76ers

Why Brett Brown believes in high-flying Zhaire Smith

Why Brett Brown believes in high-flying Zhaire Smith

CAMDEN, N.J. — It’s a name that’s on everybody’s mind these days. Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard is one of the stars that interim GM Brett Brown would love to land (see story). He also sees a little bit of Leonard in Zhaire Smith, whom the Sixers acquired along with an unprotected 2021 first-round pick in exchange for Mikal Bridges in a bold draft-night move (see story).

“When you look at just where I believe Zhaire can be, there are some common denominators to what Kawhi had when we first brought him to San Antonio,” Brown said. “In general, I think he’s going to be a work in progress. There’s lots to do, with a base that’s really special and very unique. Some of those qualities that Kawhi had when we first brought him to San Antonio, I do see parts of that in Zhaire.”

The other main component of the Leonard comparison is Brown’s desire to shift the 6-4 Smith from playing mostly at power forward in college, as Leonard did at San Diego State, to being a perimeter player in the NBA.

“At times it is [a hard transition,]” Brown said. “But I don’t even judge college basketball anymore to be positions really. … It was more of an interior-related skill package that we’ve seen progressively grow out to a perimeter-type package that we think can keep growing in that direction.”

You can see why the Sixers think Smith has the tools to be special. He’s a ridiculously explosive athlete who can defend and rebound at a high level. Smith said he takes a lot of pride in doing “the little things” well, and it shows with his ferocious approach to offensive rebounding, and the highlight-reel putback dunks that often result.

“I was a natural rebounder and my college coach [Chris Beard] told me to crash the boards every time,” Smith said. “If I didn’t, I’d probably have to do something, probably running. And he kept a chart, so I believe I crashed 70 percent of the time. That’s what I’m good at, so if the team needs me to crash the boards, I will do that.”

Smith’s potential is enticing. But the reality is, in the short term, Bridges probably would have made the Sixers a better team. Brown acknowledged that while explaining why the Sixers think so highly of the player Smith can eventually become.

“The fact that he has a foundation that is incredibly unique in relation to his athleticism,” Brown said. “The foundation that he has in his character, the foundation that he has in his defense, the incredible growth that we are seeing in his shot. His ability to create his own shot. There is no mystery of how we want to play here in Philadelphia, nor is there no mystery on the direction our sport is growing.

“When you weigh it all out, and I anointed him ‘1B,’ it’s really an incredible situation that we had to navigate through once we got that offer. So as we judged Zhaire, we saw a person, we saw a player, we saw a place that we need to develop him, to grow him and take him. We believe entirely in time he has the ability to be incredibly unique, maybe even great.”

Because Smith didn’t take many jumpers at Texas Tech, his two pre-draft workouts were an important part of the Sixers’ assessment of his shot. Brown said the Sixers extensively studied Smith’s shot at the workouts, including looking at “trajectories and arcs and variance of misses.” Of the 258 recorded shots Smith took last season, 168 were at the rim. He only took 40 three-pointers, making 18.

Brown doesn’t seem to expect the 19-year-old Smith be a major contributor as a rookie, but he’s not ruling it out.

“He may prove us all wrong,” Brown said. “I’d be curious as he hears his coach speak, if he’s like, ‘Hey, I’ve got more to give maybe quicker than you think.’ Maybe that’s true.”

And he thinks Sixers fans will love the quiet, understated Smith’s tenacious, high-flying game.

“We believe we are going to take Zhaire and put him into our development system and polish up all of those things, and we are excited,” Brown said. “The city of Philadelphia is going to love him because of his complete competitiveness, his athleticism and his toughness. He is bred for the city of Philadelphia.”

It sounds like Smith sees himself finishing off a few fast breaks in emphatic style next season.

“They run in transition. I feel I can be a part of that,” he said. “Ben Simmons, he can bring it up and make good passes. I’m a good cutter, so he’ll make me look good.”

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Sixers Talk: Ben Simmons not playing in the World Cup; Mike Scott living his best life

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NBC Sports Philadelphia

Sixers Talk: Ben Simmons not playing in the World Cup; Mike Scott living his best life

Ben Simmons will not be playing for Team Australia in the World Cup while Mike Scott is living his best life on his 31st birthday. Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick talk that and sneaky teams in the East on this edition of Sixers Talk.

Simmons is choosing to work on his game for the upcoming NBA season instead of playing in the FIBA World Cup. What are the pros and cons?

Scott and the hive are having a great time on Twitter. Plus, we found out that the Sixers' forward didn't do so hot in French class at UVA.

The Sixers and Bucks appear to be the two top teams in the East. Which team could sneak up on them?

That and more below on this edition of Sixers Talk.

