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.”