76ers

Zhaire Smith changes number to honor Kobe Bryant, has keepsake for his future 'man cave'

Zhaire Smith changes number to honor Kobe Bryant, has keepsake for his future 'man cave'

Zhaire Smith scored the first NBA basket of his second professional season Tuesday night, driving in for a dunk early in the second quarter of the Sixers’ 115-104 win over the Warriors at Wells Fargo Center.

His teammates enjoyed that moment, but the 20-year-old had earned their respect before he’d done anything on the court. Smith, who’d previously worn No. 8, had on a No. 7 jersey Tuesday night. He’s decided to wear No. 5 moving forward, a number that he says has no real significance to him. (No. 5 wasn’t available Tuesday and No. 7 was a temporary replacement.)

Smith made that decision to honor the life of Kobe Bryant. On Sunday, Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were two of nine people who died in a helicopter crash. 

“When I decided, they respected me and gave me dap,” Smith said of his teammates. 

Bryant is the reason Smith had gone with No. 8. The Sixers have retired No. 2 in honor of Moses Malone, which would have been his first choice.

“Pre-draft, I really wanted 2 to come out of [Texas] Tech, but that’s retired,” he said. “And then I found out 8 was available and I said, ‘Oh, that’s Kobe.’ So, I did that for him.”

Smith isn’t usually one for extended, elaborate answers, but he added a little humor to a largely somber night with a tale about how he once tried to emulate Bryant. 

“I think I heard one of his stories where he was in the gym since 6 a.m., went home, came back,” he said. “I tried to do that for one day but my body was dead, so I never did that again.” 

Tuesday’s game was just the eighth of Smith’s NBA career. After being acquired by the Sixers in a draft-night trade, he’s broken his foot, suffered a severe allergic reaction, had feeding tubes in his stomach, lost and regained over 35 pounds and played 30 G-League games. Oh, and he sprained his left ankle Saturday night vs. the Lakers in his first NBA action of the season.

With the Delaware Blue Coats, Smith has been “hunting threes” and working on refining his guard skills after playing power forward in his lone year at Texas Tech. Still, his trademark quality is his athleticism. 

While Smith isn’t a scorer in Bryant’s mold and has been taught to avoid most two-point shots outside of the paint, he admired the five-time NBA champion’s game and referred to him as his “idol” growing up. 

“His fadeaway,” Smith said. “Even though that’s kind of a bad shot in the league right now, that was unguardable.”

Surrounded by a scrum of reporters likely larger than any he’s seen since becoming a Sixer, there was one question of the flurry fired his way that especially made Smith light up.

He was asked what he planned to do with the warmup jersey hanging in his locker with “PHILA” on the front, Bryant’s name and the number 8 on the back. 

“I’m going to hang it in my man cave when I get a crib,” he said. “In about 10 years, it’ll be in my man cave.”

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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

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USA Today Images/Bill Streicher

Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

The Sixers had so many options heading into free agency last July.

We don’t know yet exactly when free agency will begin this year because of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the suspended NBA season. Whenever it does happen, though, the Sixers won’t have as many possibilities. 

The decisions to give Tobias Harris a five-year, $180 million contract and guarantee Al Horford $97 million over four years are the two clear, primary reasons the Sixers won’t be in an especially flexible position. In Year 1, those moves haven’t panned out as GM Elton Brand and the front office would have hoped.

In one major way, Horford has actually provided what the Sixers expected. As a backup center, he’s been quite good — the Sixers have a plus-5.2 net rating when Horford is on the floor and Joel Embiid is off it. He’s been much better than a hodgepodge of Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe and Jonah Bolden. 

However, many of the reasonable concerns that came with signing Horford have come to fruition. The Horford-Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of any two-man Sixers lineup that’s played at least 500 minutes together. If you want an idea of just how poor the offense has been when the two have shared the floor, consider this: Their 100.6 offensive rating together is almost six points worse than any of the Sixers’ two-man pairings last season (minimum 500 minutes). 

Though Brett Brown was talking about aiming to further develop Horford and Embiid together as recently as the day before the season was suspended, that combination is a problem. It’s not what the Sixers would have planned when they signed Horford, but the decision to move him out of the starting lineup in February was very sensible.