'Potential' is a dangerous word, but Sixers have players to realize it

'Potential' is a dangerous word, but Sixers have players to realize it

On paper, a lot of teams in the NBA look awfully good.

Both L.A. teams look like juggernauts. The Warriors lost Kevin Durant, but they’re still the Warriors. The Bucks have the reigning MVP and perhaps the deepest roster in the NBA.

Then there are the Sixers, who have as much potential as any team. Their starting five could be the best in the league. One prominent statistical model even gives them the best chance to win the Finals.

But the word “potential” can be dangerous. Al Horford may be the steadiest player there is. Joel Embiid is still ascending and has work to do, but is already arguably the best big man in the league. 

The other three members of the starting unit all have to tap into their full potential for the Sixers to accomplish their goals.

Does anyone in the league have more to prove than Ben Simmons? It seems weird typing that sentence for a 22-year-old who’s won Rookie of the Year and already made an All-Star team, but here we are. Simmons was given his rookie max extension Monday — which was 100 percent the right move — but questions still linger over his jump shot. He’s been working with famed trainer and shooting coach Chris Johnson in Los Angeles this summer. He also has decided not to play for the Australian national team in the FIBA World Cup so that he can focus on getting prepared for the NBA season.

Recently, Tobias Harris joined Simmons for a workout in L.A. and he came away impressed with Simmons’ progress.

“We played a lot of 1-on-1. He’s in the gym religiously every day – grinding, getting better. He’s in great shape,” Harris said at a press conference last Friday. “Everyone was trying to figure out why I was guarding him at the three-point line. It was really because he hit two of them. I dared him to hit two of them and he hit two in a row that’s why I was there. He’s made big improvements on his game. His jump shot is looking really good. He has confidence to shoot it. I just kept telling him there, even in these workouts when you’re playing, have the confidence to shoot them and don’t’ get discourage when you miss.”

Harris is another player with something to prove after being given the richest contract in franchise history. GM Elton Brand gave up a haul to acquire the 27-year-old from the Clippers and the results were mixed.

Harris came out on fire with the Sixers, averaging over 20 points a game and shooting 40 percent from three in his first 13 games. He then really struggled down the stretch, averaging 16.1 points a game and hitting only 23 percent of his threes. He was also inconsistent during the team’s postseason run.

Still, there’s plenty of optimism surrounding Harris’ fit with the team — especially with Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick gone. He admitted that uncertainty surrounding his role affected his play, but these new pieces could unlock more of his potential. Harris had a borderline All-Star season and was one of the most prolific shooters in the league in a more featured role with the Clippers. He’s improved every season he’s been in the NBA and there’s hope that ascension will continue.

Harris hopes that ascension continues in Philadelphia — and only Philadelphia.

“Everybody knows over the course of my career I've been in a lot of situations,” Harris said. “Hearing in my meeting the possibility of getting these guys that are sitting up here with me was also one of the most appealing things in the pitch. For me, it was just a win-win, to come here in a situation where I can continue to develop and to be somewhere for many years to come. I'm excited for that and, obviously I signed a five-year deal, so I'll hopefully finish my career here, God willing."

It makes sense that Harris would be excited for the arrival of Josh Richardson. Other than Richardson proving to be a strong two-way player, the two have an existing relationship. While they missed playing with each other by a season at Tennessee, the two still crossed paths. Harris was stuck in Tennessee during the NBA lockout in his draft year so he took the incoming freshman Richardson out to dinner. 

Harris remembers an assistant coach saying around that time that Richardson “was going to be a pro” because of how hard he worked. It was a rather bold statement when you consider Richardson was a two-star recruit coming out of high school, but he made that unnamed coach look awfully prophetic.

Richardson, a second-round pick in 2015, had to earn his way onto the floor in the NBA with his tenacious defense and high energy. Much like Harris, Richardson’s offensive game has grown every season in the league. At times, he ran the Heat’s offense last season as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll and took the most threes of his career by a healthy margin — though he was only right around league average percentage wise.

While the team looks like a defensive monster, spacing is still a question mark. The Sixers are relying on all three players — and really even Embiid and Horford — to have the best shooting seasons of their careers.

"I look forward to training camp, figure all that out,” Brand said. “Defensively, of course that's where we're going to hang our hat. We should be one of the top defensive teams in the league, in my opinion. But we'll figure out the spacing. We have a lot of versatility. Al Horford can space, Joel Embiid can space, Ben's working on his game, Josh is a high-level scorer and Tobias is a high-level shooter and scorer also, so we're looking forward to making that work in training camp. But it's going to take some time. It should take some time."

With how much work Simmons, Harris and Richardson have put in, all that potential could be realized.

That could make the Sixers a very dangerous team.

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