Zhaire Smith's 'freak' athleticism, jumper and more early impressions

Zhaire Smith's 'freak' athleticism, jumper and more early impressions

CAMDEN, N.J. — At Texas Tech and throughout the pre-draft process, people raved about Zhaire Smith’s athleticism. It’s one of the reasons the Sixers acquired him in a draft-night deal with the Suns. And after a few days at summer league minicamp, Smith’s athleticism continues to amaze his teammates. 

Smith, who officially signed with the Sixers Monday, will play his first summer league game Friday, at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN against the Celtics. The early impressions of his game should give you a decent idea of what you can expect to see.

'The dude’s a freak athlete'

Those were Landry Shamet’s first words when asked about his impressions of Smith. Shamet, the No. 26 pick in this year’s draft, said Smith’s athleticism can catch you by surprise.

“It’s sneaky,” Shamet said. “If you just look at him, you might not think he’s going to be freaky and get explosive right here. But he does stuff like [Monday] where he had a putback in practice where he just, boom, came out of nowhere. It’s kind of when you don’t expect things. I think that’s the mark of a really good athlete; it’s supposed to be a regular play and then he makes it a spectacular one. I think that’s Zhaire to a tee.

“One of the best athletes I’ve ever been around, and there’s a lot of them in this group. Zhaire’s a great guy, already getting to have a relationship with him. Good dude, plays really hard, really athletic, plays the right way. Going to be someone I’ll enjoy playing with.”

Delaware Blue Coats forward Cameron Oliver shared Shamet’s opinion about Smith’s special athleticism. 

“Zhaire, that’s probably one of the most athletic guards I’ve ever seen in my life,” Oliver said. “It was fun playing with him, showing him how things work … Just showing him the ropes.”

And if for some reason you thought those two guys were outliers, Demetrius Jackson also highlighted Smith’s athletic ability.

“He’s good. He’s really good,” Jackson said. “He’s so talented and athletic, and he can fly. He’s going to be a great player for a long time and he’s got a great base around him here in Philly to help him grow and develop. He’s going to be amazing. He’s a great kid too, so I’m looking forward to seeing him succeed.”  

How does the jumper look?

Given that Smith only attempted 40 three-pointers in his single season at Texas Tech, there are understandably some questions about his jumper. 

In person, you can’t detect any major flaws in Smith’s shot. He gets nice rotation and arc, squares his shoulders to the basket and follows through well. 

He also looks more comfortable than you might expect shooting the ball. Like pretty much all players, he’s best when his feet are under him, but his athleticism helps him make shots even when he’s not in perfect shooting position. This high-arcing three-pointer from behind the backboard is a great example. 

If anything, his release could be a little quicker and more consistent, although it’s a positive sign that he seems to be getting his shot off slightly faster than in college. Smith knows his jumper can improve, and he’s working on fine-tuning it.

“Just coming in, doing form shooting, continuing to try to be more consistent, that’s about it,” Smith said. “Continue to hold my follow-through. When I start missing, it’s just the little things — I gotta either breathe or use my legs.”

Smith acknowledged the shift to the NBA three-point line is “a big adjustment,” which is why he’s especially focused on using his legs. 

It will be interesting to see how Smith’s shot looks in game action, and to see how confident he is pulling the trigger from long range. All indications are that he has a solid foundation with his jumper.

Learning a new position

The 6-foot-4 Smith, who played at power forward in college, will play on the wing in the NBA. According to him, that hasn’t been a difficult transition so far.

“Just playing against quicker guards,” Smith said. “I’ve made a good adjustment. I’m comfortable playing the two and a little bit of three here in practice, but it’s not too big of an adjustment.”

Smith did show some playmaking ability in the portion of practice open to the media, finding teammates inside on several occasions, including one play Tuesday where he was double-teamed and dished it to Chris McCullough inside for an easy lay-up. 

He wasn’t perfect defensively, but lateral quickness doesn't look like it will be an issue. The one thing you can say with confidence after getting a short look at Smith is that he competes hard — he doesn’t take plays off. We still don’t know yet whether he’ll be a successful NBA wing, but at a minimum, he should bring energy and a few ferocious putback dunks off the bench as a rookie.

What to watch for in summer league 

According to Smith, he’s working on “my all-around game: shooting, ball-handling, defending, and just learning the game, building my IQ up.”

In summer league, we should see his unique athleticism on full display. For the Sixers, any success as a three-point shooter or signs that he has the tools to excel as an NBA two-guard would be a bonus.

Smith said he hasn’t set any specific goals for summer league.

“I haven’t put thought into it,” he said. “I’m just trying to win and just develop. Just have fun and play the game.”

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Will Sixers be in an advantageous position if season resumes?

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Will Sixers be in an advantageous position if season resumes?

On so many levels, the Sixers’ season hasn’t gone as planned. Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced the NBA to suspend play, the team was in an unenviable spot.

If the regular season is over, which seems like a distinct possibility, the Sixers would finish as the East’s sixth seed. A combination of fit, underperformance — especially away from the Wells Fargo Center — and injury put them there.

But if the NBA does resume at some point, where does that leave the 2019-20 Sixers?

There’s a train of thought that this break could benefit the Sixers. It’s a fair line of thinking. In fact, there may not be a team that would benefit more. 

Ben Simmons, who has been sidelined since Feb. 22 with nerve impingement in his lower back, will have more time to recover. Back on March 11, before we learned later that night that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for coronavirus, Simmons spoke before the Sixers’ game against the Pistons. 

The All-Star point guard said he had “no pain” and was “confident” — though he did not give a timeline for his return. Earlier that day, the team released a statement which said Simmons would be re-evaluated in three weeks. That would put the re-evaluation at around April 1, with no indication the NBA season will resume any time soon.

Other than Simmons, the other four members of the regular starting lineup have dealt with injuries this season. 

Joel Embiid tore a ligament in his left ring finger and had a left shoulder sprain. Josh Richardson has dealt with injuries to both hamstrings, among other things. While Tobias Harris (right knee contusion) and Al Horford (left knee soreness, left hamstring tightness) haven’t missed much time, they’ve also been banged up this season.

All of this to say, maybe this break — as unfortunate as it is for the sport and for the world, really — winds up benefiting the Sixers. Everyone will be back to Point A when/if play resumes. If you’ll recall, the Sixers started this season 5-0. It seems like a distant memory, but it happened. Perhaps returning to full health will ignite a similar run.

Now, for the glass half-empty version.

Though being healthy will help, it won’t solve the myriad issues the Sixers had with their roster construction this season. If both Embiid and Horford are healthy, Brett Brown seems hellbent on trying to make the combo work. So far this season, the evidence has been against that being fruitful.

Richardson and Harris have had their moments this season, but neither has been exactly what the Sixers expected. Richardson’s skillset is one the Sixers need, but he’s on pace to have the worst three-point shooting season of his career. While Harris has been solid, he hasn’t been the near-max player the team thought they were getting.

As for Simmons, he was playing easily the best basketball of his career before his injury and seemed to be a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Will he be able to round into form and get ready for the playoffs in a hurry after such a long layoff?

Then the seven-foot, 280-plus pound elephant in the room — will Embiid be in good enough shape to play in an NBA game when the time comes?

The Sixers may be the most mystifying team in the NBA. It’s entirely possible they come out guns blazing, get their act together and go on a run. It seems just as feasible that their fit issues fester, and they’ll get bounced in the first round.

So while the basketball hiatus may benefit the Sixers, they’d still have to take advantage.

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

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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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