Philadelphia 76ers: Zhaire Smith’s quiet preseason raises new questions

Zhaire Smith | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Zhaire Smith | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers’ 2018 first-round pick doesn’t appear to be in the team’s immediate plans.

When we unveiled our annual Ranking the Sixers project, Zhaire Smith finished as the eighth-best player on the Philadelphia 76ers‘ roster. Our contributors had high hopes for Smith, who looked the part of a breakout candidate during the Las Vegas Summer League.

To be frank, so far, we look bad. Smith has brought up the rear in Brett Brown’s preseason rotations, receiving no more than 10 minutes in any of the Sixers’ first three preseason contests. He played just eight in Sunday night’s win over Orlando.

As Matisse Thybulle shines, Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton get extended opportunities, and James Ennis holds strong, the immediate future looks bleak for Smith. He might not be a part of the regular rotation — he might be closer to 15th man than 10th man.

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When the dust settles, I expect Smith to gain some ground. The Sixers invested a first-round pick in him, not to mention the Mikal Bridges trade. He was also good in six healthy games last season, giving Philadelphia an active point of attack defender in brief spurts.

This summer, Smith was often the best player on the court in Vegas. He’s a springboard athlete who can flush lobs, glide in transition, and hit the occasional spot-up 3. He can also read passing lanes, fight over screens, and use elite lateral quickness to suffocate ball handlers.

There are several desirable traits in Smith’s toolkit. Given the Sixers’ emphasis on defense, a player of Smith’s ilk — a long-armed perimeter defender who doesn’t need the ball on offense — has a particular appeal.

But, despite signs of growth and a newfound confidence, Smith now seems relegated to a minor role in Philadelphia. At least for now. It’s too early to pen the “Is Zhaire part of the Sixers’ future?” pieces, because he absolutely should be. Even so, it’s still a bit shocking to see Smith get such limited playing time in preseason.

One obvious factor is Matisse Thybulle, who feels like a potentially special year-one player. Teammates have raved about Thybulle’s defensive I.Q. in training camp, and his in-game performances have only confirmed those praises. Thybulle is a havoc-wreaking, turnover-generating nuisance who looks surprisingly good on-ball. He’s a plus athlete in his own right.

As Thybulle gravitates toward Brown’s regular rotation, Smith is the understandable odd man out. Thybulle’s probably a better shooter too, which puts a damper on Smith’s case given Philadelphia’s potential spacing issues.

There’s also the youth factor. Yes, Smith has a year in Brown’s system, but he spent most of last season in a hospital and in rehab. He’s over two years younger than Thybulle, left college after one season as a 6-foot-3 power forward, and was never highly regarded as a recruit. He’s more of a project than Thybulle, flat-out.

Most predictions — my own included — slotted Smith ahead of Thybulle all summer. The likelihood of that coming to fruition is next to none. Barring injury, Thybulle appears to have earned a major role in Brown’s rotation.

Smith should, again, be part of the Sixers’ long-term plans. He’s a one-percent athlete who has special potential as an on-ball defender. Philadelphia has the personnel to smother teams at every level, and Smith can contribute to those efforts.

It is, however, fair to question how prominently Smith is featured in those plans. If Thybulle pans out and Josh Richardson looks the part, Philadelphia will have several high-profile commitments on the wing. If Smith is deserving of a even a moderate raise once his contract expires, the Sixers might not have the dough (or the motivation) to re-up his deal.

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The Sixers’ regular season begins on Oct. 23. It might be closer to a make-or-break season than initially anticipated for Smith.