76ers

Top takeaways from Sixers' press conference with Josh Harris, Elton Brand

Top takeaways from Sixers' press conference with Josh Harris, Elton Brand

CAMDEN, N.J. — It's been a whirlwind 48 hours for the Sixers.

After getting bounced in Game 7 in the second round on a Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beater Sunday night, the team returned to their practice facility in Camden for exit interviews.

On Tuesday, managing partner Josh Harris and GM Elton Brand addressed Brett Brown's future, the health of Joel Embiid and much more.

Here are four takeaways from today's availability:

Brett Brown's future

Reports surfaced before Game 7 that Brown may have been coaching for his job. Late Monday, the team confirmed that Brown would return for his seventh season.

"I think a lot's been made about this in the press and truthfully you can't believe what you're reading or what you're hearing," Harris said. "Brett's job was never in jeopardy. We were very focused on the playoffs and yeah, we declined to get into a lot of questions that people were asking us, but I have great relationship with Brett. He's been our coach for six years. I've talked with him constantly through the playoffs, including last night in terms of planning for the future. We have been and continue to be excited that Brett is leading us."

The timing of it all was certainly odd. 

It's fair to wonder why the team didn't address the rumors sooner, putting to bed any notion that Brown's job may have been in jeopardy. Harris mentioned that the team was focused on the playoffs as a reason for not addressing the situation.

When pressed if Brown had known his job was safe, Harris didn't give a definitive answer at first, just saying that he "had a lot of conversations with Brett that put us into a good place." In the middle of answering another question, Harris had a more straight answer.

"Just going back to [that question], Brett knew through the Toronto series that his job was not in jeopardy. Let's be really direct about it."

When asked about why his players felt the need to come out and defend their coach on Monday, Harris doubled down on the notion that the report was false.

"Brett knew he was not coaching for his job through the Toronto series and otherwise. You can ask him," Harris said. "I think obviously there was a lot of noise in the press, probably kicked up by our competitors, who knows? I think we made an appropriate decision not to respond to all the rumors and innuendo, all the incorrect facts that were out there.

"We always respect the opinions of our players. It's good to hear that they were on board for it. It was an emotional moment and so I'm glad they came out in support of our coach. It's great."

When asked for an evaluation of Brown, Harris gave him an "A."

Joel's health

Joel Embiid's health is paramount to everything the Sixers do going forward. He is their best player and his impact was made even clearer in the Toronto series — especially when he wasn't on the floor.

Whether it was the tendinitis in his left knee or illnesses that plagued him, the Sixers didn't get the best of Embiid in the postseason. Load management will be a priority for Embiid next season.

"He's one of the top players in the world so it's a unique situation where he didn't play early on in his career so when he had a chance to play and he was healthy he was like 'I'm out there,'" Brand said. "Now, he sees what other players have done, he spoke to other players, he saw how he felt in the playoffs, which is the most important time, and he doesn't want to go there [like that] again. So absolutely we're going to monitor minutes, we're going to monitor workload and he's on board for all of that."

Much has been made about Embiid's diet and the plan going forward. Brand claimed he had not heard the infamous story about his Chick-Fil-A orders, but said there is a nutrition plan in place.

"I didn't see the four chicken sandwich story," Brand said. "Four chicken sandwiches…yeah, I guess that's a lot. I haven't heard that story, but I know he's focused on his body. He's very intelligent. He eats salmon, he eats vegetables — when he's locked in, he's locked in. He knows he can do it and he knows what he has to do. An actual target weight, we'll decide that together and see where he wants to be, where needs to be, not just what's best for next season, but postseason and long term."

Ben's shot

No matter what Ben Simmons does, until he develops a jump shot, he's going to be under scrutiny. Brand was peppered with questions about Simmons' shot and his plans to improve.

Simmons has worked with his brother on his jumper and Brand has no issue with it.

"I would never ask him not to work with his brother," Brand said. "What he wants to do personally on his time that's on his time. He's not doing that on our time. He works with our coaches during our time. I have a great relationship with his agent Rich Paul and he also has people that he wants him to work with. We're looking for the best in class for him to work with so we're putting that together."

Pending free agents

Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris were both acquired in trades and both are pending free agents. 

Brand said he was pleased with what both players brought. As far as finances, Harris reiterated that ownership is not afraid to go over the luxury tax for the right players.

"That was the goal — to bring in talent, elite talent, All-Star-caliber talent," Brand said. "We tried to accumulate that with the assets that we sent out. Management, Josh and Dave [Blitzer], are committed to giving me the resources to spend if necessary to get to a championship level and win championships."

