The highlight of the Philadelphia 76ers’ Las Vegas Summer League so far may have been Furkan Korkmaz’s sudden explosion for 40 points with eight threes against the Boston Celtics. Now that he has fallen back to reality with 1-of-18 shooting through the last two games, though, there’s no doubt that rookie Zhaire Smith has been the more impressive prospect.
Of course, due to the small sample size and level of competition, there's only so much stock you can put into Summer League games. But they aren’t meaningless. Rather than someone simply getting hot to score 25 points, the focus should be on whether players are showcasing athleticism and skill development that can translate to the NBA. Fortunately for the Sixers, this is what Smith has started to do.
Smith’s first game was a quiet one. He wasn’t too involved in the offense, finishing with seven points, two rebounds, two assists, one steal, and 3-of-7 shooting. Philly’s third game against Washington was similar, with Smith shooting just 1-of-9 from the floor for two points in what was an ugly affair all around for the team (the Sixers shot 35.1 percent from the field with 21 turnovers).
Still, even though Smith hasn’t created much offensively, and we’ve seen how his ball handling and shooting need work (his improving form and confidence on spot-ups is looking pretty good, though), he has made plays to highlight exactly why he was the Sixers’ “1B” target in the draft. As game two rolled around against the Lakers, with Smith getting far more touches offensively, he made another statement about his early development. 16 points (including a three-pointer), two rebounds, three assists, three steals, one block, highlight dunks and strong defense was everything the Sixers could have asked for when the pulled the trigger on the deal with Phoenix.
Smith’s movement offensively is one of the best things he brings to the table right away. He has an excellent feel for how to operate off the ball, knowing when to cut to help teammates or exploit gaps in a defense. His high basketball IQ and constant activity allows him to make the most of athleticism that lets him flash to the basket in an instant. The first play of this clip in particular shows that aspect of his game. Smith sees Landry Shamet is trapped in the corner, shifts to the arc and makes a crafty cut to the basket behind his man the second the defender overcommits:
Unfortunately, Smith won’t enjoy the luxury of more Summer League-level defense when he gets started in the NBA, but his cutting will only look better with Ben Simmons finding angles Smith’s college and Summer League teammates could only dream of utilizing.
The same instincts apply to Smith’s work on the offensive glass. Besides having the springs to fly above the rim with ease, he has terrific timing and anticipation to get after the ball. Powerful putback dunks like these are the culmination of all that:
Smith operated as a power forward at Texas Tech, so his role as a playmaker and ball handler was very limited. He showed flashes of passing ability and vision in college, though, and passes like these demonstrate his early growth and confidence:
On the first play, he cleverly looks away from Cameron Oliver and hesitates with the ball to freeze his defender, creating a bigger window to find Oliver for the dunk. The second assist is the kind of quick drive and dump-off pass that he’ll need in his arsenal to beat closeouts in the NBA. Flashes of playmaking in college aside, some of these plays have been welcome surprises.
“We’re trying to get [Smith] to be as aggressive as we can,” Philly’s Summer League head coach Kevin Young said after the Lakers game, per The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. “Especially with [Landry] Shamet going out, there’s more opportunity for someone to be that offensive guy. I don’t think it’s innately in his DNA, but I think this is a great environment for him to explore that.”
Smith’s confidence has transferred over to his jump shot, too. It’s the swing skill he has to work on right now, but part of the reason the Sixers were so high on him before the draft was that they felt he was further along with his jumper than other teams may have suspected. His form has looked solid in practices leading up to Summer League, and while tweaks can be made — such as ensuring his guide hand doesn’t alter his shot’s trajectory at all, and possibly speeding up his release a little — it’s reassuring to see him going into smooth catch-and-shoot threes like this without any hesitation (and hit a tough, contested pull-up, too, even if the gather was a little clunky):
Some of his misses haven’t looked bad, either. Despite the threes not falling for the most part over his first few games, Smith has relocated around the arc to find space (as he does with the three-pointer above), and generally hasn’t hesitated when he’s open to shoot.
Smith has been aggressive on defense as well. His physical prowess has already been on display, partnered with sharp instincts that have helped him make some smart plays off the ball.
This first play is a great example of how disruptive Smith can be with his speed and motor:
As his man, Jabari Bird, starts heading around the arc to curl off a screen from Semi Ojeleye, Smith stays in the play by darting under the screen and running past Guerschon Yabusele. Even with those two big bodies to get past, Smith still manages to close out on Bird and force him to abandon a three-pointer in the middle of the shot and pass instead. A luckier bounce of the ball and the Sixers would’ve had a fast break opportunity.
Here, things do go Smith’s way for a transition score. He perfectly times his move across the lane to help on the roller, strip the ball away with his quick hands, and fly down the court to set up Oliver for a dunk:
A lot of remarkable athletes try to make it in the NBA, but Zhaire Smith has a feel for the game that allows him to maximize his athleticism with more than just a few highlight plays. The next step to ensure he can be a consistent factor offensively — and maintain space for others — is getting to a point where he’s at least close to average on catch-and-shoot threes. Smith won’t need to be a creator in Philadelphia’s offense, and can play to his strengths moving off the ball while serving as an explosive spark on defense.
To go one step further and be reliable with the ball, which will go a long way to getting him extra minutes, Smith will also need to tighten up his handle. Improvement in that area will ensure he’s in control attacking closeouts and handling the ball in half court settings.
At this initial stage of his NBA career, we are just starting to see what Smith can do, and there’s a lot to be encouraged about from a Sixers perspective. Even if a crisp handle is too much to ask for in his rookie season, his impressive feel for the game at both ends of the floor still gives him a chance to contribute. If Smith can add any shot creation to that package going forward, his ceiling is as high as his vertical.