Second-year player Zhaire Smith is not a major part of the Philadelphia 76ers’ current championship aspirations. If he’s not in the picture now, what do they have planned for him later?
His career thus far has been wild at every turn. He was a late riser on draft boards in 2018, barely recruited out of high school, but bursting onto the scene in his lone season at Texas Tech.
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Though Smith was not their initial pick, the Sixers traded down with Phoenix to nab him and a future first-round pick for Mikal Bridges. Many will argue they should have just kept Bridges, but their work over the past two drafts (Landry Shamet, Matisse Thybulle) and the exigency for another star (see: Tobias Harris trade) argue for garnering more picks.
As per the Sixers’ rookie curse, his first season with the team went horribly wrong. The story told by Alex Shultz of GQ outlines how lucky Smith is to be alive after an awful allergic reaction. He effectively lost a whole season, giving us a sobering reminder of how short life can be.
This setback is evident by Brett Brown’s preseason rotation, which only includes Smith at the end of games when the result is decided. He was raw when the Sixers drafted him and forfeiting an entire season of development didn’t help.
In the few minutes he’s gotten, though, Smith has been used in a peculiar way. Many basketball pundits treated him as a hyper-athletic slashing wing out of the draft, but most of his minutes as a Sixer involve him running the offense and getting looks as a primary ball handler.
This could just be a preliminary measure to teach Smith the basics of the game. He’s gotten this far thanks to physical gifts and wasn’t really taught how to be a basketball player. The Sixers could be giving him such a perspective to help him become a competent player.
But another layer is regarding team fit. Knowing what the team has in Embiid and Simmons, the skill sets needed around them are very specific. One of those holes — a scorer at all three levels — has been addressed, but the team’s first attempt (trading up for Markelle Fultz) went remarkably wrong and its second try (trading for Jimmy Butler) lasted less than one season.
It’s not crazy to think this is a long-term attempt to fill that hole. This strategy would be similar to how the Bulls have developed Zach LaVine, another jump-out-of-the-gym athlete who was given a ton of runway last season with positive results.
Smith is a bit different because his strengths were on the defensive side, but that’s not the point. The way the Sixers are using him indicates he’s on track to be a scoring guard and his A-plus athleticism could provide a unique advantage at that position.
His threat as a slasher would still exist considering how much Ben Simmons will run the offense and his defensive chops would be greatly appreciated on a team that has hemorrhaged points to scoring guards.
The Sixers may just be developing him as a player and figuring out his fit later, but every other pick in the Elton Brand/Brett Brown front office regime says they care quite a bit about fit. And considering what was in place before Smith, fit has to matter.
Whatever he becomes likely won’t be seen this year. Delaware Blue Coats minutes may be in order, because it’s unlikely Brown trusts him this season. The Sixers are trying to win a championship and a player as callow as Smith isn’t going to help them do that.
But when he does pop onto the scene … look out.