It’s far too early for the Philadelphia 76ers to give up on Zhaire Smith.
This season has made one thing abundantly clear — Zhaire Smith needs time. The Philadelphia 76ers‘ 2018 first-round pick has appeared in 13 NBA games up to this point in his career. There is naturally some uncertainty about Smith’s long-term outlook as a result.
It’s never ideal to have a near-lottery pick spend most of his first two seasons injured or in the G-League. Smith was a prospect of relative acclaim, and many draftniks fell in love with his ceiling. There was always work to be done, however, and the Sixers have rightfully taken a slow and measured approach to Smith’s development.
At 6-foot-4, Smith is truly a one-percent athlete. His knees are fundamentally similar to trampolines, and his lateral quickness is enough to make any defensive coach salivate. His ceiling is tied directly to that athleticism, and Smith has had little issue making functional use of his physical gifts on the basketball court.
In his very limited NBA minutes, Smith has showcased great potential as an on-ball defender. While the Sixers have upgraded their perimeter defense since drafting Smith — Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle — there is still value in elite point-of-attack defenders. Smith can reach that level in due time.
Smith doesn’t have elite versatility due to his short stature, but a 6-foot-10 wingspan and his aforementioned athletic prowess allow Smith to play bigger than his height. He can swoop in for weak-side blocks, aptly contain small forwards, and play free safety when afforded the opportunity.
The Sixers should wait on Smith for his defensive potential alone. Philadelphia needs offense more than defense at the moment, sure, but with Smith, his athletic tools are of a genuinely special variety. He has a chance to add to Philadelphia’s already world-class defensive core.
Where Smith has always needed to most time is offense. He can use his athleticism to finish efficiently at the rim, either as a cutter or a straight-line driver, but Smith’s skill set is otherwise unpolished.
In the 2019 Summer League, Smith unleashed a few new dribble moves — very much a positive sign. He has managed to hit the occasional pull-up jumper in the G-League as well, which is a definite sign of improvement.
Smith’s ball-handling skills are rudimentary at best, but it’s a clear focus of the Sixers’ development program. Smith has the first step and the acceleration to torch opposing defenders on the perimeter. If he can gain some level of consistent control over his handle, a major leap is inevitable.
Another important aspect of Smith’s development is his three-point shot. The Sixers have more than enough questionable shooters on the roster. Smith will need to consistently hit spot-up threes in order to compete for a spot in Brett Brown’s rotation.
Through 28 games in the G-League this season, Smith has shot a cozy 37.6 percent on 4.2 attempts per game. Both numbers — success rate and volume — mark immensely promising growth. Smith’s work ethic and early signs of improvement are grounds for optimism. He is getting better.
While Smith presently lacks the tool kit to contribute to a contender, his combination of athleticism, physical tools, and work ethic all indicate a potential to contribute in the future — perhaps sooner than later.
The Sixers need to cultivate cheap, young talent to complement an expensive core. Even if it takes more time than initially planned, Smith is the type of prospect you bank on. He has the potential of a top-10 pick, his core skills are valuable in the modern NBA landscape, and he has shown an unwavering desire to improve despite a laundry list of obstacles (one of which was a life-threatening allergic reaction).
Smith has done everything necessary to maintain the Sixers’ support, and there is no reason to prematurely end that support. Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson and Raul Neto are all but gone next offseason. There is potentially a void for Smith to fill.
The G-League has given Smith the unique opportunity to get reps in a role much larger than his projected NBA role. He has therefore been able to work on his peripheral skills — ball-handling, shooting, etc. — in an environment conducive to growth.
Philadelphia did not need Smith this season. There’s no reason to have him rot on the bench when he can instead get real-game experience in the G-League. Next season, when a greater need arises, don’t be surprised to see Smith elevated to a higher significance within the organization.