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.
Zhaire Smith with the rainbow 3 from behind the backboard. pic.twitter.com/M7ImbF2glT— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) July 3, 2018
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.”