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Sixers' Zhaire Smith is 'hunting 3s' in the G League

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AP Images/Matt Rourke

Sixers' Zhaire Smith is 'hunting 3s' in the G League

Zhaire Smith pump faked, took two strong dribbles from the baseline to the rim, slammed the ball through the hoop and flexed his muscles. 

A casual fan settling in for the Delaware Blue Coats’ 119-109 win Monday afternoon over the South Bay Lakers at 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware, would have seen a bouncy, athletic young player.

But, after making four of eight three-point shots Monday, Smith explained that he’s aiming to be more than that.

“I’m trying to hunt threes now, I’m not trying to go to the rim and dunk,” he said with a grin. “I’m being lazy now, trying to shoot the threes. Give me three-balls.”

The 20-year-old wing has shot 36.6 percent from three-point range in 18 games this season with the Blue Coats, though that number is skewed by a 4-for-18 start. He’s made 41.5 percent since Dec. 3.

Smith hasn’t appeared in an NBA game for the Sixers in his second professional season. He was preoccupied with recovering from a broken foot and a severe allergic reaction for much of his rookie year after being acquired by the Sixers in a draft-night trade.

“He’s expecting me to develop all around,” Smith said on Oct. 18 of Brett Brown’s plan for him. “Last year we tried to develop, but then obviously I had the setback. He feels like this is my rookie year, like this is [about] development.” 

Smith thinks he’s making progress.

I feel like I’ve improved a lot,” he said Monday. “Especially last year — last year was kind of like rehab. But looking back to my freshman year of college, I feel like I’ve made a big jump. I feel like I’m improving. … Shooting, ball handling and just being confident. Especially playing the guard position. Looking back at Texas Tech, I was playing the four and three. So, [now] I’m on the wing and I’m improving. It’s coming quickly.

Smith’s shot is one of the biggest differences in his game. He released the ball from over the top of his head in the summer of 2018.

Then, he compensated for his weight loss after the allergic reaction by moving the ball over to the right.

His current form involves a bit of a load back into the shot pocket, but it’s been working for him lately. 

He was able to produce shots from a variety of situations Monday — catching and firing off good passes, jab stepping or shot faking before releasing off bad ones.

“I thought Zhaire shot really well from three,” Blue Coats head coach Connor Johnson said. “I thought his shots looked out of sync and out of rhythm. Recently, he’s not getting these catch and let ‘em go — he’s catch, hold it a second, jab step sort of stuff. But to me the more important part is he’s making them. His form looks good and he’s confident.

"We’ve gotta find more ways to get him easier catch and shoot, rhythm threes, but at the end of the day he’s knocking them down at a high rate lately, which is really good to see.”

As the Blue Coats prepared to take the floor for the start of the second half, assistant coach Xavier Silas approached Smith for a few words, which Smith quietly digested.

A couple of minutes later, Smith caught the ball in the left corner, faked a jumper and drove into the body of 6-foot-10 Kostas Antetokounmpo. His layup attempt glanced off the rim and out of bounds.

“Hey, Zhaire — that’s great,” assistant coach Isaiah Fox yelled out from the sidelines, rising from his seat. “That’s great! Do it again.” 

In the G League, Smith can get that kind of feedback and encouragement in an environment where his mistakes don’t jeopardize the Sixers’ chances of winning high-stakes games.

“[The coaches] always just tell me ‘be aggressive,’” he said.

It’s very possible Smith’s first extended opportunity in the NBA won’t come in Philadelphia. Though the Sixers decided to pick up his third-year option, it seems there is no place for him at the moment on the team’s bench. 

And, with the Feb. 6 trade deadline nearing, he’d appear to have some value for another team intrigued by his potential and curious if he can one day reach his high ambitions.

He claims he doesn’t have much time to follow the Sixers or worry about what their situation might mean for his future. 

“Focusing on what’s happening right now,” he said. “When I have an off day or something and I’m not doing anything, I’ll watch the Sixers. I try my best to watch them, but usually I’m busy.”

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How to watch Sixers at Blazers: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

How to watch Sixers at Blazers: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

Updated: 12:18 p.m. 

The Sixers are 7-5 this year without Ben Simmons, who will have surgery to remove a loose body in his left knee. They’ll aim to improve to 43-27 overall on Sunday night when they play the 32-39 Portland Trail Blazers. 

Glenn Robinson III is questionable with a left hip pointer and the only Sixer besides Simmons on the injury report. Hassan Whiteside (left hip strain) is out for Portland

Here are the essentials for Sunday’s game: 

When: 6:30 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 6 
Where: Visa Athletic Center 
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

Distant memories 

The Sixers came back from a 21-point second-half deficit to win their first meeting with the Blazers this season back on Nov. 2. Furkan Korkmaz’s three-pointer from the right corner with 0.4 seconds to go lifted them to 5-0

There are few similarities between the situation that night and this one, other than that the Sixers were missing a star and relied more heavily than usual on Al Horford. With Joel Embiid serving a suspension after fighting with the Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns, Horford had 25 points, seven assists, five rebounds and one turnover. Tobias Harris posted 23 points on 10 for 15 shooting. 

Seeding implications 

As the playoffs draw nearer, the standings remain bunched at several spots in both conferences. 

The No. 6 seed Sixers are a half-game behind both the Pacers and Heat, who will play each other on Monday night. Since the Sixers have dropped their season series against Indiana and Miami, they’d lose a potential tiebreaker. 

