The Philadelphia 76ers could have gone in the direction many fans were hoping in the 2018 NBA Draft. They were on the clock with the 10th pick. Mikal Bridges was available and ready to fit in seamlessly as a talented, high-floor, 3-and-D prospect. But after selecting Bridges, the Sixers traded him away for Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith and Miami’s 2021 unprotected first-round pick from the Phoenix Suns.
First off, I’ll say that I was strongly on Team Bridges. Versatile forwards that can defend multiple positions, shoot threes, and play smart offense are more sought after than ever. A team like the Boston Celtics has shown the value of loading up on as many of those wings as you can. Bridges would have been a perfect fit in Philly with room to grow as well, but that doesn't mean this was a bad move.
Not at all.
The Sixers have opted for more upside with Zhaire Smith, taking a player who has far more off-the-dribble potential and is maybe the most explosive athlete in this year’s draft class. That’s a risk they can afford taking, especially when acquiring an extra draft pick in the process.
An unprotected first-rounder isn't easy to come by. It's a valuable asset, whether you’re looking for another shot in the draft or something to bulk up any trade offer (something that Brett Brown has already hinted at). Miami’s 2021 first-rounder could wind up being a good one, too — they have multiple hefty, long-term contracts eating up a bunch of their salary cap over the next couple of years to prevent them from adding too much in free agency, and they don’t exactly have any budding superstars waiting to break out in the next few years.
“Did we seek it? No,” Brett Brown said when discussing the trade of Bridges for Smith. “Had this opportunity not come up, we would have been thrilled to move on as our draft reflected and the selection reflected and so we did talk about it to actively pursue it. That was not on the cards, it happened organically, it wasn’t something that we sought. They chased us and they chased us hard and obviously, the rewards and assets that they gave up were something that was hard for us to backpedal from."
The Sixers were high enough on Smith to the point that he was their ‘1B’, as Brown described, so trading down to get him and another asset was the perfect way to handle it. It’s reminiscent of the Celtics trading down for Jayson Tatum last year while picking up an extra future first-rounder from the Sixers.
It’s also worth noting that the Sixers will save around $1 million in cap space by trading down from the higher salary of a 10th overall pick, which may only be a small change in their cap position, but one that helps a team pushing for a max free agent like LeBron James or Paul George.
Everything involved in this move makes it feel very Sam Hinkie-esque. It's a Process pick, placing emphasis on upside and the team’s future, filling a chest of trade chips to have at the ready. Well done, GM Brett Brown.
As for Zhaire Smith, there’s plenty to like there, too.
Offensively, Smith spent quite a lot of time operating as a power forward at Texas Tech, diving to the rim and scoring off cuts to pick up easy points. This isn't ideal for a guard entering the NBA, and Smith's ball handling needs work. He'll need to be able to beat his man with more than straight-line drives and attacks past closeouts. Working on creating more out of the odd pick-and-roll or simply utilizing his athleticism to score with more pull-ups and acrobatic drives/floaters should be a priority.
That said, Smith's role in college did let him play to his strengths and develop skills that can complement the Sixers without him needing the ball.
Smith's IQ is impressive. He has a great feel for the game with high-level instincts to put himself in the right spots to get after the ball, from executing smart cuts to his keen eye for offensive rebounds. Using good timing and positioning (not to mention pogo-stick leaping ability), he was able to average 2.2 offensive boards in his 28.4 minutes per game:
You can see from plays like these how easy it is for Smith to play above the rim, whether he’s throwing down a 360 alley-oop or slipping screens to dart down the lane for quick finishes:
In Philly, Smith should only look better in these situations. With bigs who can stretch the floor from behind the arc like Dario Saric, Joel Embiid and Ersan Ilyasova (if he comes back), and an incredible passer in Ben Simmons to find him at just the right moments, Smith should be able to succeed off the ball, doing little things with emphasis until he’s able to improve with the ball and as a shooter (more on that in a moment).
On the subject of how he’ll team up with Simmons, watching them tear past teams in transition will be a joy:
Smith can also be used creatively by Brown. The Sixers head coach uses plenty of crafty off-ball screening from his guards, and Smith provides a different dynamic with the way he can fly to the rim when defenses fall a step behind. Swapping his athletic play for J.J. Redick or Marco Belinelli in the Simmons-plus-four-shooters lineup that was so effective last season (Simmons-Belinelli-Redick-Saric-Ilyasova) would be a fun way to stretch out defenses and make the most of this.
