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 vs. Brooklyn: 3 storylines to watch and how to live stream the game

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AP images

Sixers vs. Brooklyn: 3 storylines to watch and how to live stream the game

The Sixers (19-9) will look to extend their league-leading record at home (14-1) against the Nets (10-18) at Wells Fargo Center.

Though their first matchup against the Nets at Barclays Center is one they’d like to forget, it was Jimmy Butler’s game-winner in their second matchup that everyone will remember. But tonight, Butler is out with a groin strain.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s matchup.

• When: 7 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m.
• Where: Wells Fargo Center
• Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
• Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

Here are three storylines to watch.

Spencer Dinwiddie is always a problem

Dinwiddie always causes the Sixers trouble. He scored 31 points in his 28 minutes off the bench in their last matchup, including 4 for 5 from three-point range. He’s second in the league in assists off the bench, trailing only JJ Barea. And he's tied for the most double-digit scoring games off the bench with Lou Williams (24).  With the Sixers bench already depleted, watch out for Dinwiddie to have another big night.

To blitz or not to blitz?

In their last game against Brooklyn, the Sixers found success defensively after they started blitzing and double-teaming the pick-and-roll in the second half. Defending the pick-and-roll has been one of the Sixers' biggest defensive weaknesses this season (see film review). With a team certainly looking to exploit that, it’ll be interesting to see what defensive adjustments the Sixers start this game off with.

Clutch who?

The Nets are tied for the most clutch games (those in which the margin has been five points or fewer during the final five minutes of a game) in the NBA this season with 17, but their record is just 5-12 in those games. The Sixers, on the other hand, have played in just one less clutch game this season, but their record is 13-3 (and two of those wins are game-winning three-pointers by Jimmy Butler). With Butler out tonight, and the game on the line, who steps up?

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You’ve never seen a practice court like the Sixers'

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NBCSP

You’ve never seen a practice court like the Sixers'

No matter the sport, no matter the decade, there is one question that always remains the same.

How do you gain that edge?

And under normal circumstances, once you’ve felt like you were on to something, you’d prefer not to share it with the world. Because then, what would the advantage be, if your opponents could use it, too?

Such is the case when you’ve creatively painted advanced statistics onto your practice court, an area that also happens to be visible to us media folk.

You might’ve already heard about the four-point line added last season, a light grey semi-circle, measured exactly five feet behind the traditional three-point line. And no, it’s not to encourage four-point shots in practice. In it’s most simplistic form, it is there as a reminder (or requirement, rather) to spread the floor, to create additional room in the half-court, in a league where the three-point shot is king.  

But before the season started there were two further innovations to the practice court.

The first being four 28 x 84 inch (or 2 1/3 x 7 feet) red rectangles, placed in each of the four corners of the court.

The second is an arc that spans a few feet beyond the width of the paint and a few feet short of the top of the key.

Let’s start with the rectangles.

Their purpose is two-fold. Defensively, they are a hint to close out on shooters. Offensively, they are a reminder that someone should be in both corners within the first 3-5 seconds of the shot clock to get the offense in motion.

“It’s one of those absolutes,” Brown explained of his new practice court additions. “It’s not negotiable and because of that, it has a far greater chance to succeed over time. We can keep reinforcing it, keep talking about it, and because you come into the gym and it’s clearly delineated, the message, plus the visual, does not go away.”

Twenty-eight games in, and the Sixers are already seeing improvements defensively. Sixers opponents are shooting just 31.3 percent from corner threes this season, the best mark in the NBA. Granted, there’s still a long way to go and Brown stressed something like this takes time.

“I can see that over the course of a year, you have a far greater chance, when you can find those things that aren’t anything but black and white and there's no vagueness or ambiguity, then you have a chance to fix it and get better at it.”

Brown seemed a bit more hesitant to reveal the reasoning behind the arc, which is driven out of the volume of threes that are taken in the NBA game and where a miss winds up after a perimeter shot.

“Where do the highest volume of three-point misses occur? After we came up with that measurement, we painted the line. Within that arc, that's where the highest volume of misses occur (on three-point shots).”

“It’s a stupid number, pick it, five million three-point shots studied,” Brown estimated. “That (pointing to the space within the arc) is where misses occur.”

Again, the purpose is two-fold.

“We are trying to, offensively, get into this area, and defensively trying to keep people out of this area.”

By doing so, offensively, the Sixers are able to determine where most shots land after long misses, which in theory, should also produce more offensive rebounds. Defensively, you try to keep your opponents out of that area when a three-pointer goes up, which in theory, should produce more defensive rebounds.

But there was one more thing Brown had to say before walking away.

“We just spill our guts and share secrets to the world,” Brown said, shaking his head, seemingly disappointed in sharing something they’ve worked so hard for. “This is my court. This is 57 years, 35 worth of beliefs …”

“Why would I go telling other people how to get better, why would I do that? Why?”

And with that, Brown turned away, stepped over his four-point line and marched back to the bench.

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