With training camp getting closer, there are plenty of topics to discuss involving the 2019-20 Sixers. Running the Give and Go are NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hudrick and Noah Levick.
In this edition, we ask: Which young player will make the biggest improvement for the Sixers this season?
It has to be Zhaire Smith.
Smith appeared on his way to having a lost rookie season after suffering a broken foot and a severe allergic reaction not long after. He lost a ton of weight and basketball seemed secondary to the young man’s health.
But to his credit, Smith worked his tail off. He put up shots with a tube in his stomach. He regained some of his strength and the freakish athleticism he was known for was still in his bag. He miraculously played six games at the end of the regular season and was legitimately in the conversation for playoff minutes.
In those six games, Smith flashed the ability to defend at an extremely high level. His quickness, his understanding of how to fight through screens and just his overall defensive tenacity makes him super intriguing. To see what he battled through last season, you know he has the work ethic and will to get the most out of his athletic abilities.
And, oh yeah, he’s still just 20 years old and learning how to play guard after being a power forward at Texas Tech. He’ll have to make open looks to stay on the floor — something he’s worked on tirelessly — but if he just hovers around league average, what he brings on the other end of the floor will far outweigh anything. He’s continued to add muscle this offseason and could become a defensive demon off Brett Brown’s bench. He'll likely have to fight off rookie first-round pick Matisse Thybulle and 2016 first-rounder Furkan Korkmaz for minutes, but Smith should be up for the challenge.
I also wouldn't be surprised to see him be the first Sixer to participate in the Slam Dunk Contest since Andre Igoudala was robbed of the title in 2006.
There are quite a few options here, especially if you have a broad definition of “young.”
Joel Embiid and Josh Richardson are still only 25 and 26 years old, respectively, and neither seems to have reached their potential yet. Ben Simmons is 23. Shake Milton is 22 and on a full NBA contract for the first time — same with rookie Matisse Thybulle.
However, I’m confident in going with the youngest player on the team, 20-year-old Zhaire Smith. As a rookie, Smith suffered through a broken foot, a severe allergic reaction and a dramatic weight loss. He’s on the other side of all that now and should play a role for the Sixers in Year 2.
You’d assume the first seven spots in the Sixers’ rotation are entrenched, at least to start the season, with Mike Scott and James Ennis the first two men off the bench. There are minutes to be earned after that, though, and Smith, who played in just six regular-season games last season, has the skills to take them.
Smith knows what his greatest strength is and wants to keep building upon it.
“Every goal he’s ever told me about what he wants to do has to do with defense," Sixers player development coach Tyler Lashbrook told NBC Sports Philadelphia in June. "‘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.”
A tremendous athlete who threw down plenty of highlight dunks this year in summer league, Smith’s physical abilities — and relentless work ethic — mean that his ambitions aren’t so outlandish in the long term. In the short term, I expect him to help the Sixers off the bench.
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