CAMDEN, N.J. — Twenty-year-old Zhaire Smith, acquired in a draft-night trade last year by the Sixers along with a 2021 first-round pick in exchange for Mikal Bridges, won’t travel with the Sixers on the team’s upcoming road trip. Smith will join the Delaware Blue Coats when the Sixers’ G-League affiliate begins training camp Monday, along with two-way player Marial Shayok, a team spokesperson said after practice Friday.
With Joel Embiid (right ankle sprain) and Mike Scott (left ankle sprain) questionable for the Sixers’ game Saturday against the Detroit Pistons, the Sixers’ second two-way player, center Norvel Pelle, will travel with the team.
The decision for Smith to go down to the G League does not come as a surprise. He didn’t play with the Sixers’ regular rotation players during the preseason and was inactive on opening night vs. the Celtics. Rookie Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz are clearly well ahead of Smith at the present moment.
The context of Smith’s rookie year is also an important consideration. As a rookie, Smith suffered through a broken foot in August and a scary allergic reaction in September that led to severe complications and caused the 6-foot-3 guard to drop as low as 164 pounds. Smith’s jumper changed as he worked to return to the court, with his release moving over to the right side of his head when he started putting up shots with feeding tubes in his stomach.
He’s healthy now and has worked to tweak his form and restore his athleticism. In Brown’s mind, however, development is the immediate priority for Smith, who only played in six NBA regular-season games last year and was primarily a post player in his single season at Texas Tech. Smith played in 11 games for the Blue Coats last season before making his NBA debut on March 25.
“He’s expecting me to develop all around,” Smith said of Brown’s expectations for this season after the Sixers' preseason finale. “Last year we tried to develop, but then obviously I had the setback. He feels like this is my rookie year, like this is [about] development.”
Brown gave a simple explanation Friday for the decision to assign Smith to the Blue Coats, and to wait before using any of the 45 days Shayok is allowed to spend with the Sixers as a two-way player between the start of Blue Coats training camp and end of the G League regular season.
Let’s just start with playing. They’re not on the sideline watching the starting five and the backup five play. They’re playing, and they’re all so young that if it’s my son, if I’m their coach, it all points back to how do you play. They’re going to be in an environment where they’re going to be playing more. The systems are very integrated; they’re very closely connected with a coach who was my assistant [Blue Coats head coach Connor Johnson]. … Same words, same system, same type of philosophy. It’s a great relationship and I think it’s beneficial for them.
The Sixers have already made the simple decision to exercise Smith’s third-year option for the 2020-21 season. He’s still in the team’s plans beyond this year; he’s just not someone Brown sees as currently having a path to NBA minutes.
Smith’s high defensive ambitions are on hold — or at least the path to eventually reaching them is migrating to Delaware once more.
“Every goal he’s ever told me about what he wants to do has to do with defense," Sixers player development coach Tyler Lashbrook, who has a close relationship with Smith, 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.”
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