Zhaire Smith is back after a broken foot and a life-threatening allergic reaction resulted in almost two months in hospital and major weight loss. Due to these health issues, he was restricted to just eight games and 116 total minutes in 2018-19 (including playoffs) — basically a lost rookie season.
We all know that Summer League needs to be evaluated with caution. The far lower level of competition and the chances for a random hot stretch in a small sample can easily inflate how good a player looks. However, when focusing on the technicalities of a player’s game, not just made shots, it’s still possible to examine areas of their skillset that are present or lacking.
For a player like Zhaire, who’s in such an early stage of his development, the early returns were nothing but promising. He averaged 12.4 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals on 48.0% from the the floor and 31.2% from three (5-of-16).
Confident, expanded shooting
Perhaps the most encouraging part of Zhaire’s play was his willingness to shoot from three-point range, continuing a trend from last season. He went 6-of-16 from three during his six regular season games as a rookie, attempting 5.2 per 36 minutes. Once he’d settled in a little after playing just 15 minutes over his first two games with only one three point attempt under his belt, he was happy firing from deep.
In Summer League, with an obvious green light to shoot (which should continue next season), Zhaire looked even more confident. Rather than hesitantly relying on wide-open looks, he was pulling the trigger with defenders closing out:
Beyond just taking stationary catch-and-shoot attempts, he sprinkled in more shots off movement as well.
The Philadelphia 76ers' Summer League head coach Connor Johnson intentionally implemented sets to tap into Zhaire's offensive upside and start expanding his skills, stating that “[w]e’re putting Zhaire in a lot of dribble hand-offs, where he can get downhill and make plays”, per Liberty Ballers’ Jackson Frank. Johnson continued with “[w]e’re putting [Smith] in some pick-and-roll situations. We’re running a lot of these flare actions… [t]hat 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].”
When running those flare actions, Zhaire was willing to shoot right away after getting his feet and shoulders set:
He also attempted several mid-range pull-ups coming off dribble hand off actions, the kind of shots that he’s rarely taken before. While these shots will be limited for him next season as he will primarily be playing off the ball (he isn’t a reliable weapon off the dribble yet), the rising confidence and touch can help him add to his repertoire:
The three-pointers in the clip below are easily his best signs of jump shot progress so far. First, a pull-up following a few dribbles and an in-and-out move, followed by a step-back to create separation:
No matter the setting, these aren’t shots Zhaire has been confident attempting before.
There’s a long way to go, and real NBA defenses are going to make life far tougher, but for Zhaire, who played more like a power forward in college and attempted just 1.1 threes per game at Texas Tech, simply upping his shot volume and difficulty is a huge part of his growth as a shooter.
“I’m good with my shot,” Zhaire said, as Jackson Frank reported. “I feel like it’s all in one rhythm, thanks to my trainer, Tyrell Jamerson. He’s helped me a lot this summer.”
Zhaire’s finishing in Summer League is a resounding sign of the condition he's returned to after a rookie season plagued by health concerns. He noted that “I feel like I’m all the way back with my athleticism”, when speaking to Frank at Summer League.
Zhaire was one of the top athletes in his draft class and made sure to hammer home an array of emphatic finishes, highlighting his effortless leaping ability. In transition he sprints to the paint, and once he gets there, he plays well above the rim:
Zhaire’s world-class leaping doesn’t just help him in transition. He has impressive feel in half-court settings, from his nose for the ball on offensive rebounds to a knack for finding smart angles and timing for cuts to the rim. Throw in the springs he calls legs, and he casually makes plays like this. With a nifty fake to send his defender the wrong way, he finds a window to take off for a lob well above the backline of the defense:
Again, this is the kind of play that will fit in perfectly next to Ben Simmons. Especially in lineups featuring Al Horford at center, providing maximum spacing and playmaking for Zhaire to work with. Zhaire will benefit from excellent passers who can find him when he’s open, especially on fast-break lobs or back-door cuts. The numerous lobs Ben threw to Jimmy Butler last year could easily go to Zhaire this season.
The main way for Zhaire to grow as a finisher is by honing his handle (more on this next) and finishing through contact. Beating closeouts will also be particularly important in a largely off-ball role for the Sixers. With a few basic straight line drives, like these baskets in Philly’s third Summer League game, he showed he was comfortable putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim:
Ball handling and passing
Alongside shooting, this is the biggest swing skill for Zhaire. Operating on ball has always been his primary offensive weakness. His ability to attack off the dribble will be a huge factor in determining whether he can reach his upside as more than a stifling defender and high-IQ role player.
Frenetic and out of control drives can be a problem for Zhaire. His limited security and creativity with the ball can lead to turnovers or messy decisions when he heads into traffic:
Gradually adding some more creative dribble moves, getting his handle a little lower and tighter, and sharpening his decision-making when under pressure are key ways for his development to continue.
Along with the simple scoring drives shown earlier, Zhaire looked to attack more closeouts in Summer League and found some success by making controlled kick-out passes:
Even though his current handle and passing reads are limited, he made use of some of his dribble hand-offs by flashing the touch and timing required to make passes like this:
Increased shot volume, difficulty and efficiency from three will be essential in determining how well Zhaire can space the floor and how much playing time he earns. If he can command reasonable respect from his man and accompany that threat with competence off the dribble to keep the ball moving, then the offense will look much smoother when he’s out there.
This is where Zhaire is likely an immediate impact player with an enormous ceiling. He established himself as an elite defensive prospect in college due to his stellar athleticism, instincts, motor, and solid size and strength to cover guards and wings. Many of those skills were on display in his brief return late last season, with his pressure at the point-of-attack and ability to fight around screens standing out. As you'd expect, there were more flashes in Summer League.
And while he isn’t the disruptive off ball presence that Matisse Thybulle is, Zhaire still has the instincts and speed to burst into passing lanes in an instant and help the Sixers’ transition game:
Given Zhaire’s lack of experience, he’ll still have things to work out defensively. For instance, always being in the right spots off the ball and controlling his closeouts (he was too eager when closing out to shooters at times during Summer League, opening up lanes for opponents to go against his momentum and drive when he got too close). But that’s the case for any young player. He already has all the tools to be a positive at that end of the floor, with the potential to be in consideration for All-Defensive teams down the line.
All in all, Zhaire did everything the Sixers could realistically ask for at Summer League. He shot with confidence from three, he’s making progress off the dribble, and his explosion is clearly back. He’s trying moves that simply weren’t in his game a year ago.
“Every game, I feel like my comfort’s getting better,” Zhaire added to Frank. “I feel like I’m improving... like my game’s just increasing every game.”
Despite adding more depth in free agency, the Sixers could still use some help at the end of their wing rotation. There's room for Zhaire to contribute, especially if he proves himself as a viable shooter.
With good health on his side and the rest of the summer to continue working on his craft, everything is shaping up for Zhaire to make his mark in Philadelphia next season.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.