Zhaire Smith is finally playing NBA basketball. First, a Jones fracture ruled him out before he even had a chance to make his NBA debut. Then, as if that wasn’t enough misfortune to begin his career, Smith had an allergic reaction to sesame that restricted him to a feeding tube for almost two months, kept him in hospital for six weeks, and led to him losing 40 pounds. The fact he’s even playing is one of the most feel-good stories of the Philadelphia 76ers’ season.
To bring the roller coaster of Smith’s year to an end in truly Sixers fashion, he isn’t just being welcomed in with garbage-time minutes and minimal expectations either. For some fans, and even head coach Brett Brown (more than he’d like to admit), it’s time to consider whether Smith can contribute at all in the playoffs.
This is rarely the case for rookies. Many can’t be relied upon to contribute towards winning basketball, especially in the playoffs. This should be more applicable than ever for a rookie in Zhaire Smith’s position, approaching the postseason with fewer than 100 minutes playing time to his name.
Yet for Philly — with Jonathon Simmons out of the rotation, James Ennis injured with a right quad contusion for at least the start of the first round, and no formidable perimeter defense even when they’re at full strength — asking too much of Smith could be necessary.
Smith’s 11 games in the G League this season weren’t pretty. He made just five of his 25 3-point attempts, tallied as many turnovers (17) as assists, and wound up with a minus-5.5 Box Plus/Minus. But you can’t ask much of an already raw player returning from so much physical hardship. It’s understandable Smith had his struggles.
They’ve continued in his brief spell in the NBA, too. He’s had some ugly missed shots with his readjusted shooting form, his handle will be a work-in-progress for some time, and he’s naturally had a few defensive breakdowns off the ball.
Perhaps the best sequence to characterize Smith’s game right now was the following play against Milwaukee. He anticipates the pass and breaks it up with his 6-foot-10 wingspan to fly off in an instant, only to let his speed carry him away and lose control of the ball before having a chance to dunk it home:
However, we’ve also seen evidence of what Smith can do, flashes of the potential that encouraged Philly to swing for his upside on draft night.
Primarily, it comes down to his defense. Everything about Smith’s defensive profile — the world-class athleticism, the switchability across both guard spots and some wings, the on-ball tenacity, the highlight ability for blocks and steals — is everything the Sixers’ defense has lacked this season. The loss of Robert Covington (who elevated himself into a top Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Minnesota before injury) has been evident, while the lack of consistency at backup center and poor point-of-attack defense has hurt the team all season. Pretty much any notable guard you can think of has exploded against Philly.
If there’s one thing Smith is built to do, it’s cover the point of attack.
His first promising stint was a 10-minute run against the Dallas Mavericks, in which he flashed everything in his defensive arsenal.
To start things off, he fought his way around a screen, threw his body back in front of Courtney Lee with arms raised to swallow up the drive attempt, and forced a travel:
Smith has stellar lateral quickness and effort on the ball. He has no trouble preventing Trey Burke from dribbling around Salah Mejri’s screen here, before changing direction and smothering Burke’s drive to force a pass:
This play demonstrates Smith’s shiftiness on the ball as well, as he turns, hurries back to stop an easy drive, and contests the jumper:
And let’s not forget his chase-down block:
These are the kinds of plays that the Sixers have been missing all season.
As an alternate option from T.J. McConnell (who can be left unguarded offensively and singled out defensively), Smith could be tried as the point guard defender in lineups that already have Ben Simmons to lead the offense. It doesn’t escape the problem of a non-shooting threat on the floor with Simmons, but it does remove a defender in McConnell who can be attacked on the ball and hunted through switches.
Offense is the real issue for Smith. Defenses aren't going to respect his 3-point shot until he proves himself, and his control with the ball is going to be questionable.
For now, the encouraging takeaway with Smith’s shot is that he’s at least been willing to shoot. I know this isn't the most ringing endorsement you want for a player at this point of the season (welcome to the Sixers' bench), but Smith being comfortable enough to attempt plays like the following is something.
To free himself up, Smith makes a hard cut to send his defender the wrong way, before darting back to the arc to take a dribble hand-off and shoot the 3:
Smith’s best hope to provide any real value on offense right now, though, will be through his high IQ and feel for cutting. He knows how to reposition himself and find gaps in the defense to sneak to the basket. Or use his burst for quick line drives and finishes (he scored 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting against Miami on Wednesday, with three drives/cuts and a triple):
With the starters set to play around 38-40 minutes once the playoffs start, Ennis would have been in place to soak up the bulk of backup wing/forward minutes next to Mike Scott. If Ennis is out of the picture, the prospect of playing the next veteran in his place, Jonathon Simmons, is worrying.
Brett Brown initially said at the end of March that playing Smith in the playoffs would be “quite ambitious.” On April 6, with Ennis injured, Brown confirmed that he’d moved Smith ahead of Jonathon Simmons in his rotation.
Despite saying he’s expecting Smith to sit in the playoffs, Brown added, “I give myself some wiggle room in that James Ennis being injured... just to have (Smith) available is really, especially with James’ injury, is good news”.
Even with such minimal experience, you can see why Brown moved Smith ahead of Simmons. Put together Smith’s impressive IQ, cutting instincts, and, first and foremost, his physical impact as a point-of-attack defender, and there’s no reason Simmons (who’s shooting 25.5 percent from 3, looks clueless on the floor, and ranks 505th out of 513 players in Real Plus/Minus) should be playing instead.
The Brooklyn Nets in particular would have some challenging assignments to throw at the Sixers. Armed with several dynamic players in D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, and Spencer Dinwiddie who can create shots off the dribble or attack the rim, the Sixers’ struggles against guards would be on display. Russell averaged 21 points against them this season, while Dinwiddie was well over his 16.9-point-per-game average at 23.8, thanks to two 30-point outings. This is where Smith — more so than Simmons or Furkan Korkmaz — makes sense.
Is he totally ready for the playoffs? Of course not. No rookie could be with just a handful of games under his belt. But as someone who can provide a spark of on-ball defense to address one of the team's biggest issues, he's more ready than the alternatives to play around 10 minutes a game in the first round while Ennis is out.
As the rounds advance and opposing defenses intensify (whether it's Toronto or Milwaukee), it will only be more difficult for Smith to contribute with his offensive concerns. At that point, with Ennis ideally healthy, it will be best to trust experience.
But for now, with what should be a fairly straightforward first-round win, Smith is worth a shot.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and ESPN.com.