Zhaire Smith

Major takeaways on Zhaire Smith, Marial Shayok and the Delaware Blue Coats

Major takeaways on Zhaire Smith, Marial Shayok and the Delaware Blue Coats

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Malika Andrews, the NBA G League season is expected to be canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.

If that's the case, the Sixers’ G-League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats, will finish with a 22-21 record — the franchise's best since the 2016-17 season.

Since the G League is largely about player development, though, let’s highlight four notable players who spent time with the Blue Coats and see how they fared this year: 

Marial Shayok 

Shayok, who posted 23.0 points per game (third in the G League), can score at all three levels. Though not an exceptional athlete, he has a good sense of pace and angles. The 24-year-old seems to enjoy having the ball in important moments, too.

He only played two games with the Sixers as a rookie on a two-way deal, sinking a three in Milwaukee on Feb. 6 for his first NBA points. 

Blue Coats head coach Connor Johnson focused on Shayok’s defense in the G League, asking him to pressure the ball and consistently fight over screens. He also used Shayok often as a primary ball handler and looked to develop him as a distributor.

“If someone closes out on him, he can’t shoot it, but can he find somebody else? Making that next play is a big point of emphasis for him, and I think that will be what continues to drive his progression,” Johnson said in January. 

Like another young player who put up eye-catching scoring numbers as a rookie with the Blue Coats, Shayok has a 7-foot wingspan. Shayok turning into a version of Shake Milton would obviously be an excellent outcome for the Sixers.

It appears he would be most likely to make an impact at this stage with his three-point shooting.

“I’ve always been a scorer and have developed my shot as years have gone by,” he said in July. “I really just simplified my game, knowing that teams need shooting.”

Zhaire Smith 

Smith spent a lot more time on the floor in his second professional season than his first, which was derailed by a severe allergic reaction that led to him being hospitalized and losing over 35 pounds. He played a similar amount in the NBA this year, though, appearing in seven Sixers games. 

“He’s expecting me to develop all around,” Smith said in the preseason of Brett Brown’s expectations. “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.” 

Smith played in 28 games this season with the Blue Coats, averaging 13.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists. After a 4-for-18 start from long range in the G League, he shot the three well, finishing with a 37.6 percent mark on 4.2 attempts per game. 

“I’m trying to hunt threes now, I’m not trying to go to the rim and dunk,” he said with a smile in January. “I’m being lazy now, trying to shoot the threes. Give me three-balls.”

He also looks to have improved his ball handling and finishing around the rim, though neither of those skills is a strength. A blend of firm on-ball defense, athleticism and spot-up shooting is likely what would earn Smith regular playing time with the Sixers moving forward. He was one of several Sixers who had a tough time with Trae Young on Jan. 30, when the Hawks guard finished with 39 points and 18 assists. Eventually, that’s the kind of matchup where the Sixers would probably like Smith to be able to hold his own in a couple of stints off the bench. 

The team picked up Smith’s third-year option in October, so the 20-year-old will be on the roster next season barring an offseason trade.

Norvel Pelle 

One of the Blue Coats’ biggest success stories, Pelle actually began his professional career with Delaware back in 2013, when the franchise was known as the 87ers. 

After a period of uncertainty because of the 45 days on his two-way deal running out and the Sixers’ desire to be flexible heading into the trade deadline, Pelle earned a full NBA deal. If he’s not waived by July 6, his contract will be guaranteed for next season.

There are certainly a good number of players with more talent than Pelle, but he legitimately might be the most fearless center in the NBA, never deterred by the possibility of a ferocious dunk in his face.

“Next play,” he told NBC Sports Philadelphia in December. “At the end of the day, I’m a shot blocker, so if I get dunked on, I get dunked on — that’s my mentality. Next play.” 

Christ Koumadje 

Koumadje led the G League in blocks this season, swatting four shots per game. He also averaged a double-double (11.3 points and 10.9 rebounds), a significant step up in production after he posted 6.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game as a senior at Florida State. 

The 7-foot-3 Koumadje has a “mean streak,” in Johnson’s words, and was not hesitant to trash talk or voice his disagreement with officials’ decisions. While the competitiveness can be a positive, Johnson said on Jan. 25 after Koumadje was ejected in a Blue Coats’ win over the South Bay Lakers that he’d prefer the big man to model himself after a steady personality like Amir Johnson and be less of a “wild card.” 

He was certainly a smart player to use an Exhibit 10 contract on, and it’s worth continuing to track his progress. 

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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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Sixers' game vs. Warriors was all about Kobe Bryant

Sixers' game vs. Warriors was all about Kobe Bryant

The floor was the same and the warmup routines were unaltered, but, as the Sixers prepared to play the Warriors Tuesday, it didn’t feel like a typical game night at Wells Fargo Center.

It clearly wasn’t, after the tragic deaths Sunday of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash.

Sixers player development specialist Roy Hibbert and Warriors guard D’Angelo Russell, former teammates of Bryant’s, talked at half court.

Stephen Curry tapped Joel Embiid on the back to briefly interrupt his warmup and share a few words. 

Before tip-off, the Sixers paid tribute to Bryant and the other victims of the accident in several ways, including through players wearing No. 8 and No. 24 warmup uniforms, and by spotlighting Bryant’s framed No. 33 Lower Merion High School jersey.

The game began with the Sixers taking an eight-second violation, followed by the Warriors taking a 24-second violation. 

Embiid wore No. 24 to honor Bryant after clearing the move with Hall of Fame forward Bobby Jones — the Sixers retired 24 in Jones' honor in 1986. Zhaire Smith sported No. 7 instead of his usual No. 8.

Business eventually resumed, in a way.

“There really isn’t a message that I’m going to purposefully convey,” Brett Brown said pregame. “I’m coming into tonight to win. I think that’s probably the greatest, in my opinion, tribute you can pay to such an amazing competitor. I’m going to coach with that spirit. I’m not going to reference it. 

“We had a great day yesterday and we talked freely amongst our team. Everybody spoke. I think that everybody from that point will handle this tragedy in a personal way and I truly don’t think it’s my place anymore to determine what that is for individual players.” 

The Sixers won the game, 115-104, to move to 31-17. Embiid played after a nine-game absence because of a torn ligament in the ring finger on left hand, and he had 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Those and other details feel very much secondary, but below are a few further notes from the game:

Embiid’s night 

Embiid looked like himself — an All-Star starter for the third straight year — and didn’t appear hampered by the wrapping on his hand.

He seemed to run the floor pretty well and didn’t have any discernible conditioning issues, which is encouraging. Conditioning was a logical emphasis for Embiid during the time he was sidelined. 

Neto gets hot 

Backup point guard Raul Neto caught fire in the first half, scoring 19 points. His career-high is 22, while his previous high as a Sixer had been 13. 

Neto’s run gave Brown a chance to give Ben Simmons a little rest. Simmons had averaged 39.5 minutes per game during Embiid’s absence, carrying a heavy load for the Sixers. He only played 8:34 in the first half Tuesday. 

Smith looks solid, Milton impressive

Smith got hurt in his first NBA action of the season Saturday against the Lakers, spraining his left ankle.

The 20-year-old returned vs. the Warriors and acquitted himself reasonably well. He played 9:36 and scored the first NBA points of his second professional year on a dunk.

Another young player, 23-year-old Shake Milton, also had a positive performance. Milton started for the second straight game in place of Josh Richardson (left hamstring strain) and had 11 points (5 of 6 shooting). He’s gelled well with Simmons and did a nice job of picking his spots to attack. 

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