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2019 NBA free agent targets: Danny Green, Seth Curry among wing options for Sixers

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USA Today Images

2019 NBA free agent targets: Danny Green, Seth Curry among wing options for Sixers

June 30 at 6 p.m. is getting closer and closer.

After Paul Hudrick looked at free agent point guard options for the Sixers yesterday, we’ll review five wing options today.

We’re not going to touch on marquee names like Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, all of whom seem like distant possibilities for the Sixers. 

Danny Green

Green is a logical option for the Sixers, especially if JJ Redick departs. The 32-year-old shot 45.5 percent from three-point range last season and has a strong track record as both a shooter and a defender. He wasn’t at his best this postseason and didn’t see the floor during the Raptors’ decisive stretch in Game 5 of the Finals, but he has ample playoff experience and doesn’t shy away from taking big shots. 

Reggie Bullock 

Bullock is a tier below Green but might be in the Sixers’ price range. For his career, he’s a 39.2 percent shooter from long range, though his production and efficiency dipped after he was dealt from Detroit to the Lakers in February. While he’s played almost 30 minutes per game the past two seasons, Bullock would be well suited for a bench role in Philadelphia. If James Ennis were to sign elsewhere, Bullock would be a strong replacement.

Seth Curry 

You may be starting to sense a theme here. At 28 years old, Curry has firmly established himself as a legit NBA player, not just Steph’s brother. Again, his standout skill is his three-point shooting — 45 percent on 3.9 attempts per game for Portland last year. The Sixers hope Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle can be effective three-point shooters, but both still need to prove they’re capable in that area. Though a player like Curry might not be in Smith and Thybulle’s class athletically, you know you’d be getting an excellent shooter. 

Thabo Sefolosha 

Even at 35 years old, with his career presumably on its last legs, Sefolosha could help a contending team. He’s a long, smart player who does a lot of little things very well and posted a plus-8.6 net rating last season, higher than Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles. That’s not to say Sefolosha is better than those players, but it’s clear he’s not done quite yet. General manager Elton Brand said on draft night that he doesn’t want to lean too heavily on young players, so expect the Sixers to place a high value on reliable veterans. 

Garrett Temple 

One of Temple’s most attractive qualities for the Sixers would be his ability to defend multiple positions at 6-foot-6. He’s had some fluctuations as a shooter, with his career average at 35.3 percent. Temple likely wouldn’t immediately slot into the Sixers’ playoff rotation, but, if he can be had at a low price, would be a solid option off the bench. 

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After an odyssey of a rookie year, it's time for a proper introduction to Sixers' Zhaire Smith

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AP Images/Chris Szagola

After an odyssey of a rookie year, it's time for a proper introduction to Sixers' Zhaire Smith

There was a time during Zhaire Smith’s odyssey of a rookie season when he preferred not to be seen in public. 

When Sixers player development coach Tyler Lashbrook met Smith last summer, Smith had recently turned 19 years old and was excited about playing in summer league. The 6-foot-4 guard was healthy, around 200 pounds, described by his teammates as a “freak athlete” and showing early glimpses of why the Sixers acquired him in a draft-night trade.

Months later, with Smith down 35 or so pounds and out of the hospital after a terrifying allergic reaction, he went in the gym, away from curious eyes, and put up shots with tubes in his stomach.

“It’s so understandable,” Lashbrook said to NBC Sports Philadelphia. “This is such a business where it’s mano a mano. You don’t want to be seen by your teammates, you don’t want to be seen by the public. I understand all that — you don’t want to be seen like that. I always told him, ‘I don’t care, dude. It doesn’t matter to me. We’re still going to be able to get better, even though you lost some weight.’” 

Smith is 20 years old now, carrying a few more pounds of muscle than when he was drafted, and thrilled again about the prospects of summer-league basketball. He’ll be on the Sixers’ team in Las Vegas, according to a source. 

“Just to see where I’m at,” Smith said at his exit interview on May 13 of playing in summer league. “See if I still got it. It’s been awhile.”

As a rookie, Smith played 116 NBA minutes, if you count two very brief playoff appearances. It was, in his words, “a long journey” to return to the sport he’s obsessively devoted to. 

But Smith isn’t dwelling on all the suffering — the broken foot in August, the allergic reaction in September, the conversations with Lashbrook in his hospital bed. Sometimes the two would watch film and Lashbrook would ask Smith what he saw. Mostly, Lashbrook said, Zhaire’s mom, Andrea, just needed a break here and there and he was happy to sit with someone he’d grown to love.


