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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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Joel Embiid is finding a balance with his duality

Joel Embiid is finding a balance with his duality

A couple weeks ago, Joel Embiid scared the hell out of Sixers fans with his cryptic tweet quoting the Batman villain Two-Face.

It was the same quote used by his friend Jimmy Butler while he was toiling away in Minnesota. In retrospect, the character Embiid was referencing was appropriate.

While Embiid has struggled with his own duality this season, he’s seemed to have found a balance recently as evidenced by his 49-point performance in the Sixers’ 129-112 win Monday (see observations).

I said that I was gonna get back to having fun,” Embiid said. “Having fun comes in different forms. I don't always have to be smiling or laughing all the time. I can have fun just dominating the game. Obviously tonight was just one of those nights where I was having fun like the old days. Just having fun with the crowd. Some nights, I just might want to dominate and stay quiet.

Indeed, Embiid did appear to be having an awful lot of fun out there. Then again, it’s easy to when you’re dominating the way the All-Star center did.

His 49 points were the most scored by a Sixer since Allen Iverson put up 53 against Atlanta on Dec. 23 of 2005. The only other players in franchise history to put up 49 points and 14 rebounds are Hall of Famers, Moses Malone, Wilt Chamberlain and Dolph Schayes. 

While we’ve known that Embiid is capable of nights like this, there haven’t been as many of these types of performances as there have been in the past. The last time Embiid truly took over a game in the fashion he did against the Nets last week and the Hawks Monday was in a big road win in Boston in mid-December.

You might recall that happened after Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal called Embiid’s effort level out. Embiid admitted then that he wasn’t having as much fun this season as he had in the past. Unfortunately for the Sixers and Embiid, the 25-year-old big man still couldn’t find consistency before suffering a torn ligament in the ring finger on his left hand.

When Embiid returned after a nine-game absence, he still wasn’t quite right. The splint on his left hand was clearly giving him trouble and he was letting it affect other aspects of his game. Embiid said prior to the matchup against the Clippers before the break that he needed to have a different mindset. He proceeded to play well that night.

Though he wanted to clarify his “best player in the world” comments from after the win over Brooklyn — although he kind of didn’t — the All-Star Game seemed to give him a different level of confidence.

What I said was that All-Star Game, fourth quarter, I'm out there with some of the guys that I consider the best players in the world and I'm out there just dominating,” Embiid said. “So to me, I just felt like that was a chance for me to prove that I deserve being in that conversation of being the best player in the world. 

“But like I said tonight, if I play like that every night … I mean, what more can you say? I just gotta keep on doing it. I know I'm not, but I do believe it because I gotta prove it. I gotta win. My goal is to win a championship. That's how you prove that you are the best.

The whole winning thing may be more difficult for at least the foreseeable future. We’re still awaiting an update on Ben Simmons, who irritated a lower back injury on Saturday night in Milwaukee. Simmons is still being evaluated and the team and his representation are working together to decide a course of action, per a team spokesperson.

With Simmons out and the team sitting in fifth in the Eastern Conference, the Sixers are going to need Embiid to play like this over the last 24 games of the season and beyond.

“He knows it more than I can say it,” Brett Brown said. “We talked a little bit about it. With the news on Ben and him not being here, it’s clear he’s gotta come out and he’s gotta play like he did tonight, for the most part. Nobody’s asking him to get 50 every night, but his mentality is the thing that most impressed me. And we saw the same thing against Brooklyn. We’re all going to point to the numbers and this and that. The bottom line is this: When he comes out with that activity, that energy, that mentality, he makes a statistician work and we will win a lot of games.”

So which Embiid can we expect? Whichever version gives the Sixers the best chance to win.

I think I'm finding that balance of sometimes having fun, smiling, and sometimes just being serious and just doing my job, and I can do my job smiling and I can do my job being serious. I don't know. I don't control it. Sometimes I'm gonna mix it, but at the end of the day, whatever gets us the win, that's all I care about.

Harvey Dent. Two-Face. The Process. JoJo.

After a night like Monday, you can just call him dominant.

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Tobias Harris was 'battling through it a little bit,' so why did he play vs. Hawks?

Tobias Harris was 'battling through it a little bit,' so why did he play vs. Hawks?

Tobias Harris played in 82 games last season, 80 the year before that and 82 in 2016-17. This year, he’s taken part in all 58 Sixers games and has totaled 1,997 minutes, third-most in the NBA.

It sure seems like it would have made sense for Monday to be a rare night off. 

Instead, Harris suited up and scored 25 points in the Sixers’ 129-112 victory over the Hawks (see observations). He’d been originally listed as doubtful with a right knee contusion, then upgraded to questionable in the middle of the day, and made available after his typical workout wrapped up about two hours before the game. 

The Sixers had kept Harris in the game Saturday night against the Bucks after he appeared to injure his knee on a second-quarter drive, grabbing at it and coming up gimpy.

So, how was his knee feeling after the win over Atlanta? 

“Obviously still battling through it a little bit,” he said. “I always say if I can give anything to help my team win, any percentage where I feel like I’m not putting myself in danger, then I’m going to go out there and play and be effective.”

That doesn’t sound great … 

Let’s give the Sixers the benefit of the doubt on all fronts here. Let’s acknowledge that we are not medical experts and the professionals on the Sixers’ staff are most qualified to make decisions on these matters. Let’s assume the team was sure playing Harris wouldn’t do him future harm.

His desire to compete despite not feeling his best is commendable, but it’s also common in high-level athletes.

“Any time I get on the floor and I’m up and down, it’s no excuses — you’re 100 percent,” he said. “That’s kind of how I look at it. Yesterday I was probably like 60. Today in the morning, 70. And then game time, 100. So, that’s how I go about it.”

If we just take Harris at his word, a player — one in the first year of a five-year, $180 million contract — played after assessing himself at around 70 percent health the morning of the game, being doubtful the day before, and having run up and down the floor many times two nights prior following an injury that immediately caused him to hold his knee. 

The situation would, of course, be different if this had been a playoff matchup or a game the Sixers needed to win to secure a postseason spot. But this was a February game against a 17-win team. 

It was uncomfortably close for much of the second half because of a poor third quarter, and Harris helped the Sixers win, sure. And yes, the Sixers, who are currently fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, can’t afford to drop games to inferior opponents if they want to gain home court advantage.

Still, those factors don’t equate to Harris’ presence being necessary or advisable.

Especially in the context of Ben Simmons’ irritating his lower back injury Saturday night, the thought of playing another injured starter, one who admitted he was “battling through it a little bit,” is open to scrutiny. Simmons' injury falls under that category, too.

Even if there are no long-term consequences and the only impact of Harris playing Monday night is the Sixers having had a better chance to beat the Hawks, the decision has to give one — again, an observer without access to expert medical knowledge or all the pertinent information — some pause.

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