Portland’s main concern is qualifying for the playoffs. After falling to the Clippers on Saturday despite Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent all scoring over 20 points, the Blazers are ninth in the Western Conference, 1.5 games behind the Grizzlies and a half-game ahead of the Suns and Spurs. If the eighth and ninth seeds are within four games of each other at the end of the seeding games, those two teams will have a play-in tournament.

What’s the response? 

We highlighted four main on-court issues for the Sixers to consider without Simmons here

On a more fundamental level, it’ll be interesting to see how the team reacts to learning that one of its two All-Stars will undergo knee surgery. Brett Brown talks frequently about wanting to maintain his team’s “spirit.” That will be tested yet again.

“You’re numb to it,” he said as Simmons was considering treatment options before Friday’s game. “You just move. It ends up, as I’ve said, like ready, fire, aim. You figure it out. You take something and you figure it out, you coach who you have. And I do genuinely believe that this can galvanize our group and bring us, in a sort of inverted way, together, knowing that Ben is not going to be with us.”

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Four main issues to consider for Sixers with Ben Simmons to undergo knee surgery

Four main issues to consider for Sixers with Ben Simmons to undergo knee surgery

A rational response to the news Saturday that Ben Simmons will have surgery to remove a loose body from his left knee is that it’s time to recalibrate expectations for the Sixers. 

The notion of a championship run naturally dims with the loss of an All-Star. With four seeding games to go before the playoffs, the Sixers will have to address the myriad of concerns raised by Simmons’ absence.

Let’s dissect four main issues: 

Guarding stars 

When games this season have been on the line, Simmons has often helped the Sixers seize control with excellent defense on the opponent’s best playmaker. His versatility has also enabled the Sixers to give other players favorable matchups.

Who takes on the job of defending top scoring threats late in games? It will presumably be dictated by matchups — for instance, you’d think Joel Embiid and Al Horford would guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, while Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle would split time on Jayson Tatum. There’s no default answer anymore, and it’ll be a bigger challenge to “hide” players like Furkan Korkmaz.

Horford in the spotlight 

The instinctive reaction when a team loses a player of Simmons’ caliber is that everyone else needs to "step up." That’s fair enough, and yet much of the attention will shift specifically to Horford.

He started in Simmons’ place on Friday and played well, scoring 21 points and grabbing nine rebounds. His much-scrutinized pairing with Embiid is the only Sixers duo with at least 300 minutes together this year to have a negative net rating. In 60 Horford-Embiid minutes at Disney World, though, the Sixers have a plus-9.2 net rating. 

Notably, the presence of Simmons has had a negative effect on the Horford-Embiid pairing, at least offensively. The team has a 98.7 offensive rating when Horford, Embiid and Simmons have played together, by far the worst of any three-man group. Perhaps removing Simmons from the equation and losing another player whose preferred territory is near the rim in the process will help Horford-Embiid lineups score efficiently. 

When Brett Brown was asked what he found out about his team Friday night with Simmons sidelined, Horford was the first name that came to his mind. 

“You can’t help but feel an emerging Al Horford,” he said. “It’s clear that he understands we need him more than we ever have needed him.” 

Post-ups and 3s 

During the eight-game stretch in late February and early March when Simmons was out with a nerve impingement in his back, the Sixers fired up 35.8 three-point attempts per game and converted 42.3 percent. They’ve posted up far more than any other team and have the league’s best high-volume post player in Embiid. Without Simmons, a blend of Embiid post touches and more three-point attempts from players such as Richardson and Tobias Harris would make sense. 

Brown has requested throughout the year that Harris and Richardson “hunt threes." The Sixers, however, are 20th in three-point attempts per game out of the 22 teams in Florida. There has to be a collective willingness to shoot from beyond the arc, and a reduction in the low-efficiency plays where an open three turns into a contested two. 

Embiid’s averages at Disney World are 30 points, 13.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s attempted 11.4 free throws per game and facilitated for teammates well when powering through a double team isn’t the smart play.

“(He has) the willingness and unselfishness, born with the confidence of ‘I know where my teammates are coming,’ under a backdrop of a poise and a patience — it’s ball to chin, tuck it in stuff you’d teach young players — and he’s figuring stuff out quite quickly — like real quickly,” Brown said before Friday’s game.

“All of those things, when you add them all up, equal a team offense. Arguably the best play that J-Rich can have or Tobias can have is throw the ball into Jo and they’re probably going to double, and then it’s coming back out.” 

Creativity required 

The Sixers’ unofficial mantra this year has been “built for the playoffs.” They maintained faith that talent, size and defense would prevail in the postseason. 

Being down a star should change that. Against the Celtics, Bucks or Raptors, Brown may need to adopt unorthodox strategies if feeding Embiid, relying on the big man to protect the rim and asking Thybulle and Richardson to shut down perimeter scorers is ineffective. 

That could look like blitzing the pick-and-roll if Kemba Walker is giving Richardson trouble. It could mean calling some double drag actions with Embiid and Horford if the defense is denying the Cameroonian and Horford is knocking down jumpers and distributing sharply as a pick-and-pop guy.

Perhaps Brown could ask for spurts of full-court pressure with Thybulle on the floor in an effort to force turnovers, spark transition offense and boost the rookie’s disruptive abilities. If Alec Burks is hot and Milton is making poised, intelligent decisions, Brown could play the two ball handlers together, as he did Friday at the start of the fourth quarter.

Philosophically, Brown likes letting his players figure things out for themselves and setting them up in “environments” over calling a ton of plays. He may now have to embrace greater proactivity and innovation. 

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