(USA Today Images/Mark J. Rebilas)

JT Locklear, Smith’s head coach at Lakeview Centennial High School in Garland, Texas, calls Smith “one of my favorite topics to talk about.” 

Smith himself, though, didn’t talk much to Locklear in the early years of their relationship.

“I’m not sure he said 10 words to me our first two years together,” Locklear said in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. “His freshman and sophomore years he was extremely quiet.”

The two did have a discussion — it may have been rather one-sided — after Smith missed making the varsity team as a freshman. Locklear was immediately sold on Smith’s athleticism, but the teenager didn’t have much in the way of basketball skills and Locklear told him as much. 

“He was just a skinny kid who could really, really jump,” Locklear said.

And Smith, according to his coach, “took that personally.”

He really put the work in shooting the ball over that summer, working on his ball handling, being able to make decisions — he’s always been a good passer, it was just putting the other parts of his game together to allow him to play at the varsity level. And every year he got better. … It was about Christmas of his junior year when the light bulb went off, where he got the confidence to just take off. 

He bought into the fact that he had to go out and make 500 shots a day, which he did. His shot when he walked in as a freshman was not real pretty to look at. Over the course of the next three years he really developed a lot of confidence by just getting in the gym, allowing us to coach him, allowing us to mold him. He did a great job of buying into it. 

By Smith’s senior year, Locklear recalls, he shot over 40 percent from three-point range, guarded centers out of necessity, did a little bit of everything offensively and elevated himself from unranked recruit to a scholarship at Texas Tech. A year later, he was a first-round pick.


(Kevin Gallagher)

Like his jumper as a freshman in high school, the first shot of Smith’s professional career was not pretty. It was hideous, in fact, a three-point attempt from the left wing that thudded hard off the backboard in front of 2,310 fans on a spring Friday evening in Portland, Maine.

He didn’t stop shooting, though, scoring 12 points and knocking down a mid-range jumper a couple of nights later in his home debut for the Delaware Blue Coats. 

Smith’s explosiveness was intact but the form on his shot had clearly changed. He’d moved his release point over to the right side of his head.

“That just came naturally when I lost all that weight,” he said. “When I hit the gym for the first time, right when I put it up, it was just right there. It’s just been there ever since — it just came natural. I didn’t really put it there. It came there alone, by itself.”

Lashbrook asked Smith about his new form and got the same response. From there, the two attacked the challenge of rebuilding Smith’s jumper.

I didn’t want to make it a big deal,” Lashbrook said. "It didn’t need to be a big deal. It happened and we were going to work through it. And remember now, he can’t be cleared to do everything immediately. You can’t do full-speed reps, so we had little mental cues to start bringing it back to where it is now and where it was. I didn’t push it or make it a big deal when it was early in his process because he couldn’t really go at the necessary speed to fix it. So once we got to that point — to his credit, the kid works so hard — it was never going to be that big of a deal, I didn’t think. He puts so much effort and time into everything that any issue he had is going to be fixed. And all it is at that point is repetition, quality over quantity and good reps.

The two drilled the fundamentals of footwork, following through and consistent form. Eventually, Lashbrook said, “it just reverted back to where he’s comfortable.”

Smith made the first jumper of his NBA career, a three-pointer from the top of the key in Orlando.

His shot figures to be an important component of his game next season, though his defense remains his calling card.

That’s always been the part of basketball Smith values most, and it just so happens to be where he’s most talented.

“That kind of goes along with his athletic ability,” Locklear said. “At the high-school level it was almost unfair because he was so fast that he could make a little bit of a mistake defensively and then make up for it just because he could beat you to the place on the floor you wanted to get to. More importantly, if you went up he was going to jump a foot and a half, two feet over you. … He’s truly, truly gifted there.”

He's gifted, yes, and already savvy when it comes to the nuances of fighting through or dropping under ball screens, pick-and-roll coverages and funneling his man in a specific direction. It helps that he has a knack for learning at a rapid pace. 

However, Smith isn’t satisfied with where he’s at defensively.

“Every goal he’s ever told me about what he wants to do has to do with defense," Lashbrook said. "‘I want to be All-Defense. That’s what I want to do.’ Love it. Love to hear that. Absolutely, man. Let’s do it. That’s a fun thing to hear from somebody. Especially when he’s so young, to know that’s what he cares about is really something.”

The final question of Smith’s exit interview was about Kawhi Leonard, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Smith’s favorite player and the man who’d just knocked the Sixers out of the playoffs in devastating fashion.

