LAS VEGAS — A trend has surfaced during the Philadelphia 76ers’ Summer League stint. Nearly every time Zhaire Smith powers home a dunk, he seems to relish the play a bit more than normal.
He’ll direct a smile to the bench, snarl at opponents or celebrate with teammates. Even on nondescript slams, as if this is a new phenomenon for him. As if he’s savoring them, knowing the opportunity is finite.
Wielding world-class springy athleticism, dunking has long been second nature for Smith. But for a period of time last season, dunking, along with most other parts of life, didn’t come naturally.
After suffering a life-threatening allergic reaction in September, he was bedridden for six weeks before leaving the hospital in early November.
He couldn’t train in any formal capacity until late December, when he began shooting again, with feeding tubes jutting from his stomach. Once casual shootarounds turned to full-throttle sessions in the gym, Smith was greeted by a harsh reality.
”When I’m working out, I try to go up and dunk easily and it wasn’t just happening,” Smith said. “It took time. That kinda messed me up. I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I ain’t got my athleticism no more.’ “
Smith’s tumultuous rookie season stripped him of the learning curve many first-year players experience. Whereas most rookies come to understand the finer details of NBA life regardless of playing time, he wasn’t around the team for a sizable portion of the year.
He first practiced with the team in late February, made his NBA debut on March 25, and totaled just 116 minutes between the regular season and playoffs.
Despite playing a minimal role last year, he represents the final remnant of a Sixers era filled with lottery picks and transactions centered around future assets. The 2018 NBA Draft was one of the deepest in recent history. At 16th overall, Smith fell just beyond the lottery, though he certainly boasts the talent and upside of a top-14 pick.
Given the franchise’s long-term financial commitments to Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Al Horford, it must round out the roster with cost-controlled rotation players.
Rookies like Landry Shamet, who promptly stepped in as a key reserve from day one, won’t emerge in the mid-20s of every draft. As Smith approaches his second season, there is an opening for minutes on the wing.
During Summer League, Smith has been deployed as a diverse offensive weapon, with the coaching staff exploring the depths of his game.
“We’re putting Zhaire in a lot of dribble hand-offs, where he can get downhill and make plays. We’re putting him in some pick-and-roll situations,” Summer League head coach Connor Johnson said. “We’re running a lot of these flare actions … That might not be what it looks like when it comes time for the Sixers but those are good skills to continue to build and continue to add versatility, so he just becomes another weapon within the Sixers’ [offense].”
Smith felt like he forced too many shots last season, “trying to get his points up,” and wants to become a more natural scorer in year two, which primarily revolves around embracing spot-up 3s.
He said transitioning from hefty on-ball usage in Summer League to an ancillary role in the regular season won’t be difficult.
”I always was a role player,” Smith said. “So, I knew coming into the league, I’m not gonna be a superstar.”
To facilitate Smith’s growth as a catch-and-shoot player, the Sixers’ development staff puts him in “environments” that emulate game settings.
They’ll station him in the corner, whirl a pass over and send a defender flying toward him. From there, Smith has to read the situation. Does he shoot the 3? Does he drive? If he attacks the rim, can he create for others?
It emphasizes quick decision-making, processing plays at game speed and the ability to operate as a floor-spacer.
”The most important thing these guys can do is be catch-and-shoot shooters. He’s shooting it pretty well. Matisse [Thybulle] is shooting pretty well,” Johnson said. “That’s gotta be encouraging because, with Joel, with Ben, with those guys creating attention, passes come out, they gotta be guys that can knock it down and guard on the other end. They fit that mold nicely.
“Also, impacting the game in transition. When we look at how [Smith] can affect the game with the Sixers, part of it’s being a knock-down shooter but other things, like finding ways to get easy buckets, offensive rebounding, transition, getting out, getting layups, getting dunks. Having those effort plays, those motor plays add up. I think it’s gonna be really important.”
Smith is experimenting with pull-up jumpers in Las Vegas, a skill he won’t rely on much come October. But it conveys the confidence he’s playing with — something Shake Milton said he didn’t exhibit as a rookie.
”I’m good with my shot,” Smith said. “I feel like it’s all in one rhythm, thanks to my trainer, Tyrell Jamerson. He’s helped me a lot this summer.”
The Sixers don’t need him to blossom into a dominant offensive player, though. They’ve leaned into a defense-first identity, headlined by Embiid, Simmons, Horford and Josh Richardson.
As a 6-foot-4 wing with a 6-foot-10 wingspan and rare functional athleticism, Smith’s calling card is defensive versatility.
Aside from loosely structured scrimmages, that side of the ball can be difficult to improve during the offseason. So, Smith is working with a kinesiologist to fine-tune his footwork by way of cone drills. But don’t expect him to dive into the specifics.
“I can’t let y’all know [exactly what drills I do] because I don’t want nobody stealing them and then their footwork [would] be tremendous,” Smith said.
He’s pleased with his on-ball defense from a season ago, but identified room for growth off the ball, which he said will come with increased repetitions and film sessions.
As Smith continues to distance himself from last September’s allergic reaction — he went from 200 pounds to 160 — he’s rebuilt the strength that enabled him to play power forward at Texas Tech and wrangle with bigger wings.
Johnson said the most beneficial development for Smith in recent months is that reestablished physical profile.
”I feel like I’m all the way back with my athleticism,” Smith said.
Johnson coached Smith during his time with the Delaware Blue Coats in the G League last season, and in the months since then, recognizes newfound ball skills in Smith’s arsenal. He’s more aggressive attacking off the dribble and merges that confidence with high basketball IQ, fueling some interior playmaking.
”Every game, I feel like my comfort’s getting better,” Smith said. “I feel like I’m improving on certain areas that I hadn’t shown last game. I feel like my game’s just increasing every game.”
The Sixers have a handful of players who can be penciled in for significant minutes: Embiid, Simmons, Horford, Richardson, Harris, Mike Scott and James Ennis. They all feel like sure bets to see the floor most nights. Raul Neto probably gets noteworthy burn at backup point guard. Beyond those eight, though, nothing feels concrete.
Rotations don’t expand too deep in the playoffs but the 82-game regular season is a grind. Teams need players to soak up minutes. Smith could be one of those guys.
If he actualizes part of that pre-draft upside, notably as a versatile perimeter defender, it’s possible he becomes a mainstay in next year’s playoff rotation.
“He’s gonna be all up in your stuff as soon as you get the ball,” Milton said. “He’s gonna make it hard for you to score. Offensively, you see him, his head’s at the rim almost every play.”
When the 2019-20 season begins, Smith will be over 12 months removed from his allergic reaction. It’s likely the first time Sixers fans witness a fully unleashed version of him during meaningful NBA action.
By next offseason, he won’t be an enigma. These Summer League performances — he’s averaging 13.3 points and shooting 35.7 percent from 3 through four games — could be a prelude to something bigger.
“That’s my guy. I’m super proud of him,” Milton said. “I always looked at him like a little bro. Every time he shines, I get a smile on my face.”