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How the Sixers’ zero gravity rookie, Zhaire Smith, could help the team upon a return

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With Sixers fans anxious to hear another update on Zhaire Smith, let’s dive in and see how he could help the team as the playoffs approach.

NBA: Summer League-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Leapin’ leptons, Zhaire Smith is almost back in action for the Sixers. The 19-year-old super freak athlete is on the home stretch of his road to recovery from a Jones fracture and a frightening allergic incident that left him about 20 pounds lighter and looking rather frail.

Should he return to the Sixers roster, the youngster will be faced with a rigorous task of integrating himself into the rotation rather quickly as the playoffs loom. At the moment, the Sixers’ rotation is rather fluid and not quite set… which is good and bad. Bad because the hourglass is running low and it’d be VERY optimal for the Sixers to figure out their rotations before they face the elite of the East. Good news is that the fluid rotation allows room for Zhaire to prove himself and find his role if he returns this season.

Quite frankly, the Sixers need someone with Smith’s skill set if they hope to be able to compete with some of the guard competition that lay ahead of them. So let’s take a deeper look where Zhaire Smith can help the Sixers if and when he returns this season.

WHERE HE HELPS:

Perimeter Defense

In his lone season with Texas Tech, Smith contributed tremendously on the defensive end, playing for one of the best defensive teams in the country last season. Giving up the 16th-fewest points per game in all of Division 1 basketball, while holding opposing offenses to 45 percent from two-point range and just 32 percent from 3-point range, the Texas Tech Red Raiders made their money (figuratively, obviously) on the defensive side of the ball.

Zhaire Smith was a necessary cog in that defensive machine. He posted the 2nd-most total minutes on the team, and clocked in at a DFRTG of 95.1, 5th among the players on Texas Tech who played meaningful minutes (and we’ll get there later, but his offensive rating surprised me more than anything else).

Although he stands at 6-foot-4, Smith boasts a near 6-foot-10 wingspan, and it’s no secret that he has alien-like athleticism that he uses to hound ball handlers. At Texas Tech, he was mainly assigned to guard the two, but it seemed like he could comfortably guard positions one through three.

The Sixers currently rank dead last in the league in giving up shots off 3-6 dribbles. A whopping 23 percent of opponents’ shots come off 3-6 dribbles, and another 12.4 percent come off 7 dribbles or more. While they still cling to the 11th-best defensive rating in the league, anyone who has watched them this season can tell you that opposing guards tend to have the ability to probe the Sixers’ front line via the pick-and-roll at will and get the shots they want.

Liberty Ballers’ Jackson Frank went more in-depth on the Sixers’ defense before the turn of the new year.

Much how Smith was a backcourt defensive savant in college, the Sixers would benefit greatly if they can can bring Smith off the bench to match up against possible playoff matchups like Terry Rozier, the entire Nets roster, Kyle Lowry, Malcolm Brogdon, and several other potential possibilities.

Depth

Just an 18-year-old freshman at the time, Smith took on a tremendous responsibility on a tournament-worthy Texas Tech team. The Red Raiders were led by senior captain Keenan Evans, who was their leader in every sense of the word. Much like the 2008 Phillies and Jimmy Rollins… when Evans went, they went. While Evans did everything he could to push Texas Tech to the Elite Eight, Smith was right there as second fiddle.

Smith had the sixth-highest usage rate on Texas Tech (around 18 percent), but averaged the second-most points and posted a BPM of 12 (!!), by far the highest on the team, and 5.6 WS. He was an 18-year-old freshman doing this!! He was able to give the Red Raiders extremely high quality minutes and did what he had to do to help them make a deep-ish run in the tournament (until they got mowed down by the eventual champions (and I will not say their name).

The Sixers don’t necessarily need Smith to come back and play out of his mind in order for this rushed experiment to succeed; for now, they really just need Zhaire to give them solid minutes off the bench and play within himself. With a starting five that is good enough to get on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Smith can look to contribute in ways he’s comfortable without being too heavily relied upon for the team’s overall success.

Transition

Zhaire Smith really broke onto the scene in the first round of the NCAA Tournament where he started his public campaign against gravity, throwing down a 360 alley oop against SF Austin and giving a DeAndre Jordan-level reaction to his own dunk… grimacing as if his athletic phenomenon was the worst smelling thing in the arena.

It’s no secret that he’s gifted with athletic abilities that make the common man feel like a failure, and the Sixers will be able to take great advantage of that once he’s back in action. In the combine, Smith ran the second-fastest three quarter court sprint at 3.05 seconds (0.01 seconds behind Josh Okogie). He somehow didn’t outjump the entire structure on the vertical leap and placed third-highest with an absurd 41.5 inch vertical.

While the Sixers play with the seventh-fastest pace in the league, I’m sure a kid with quads thicker than my head and a knack for levitating can find a role in the run-and-gun Sixers’ transition offense. The trio of Ben Simmons, Zhaire Smith, and Jonah Bolden could make for some highlights that could give you enough adrenaline to substitute for cocaine (don’t do drugs, watch the Sixers).

WHERE HE STILL NEEDS TO IMPROVE:

Shooting

At first glance, it looks pretty good! 45 percent from 3! 55 percent from the field overall! But his shot is far from knockdown and still needs work in order for it to be effective at the next level. Videos have shown that during his rehab he’s been reworking his shot. The jury is still out on if it’s already a fix or just another form that needs additional work. It would be awesome if Smith could be a knockdown spot-up shooter for the Sixers off the bench. He ferociously crashes the boards from the perimeter and can be still be a weapon in a spaced-out offense.

Handle

Less to say about this one, he just has a bit of a sloppy handle and moves with the ball very rigidly, dribbling in the open court like he’s hunchbacked.

Strength

From a human standpoint, it really does just flat out suck that Smith was affected by the sesame allergy that caused him to drop significant weight and set back his Jones fracture recovery. It’s hard enough for a young rookie to adapt to the speed of the NBA, but throw on the added challenge of doing it mid-season, and coming back from an energy/muscle depleting illness, and the task seems insurmountable.

Personally, I didn’t think Smith would play at all this year, so it’s great to see that he’s already back to basketball activity and working in the gym again. He’s a bit undersized for the NBA and will have to play smart basketball on both ends of the court to ensure he doesn’t get out-bodied and bullied. If he does come back and this is the case, he has an entire summer to get back in the gym and on the court to return to form.

While we still wait for news surrounding his debut for the Blue Coats and whether he’ll be ready to return to the Sixers this season, go ahead and watch some highlights on a loop and wonder how in the world a human being can jump that high.