was pleased with Embiid’s response.

“I was happy with that,” he said. “He had the maturity to walk away.”

Though trouble does seem to find Embiid, it would be naive to attribute his history with technical and flagrant fouls solely to bad luck. The two-time All-Star gets under the skin of opponents, embellishes contact, lets overmatched and undersized opponents know they cannot stop him. 

“He’s too big to be flopping,” Morris told reporters. “Just flopping and then grabbing. I’m not the one that’s going to take that. He knows that. He knows what I’m about.” 

The idea of Embiid avoiding such drama completely in the future sounds improbable. But for Embiid, the goal of having his absences be due exclusively to load management, not league-mandated punishment, is reasonable enough.

He said he’ll play in the Sixers’ upcoming home back-to-back, Friday vs. San Antonio and Saturday vs. the Miami Heat and his friend Jimmy Butler. 

So far, so good on that vow.

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