Smith had said a minute earlier that he was focused on “becoming the best me.”

But, when asked whether he thought he could develop into a player at or near Leonard’s caliber, Smith didn’t wait a second before answering.

“I feel like I’ll probably be better than him,” he said.

After a collective laugh from the stunned assembled media, Smith added with a smile, “I’ll try.”

In retrospect, there are plenty of reasons to believe Smith was serious.

Locklear said Smith is “one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met,” and it sounds like that’s the case for Lashbrook, as well.

He sees one of his main responsibilities as directing Smith’s hunger to get better in the right directions.

“I’ve heard this from several of our coaches: You’d rather have a kid who you have to rein in than one you have to amp up,” Lashbrook said. “Z, you have to rein him in. For me, it was always channeling that work ethic of, ‘I want to be in the gym for two hours’ to, ‘I want to be in the gym for an hour at a higher speed, at a higher game rep.’ It was about taking that energy and making it concise and efficient in his workouts more than length of time. The kid works hard. He gets excited.”

The short-term reality is Smith likely is not going to be better than Leonard, the reigning NBA Finals MVP, next season. He does, however, have an opportunity to play a prominent role on a championship-contending team. The Sixers have a heap of unrestricted free agents. Outside of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jonah Bolden, Smith and rookie Matisse Thybulle, the roster is uncertain.

Lashbrook thinks Smith can be a shutdown defender in 2019-20.

“From my position, I think he’s capable of doing anything defensively,” he said. “Anything. I hope that he believes the same thing and I hope he’s able to show the bench coaches that that’s what he does. I think he definitely can guard the best player.”

Head coach Brett Brown gave an extended, impassioned answer about Smith's chances of being a key part of the rotation during his end-of-season press conference.

Do I think he can factor into next year? Yes, I do. … His perseverance and love of basketball is completely evident. The kid lives in a gym. Because of that he’s been able to, with the help of Tyler Lashbrook, improve the shot that people questioned. That will be the thing that ultimately makes his package whole. I think that is improving. We saw, albeit in brief glimpses, he’s not gun-shy. He’s not afraid of the stage. He’s not afraid of the environment. He plays. He has that human characteristic, that personality trait, that lets him not worry so much, ‘how’s my shot look? How’s my shot look?' … Then, there is an athleticism that allows him to play defense. 

If we need to do anything, we need to play defense in this city. … And so with Zhaire Smith, I think it’s a huge summer for him, and he understands it completely. 

    ****

If you ask about Smith, you’re bound to get some good stories — about the athletic feats, the resilience through trauma, the sense of humor behind the scenes. 

His father, Billy Ray, has his own story to tell. After surgery to address a herniated disc in 2013 went wrong, Billy Ray was a paraplegic.

Zhaire inspired Billy Ray to push himself out of his wheelchair.

"When I saw him, he wasn't able to speak of course and he wasn't able to walk,” Billy Ray told Jon Sokoloff of Fox34 in Lubbock, Texas. “I just looked at him and thought, 'I can't do anything for you and you're looking at me and you can't speak.' That kind of clicked for me and I looked at him and told him that he will never see me in a wheelchair again."

Billy Ray, who played basketball at Kansas State and walked on to the football team as a senior, is back on his feet. A lot has happened for the Smith family in the past year, to put it mildly.


(USA Today Images/Eric Hartline)

There’s one story, though, that might do the best job of illustrating who Zhaire Smith is and what could be possible for him as he trains in Los Angeles and gears up for the Sixers’ first summer-league game on July 5.

Sixers players receiving little to no playing time often scrimmage against each other, aiming to stay sharp and in shape. Smith took those games very, very seriously.

“The low-minute games, he played so hard in all that to where I bet it could be a little off-putting,” Lashbrook said, “because it’s like, ‘What are you doing, dude?’ He’s picking up full court, he’s playing hard, he’s diving and stuff. That’s how he is — that’s how he’s wired.”

While Smith did look good in the rare portions of practice open to the media and in his workouts with Lashbrook hours before games, we’ll mostly have to trust Lashbrook’s word on his effort in those settings.

Almost all of Smith’s rookie year took place away from the cameras, away from his teammates and away from the public. His sophomore season seems like a good time for a proper introduction.

“You really love him when you’re around him more,” Lashbrook said. “Those [G-League] teammates loved him and thought he was hilarious, and grew to understand him. I think that same thing will happen here once people get to know him. … You’re around him enough, you really start to love him. He’s easy to love and care for.” 

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