Horford has shot more three-pointers than ever in his career, but not at an efficient rate (33.7 percent, his worst mark since the 2014-15 season). We thought he’d likely decline in the later years of his contract and be costing the Sixers money at 35 or 36 years old. To put it bluntly, he’s cost the Sixers money in his first season, and has not fit well. 

Harris, in his ninth NBA season, has improved defensively, is second on the Sixers in scoring (19.4 points per game) and, after an 0-for-23 nightmare of a stretch, has shot 39.1 percent from three-point range. He’s the only Sixer to have played in every game, and younger players like Matisse Thybulle and Marial Shayok have praised his mentorship. All of that matters and is positive, but Harris has not been worth $32.7 million this season.

The main question now — outside of when basketball will return, of course — is whether the Sixers can repair their mistakes.

Is there a team out there that would be willing to take on Horford’s contract and give up any value in return? The Kings, who reportedly were expected to make a “massive offer” to Horford in free agency, are one team it would make sense to engage. Sharpshooter Buddy Hield would presumably be the name of interest.

Trading away Harris looks much less likely, although we’ve learned not to rule anything out during Brand’s brief tenure. It’s difficult to imagine the Sixers receiving a worthwhile return, and Brown and Brand have often portrayed Harris as being an emerging player. They believe he’s going to get more and more comfortable and effective as a primary scoring option.

Josh Richardson, who’s suffered a variety of injuries in his first year a Sixer, is on a team-friendly deal. He shouldn’t be untouchable, but his perimeter defense and shot creation are important for this team, and they come at a good value.

Ben Simmons and Embiid are not what’s wrong with the Sixers and should not be traded at this stage. The pieces around them are the issues. Of course, judgement of whether those are issues the Sixers can overcome is incomplete. We don’t know yet how this roster would fare in the playoffs, and Brand has insisted his team was built with the postseason in mind. 

The Sixers would currently have a first-round pick in the draft — the top-20 protected Oklahoma City Thunder pick they acquired in the Markelle Fultz trade would convey — and that’s one of the ways they should be able to improve their roster. They’ve hit on Landry Shamet, Shake Milton and Thybulle in the draft over the last couple of years. With how Brand has constructed the team, targeting a perimeter player who can shoot, capably create his own shot or do both would appear an obvious priority.

Fundamentally, nobody envisioned this NBA season unfolding the way it has. Whatever is next and whenever the offseason eventually begins, the Sixers will have to discern the best methods to address the unpleasant surprises of this season. 



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Matisse Thybulle is a much better defender in real life than in NBA2K

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Matisse Thybulle is a much better defender in real life than in NBA2K

Matisse Thybulle is known for his defense in real life. In NBA2K, that is definitely not the case.

With the NBA season suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak, Thybulle and the Suns’ Mikal Bridges played each other in 2K on Friday night and streamed the action on Twitch.

Though Thybulle gave Bridges a little bit of a scare with a big third quarter, the virtual Suns beat the virtual Sixers, 75-64. 

While the intensity obviously didn’t compare to a typical game night at Wells Fargo Center, both Thybulle and Bridges — a Villanova product and a Sixer for about 20 minutes before a draft-night trade two years ago — were very into it.

Thyulle decided to sub himself into the game after just 28 seconds, and Bridges did the same 30 seconds later. 

“Which one’s shoot again?,” he asked. “Square?” 

As his team fell behind, Thybulle had some stern words for his players.

“Al, you’re better than that,” he said when Al Horford bit on a pump fake. “You’ve been in the league too long to be making those mistakes.” 

When Ben Simmons had a floater blocked, Thybulle wasn’t thrilled. 

“Ben, you’re 7-foot,” he said. “Just dunk it.” 

And a Mike Scott lay-up early in the third wasn’t what Thybulle was hoping to see. 

At one point, he tried begging for mercy from Bridges.

“Stop running pick-and-roll, I don’t know how to guard it,” he said. “Please. Come on, man.” 

Unfortunately for Thybulle, Bridges did not stop and the rookie left with a loss, albeit an entertaining one.

“I apologize to the Sixers, to my family, my friends, the people of Philadelphia,” he said. “This is not acceptable.” 

After personally finishing with no points on 0 for 3 shooting, Thybulle promised he'll be practicing.



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