It’s easy to overlook Zhaire Smith considering he missed 76 games in what should have been his rookie season. But overlooked and unimpactful are very different things.
And it’s hard to argue the potential impact Smith can have on the basketball court.
In college, Smith was a reliable contributor in his lone season at Texas Tech. He averaged 11.3 points, five rebounds and 1.8 assists, helping to lead the Red Raiders to the Elite Eight.
He backed up the pre-draft hype in the Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 7.7 points and 2.7 assists in 24 minutes per game, showing good court vision and creativity and an innate ability to push the pace and score the ball in transition.
And while those numbers don’t jump off the page, a closer examination of his better performances provides a fuller story of what scouts saw. There’s the 16-point, three-assist, three-steal and one-block performance he had in last year’s Las Vegas Summer League against the Los Angeles Lakers. Or his 18-point, nine-assist and seven-rebound outing against Florida in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. And his 21-point and eight-rebound performance earlier in the season against Iowa State.
While these are only a few examples, it’s that kind of versatility that made scouts drool over his potential. And that coupled with the fact that he was the fourth youngest player in the draft makes the imaginations of front office personnel go wild.
For those slightly out of touch with last year’s draft day happenings, Smith was part of a 2018 trade that sent the rights to the tenth pick in the draft (Mikal Bridges) from Philadelphia to the Phoenix Suns for the rights to the sixteenth pick (Smith) and the HEAT’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. And while Bridges was probably a better fit with the team on day one, Smith was seen as having a higher ceiling.
But Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot in August, which derailed his rookie debut.
The 76ers wisely chose to allow Smith to rehabilitate his foot slowly, which was a win-win considering the depth of talent on the 76ers roster and the fact that Smith’s impact would have been limited on the contending 76ers.
But teams can change quickly in the modern NBA and the 76ers roster has its share of uncertainty. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris will both be unrestricted free agents, and both will receive numerous offers from teams around the league looking to add talent and versatility.
Both could come back. And both could move on. Either way, Smith will likely be a 76er at the beginning of the 2019-20 season.
And yet, his role isn’t entirely clear. 76ers Head Coach Brett Brown recently spoke with Philly.com about Smith.
“From where he was to where he is, it’s a remarkable story of perseverance, of toughness. What he went through this year says a lot about the person – it really speaks volumes. For that reason, I think his athleticism and a skill set that’s growing combined with the human side of it is pretty impressive.”
While Brown spoke highly of Smith, he didn’t divulge much about his role with the 76ers next season. But to be fair, Smith isn’t entirely clear on it either.
“I do not have a clue,” Smith recently told Basketball Insiders. “I’ll just continue to work on my game and let them (the 76ers coaching staff) make that decision.”
But the good news for Sixers’ fans is that the still-19-year old Smith will essentially be another rookie come the start of next season, having sat through the 2018-19 season, save the six appearances he made. He has also observed high-stakes, playoff basketball up close and personal – and he may even play spot minutes in them – all of which adds up to a strong head start for a young player.
Smith conceded that observing the first-round series against Brooklyn has been a valuable learning experience.
“I’ve just been looking to learn,” Smith said. “It’s a lot to soak in and learn. Every game I’m just learning.”
And having another defacto rookie could benefit the 76ers, especially if they lose Butler and/or Harris. In that situation, the 76ers would need to restock their cupboard around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons relatively quickly and effective players on rookie deals can be very valuable.
What’s more, the Sixers don’t have much draft capital in the near future, having cashed in much of it to trade for Tobias Harris. While the 76ers still possess more than their share of second-round picks in the next few drafts, their once rich stash of first-round picks has dwindled considerably.
The 76ers traded away the better of the Kings 2019 first-round pick and their own to the Boston Celtics in order trade up to select Markelle Fultz in 2017.
They also parted ways with their own lottery protected 2020 first-round pick in the Tobias Harris trade, as well as the unprotected 2021 Miami HEAT first-round pick.
The 76ers are left with only one first-round pick in each of the next three drafts – obviously not bad, but far from the embarrassment of riches they possessed as of Sam Hinke’s departure in 2016.
But the 76ers lack of draft capital makes Smith’s rookie contract all the more valuable to the 76ers moving forward. Especially since he’s gotten some NBA experience under his belt, albeit only five games.
But those games gave him insight into the speed and physicality of the NBA game. Sure, his first few contests were mostly forgettable; but in his last two, Smith averaged 14 points, 3.5 assists and three rebounds in approximately 30 minutes of action. He shot over 50 percent from the field and three for eight from three-point range. Say what you will about games at the end of the season, but those are impressive stats from a 19-year old who battled back from an awkward foot injury for much of the year.
And sure, his priorities and the team’s are probably a bit different right now – with Smith looking ahead to next season and the Sixers remaining focused on the present. But that doesn’t mean that Smith hasn’t taken full advantage of being along for the ride. He has done so by leveraging the numerous veterans on the roster as often possible.
Smith’s maturity was on full display when discussing the role that the 76ers vets have played in his development.
“Everybody. All of the vets (have been helpful). They reiterate what I have to do,” Smith said. When asked to specify which one has been most helpful, Smith found it too difficult to pick just one.
“James (Ennis), Jimmy (Butler) and Greg (Monroe) have all been important. All of them really.”
So while Smith a still a bit of an unknown to the NBA and its fans, there is reason to believe that Smith is here to stay. Smith is a strong fit for the position-less league and he makes for a nearly perfect complement to his 76er teammates, which he spoke about last June.
“I grew up watching Ben Simmons while he was in high school and at LSU,” Smith told Sixers Wire last June. “He’s a good passer and I feel like I can move off the ball, so he can make me look good.”
Here’s to watching him grow into a perfect supplemental piece.