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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