Of course, not everything is so positive. Smith’s jump shot is the main weakness. He shot 45 percent on his 3s last season, but attempted just 40 and passed up good looks at times. His modest 71.7 percent free throw mark doesn’t offer too much encouragement about his jumper at this point either.
Even though he’s tightened up his mechanics leading up to the draft and has reduced the impact his guide hand has, there’s room for improvement. You can see from these 3-point attempts that his release is fairly slow. He’ll need to get a lot more comfortable and increase his attempts to keep his defender drawn outside, providing more space for the Sixers’ offense. It’ll be key for him being a consistent contributor:
Zhaire Smith going through shooting drills. It still takes awhile for him to get it off, which needs to be corrected in his development. pic.twitter.com/nvczOv5M7n— Evan Sidery (@esidery) June 16, 2018
No one likes shooting issues, but it’s something that can be developed and it’s not like Smith is trying to recover from abysmal form or zero made threes in college. There’s ability there and he has serious potential for creating space with his speed and bounce. Plus, Brett Brown has said that the Sixers believe Smith’s jumper is much further along than other teams think, and that he shouldn’t fall into the same group that Simmons and Markelle Fultz have with their own struggles.
We’ve also heard that Fultz is “way ahead of pace” in repairing his jumper with trainer Drew Hanlen, as Hanlen discussed himself on the Talking Schmidt Podcast. Perhaps Smith, who now has multiple teammates who have worked with Hanlen in Joel Embiid, Justin Anderson and Fultz, could spend some time with the world-class trainer as well.
In the meantime, Smith can further his impact on the game through his defense. Before even watching him play, his measurements alone are solid, with his strong, 6’4” frame, 6’9.75” wingspan and 41.5 inch max vertical.
The same explosiveness that lets Smith fly to the rim on offense helps him at the other end of the floor, giving him the quickness to fly around the floor to close out well on shooters, smother guards, and disrupt plays around the rim as a weak-side help defender.
While Smith doesn’t have the size to handle all power forwards (and his athletic tools won’t be so far above his competition in the NBA), he does have enough bulk and length to switch around when need be through positions 1 to 3. This sequence is a perfect example of all his physical gifts and IQ going to work:
Smith bumps through a high screen like it’s nothing, anticipates the pass to the screener, and executes a quick switch. Then, he finishes the play perfectly, locking down the drive with his arms raised to force his man into a shot, before exploding off two feet in the blink of an eye to get a block.
Smith’s intensity and motor can help right away. Look here how he sticks closely to his man off the ball and denies any passes to the corner or around the basket, before rising up for a powerful rejection:
Despite being a 6’4” guard, Smith averaged 1.1 blocks per game and ranked ninth in the Big 12 in block percentage. Smith being able to hound the point of attack is something the Sixers will appreciate. T.J. McConnell was the team’s best bet in the playoffs against quick, dynamic guards like Terry Rozier. McConnell clearly can’t do it all and Smith is a major athletic upgrade, one who can be thrown in to force guards out of rhythm.
Another problem for the Sixers in the playoffs was how J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli were abused on switches, either getting bullied in the post by guards like Marcus Smart or beaten off the dribble by the swift strides of Jayson Tatum. Put Smith in the game, and these mismatches can’t happen — he’s far too quick on his feet to just be blown by time and time again at the arc, with too much mass and leaping ability to be a target in the post.
If the Sixers are able to get their hands on Paul George in free agency, just imagine how fierce a Simmons-Smith-George-Covington-Embiid lineup would be. Guards would be smothered outside and bothered by length all over the floor, with the horrible task of trying to beat Embiid at the rim if they can make their way to the paint. Dreamy defensive lineups aside, though, Smith has a chance to provide a spark however the team’s roster shapes up.
All things considered, I’m still not overly confident that Smith will be a better player than Mikal Bridges. How his shot and handle develop will be question marks for some time. But with his remarkable athleticism and feel on the court, Smith at least has a chance to be better.
“We are star hunting or we are star developing,” Brett Brown said after the draft. “That’s how you win a championship.”
Even if Smith only winds up as an average three-point shooter and is never too dynamic creating off the dribble, he should still find a role by scoring in transition, cutting, and defending at an elite level. And if he does reach his ceiling, developing into a sound shooter with crisper ball handling and a more diverse game off the bounce, he’ll be a brilliant two-way weapon to complement the stars around him.
Combine that with the value of an unprotected first-round pick, and this move is a clear win for Philly.