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Don’t you forget about Zhaire Smith

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The most athletic prospect from the 2018 draft has been improving and knows you wanted to trade him last January

2019 Las Vegas Summer League - Philadelphia 76ers v Detroit Pistons Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

“Don’t you, forget about Z....Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t”

Not long ago (OK it seems like a lifetime ago) when Josh Richardson was injured at the end of January, we did a “catch up” on Zhaire Smith, where our Kevin F. Love took a look at some areas of improvement the former Texas Tech star made this season for the Blue G.O.A.T.S Coats. Smith ended up seeing 32 minutes of sporadic action for the Sixers this year and didn’t do enough to earn a rotation spot for the upcoming playoffs. But so much is up in the air. Assuming we do have NBA games soon, will every Sixer who we project to be in the rotation even want to play? Of those who do want to play, what happens if the long layoff leads to some soft-tissue injuries or what happens if another player tests positive for Covid-19? There are a couple scenarios where Head Coach Brett Brown is forced to turn to guys like Smith to help him continuing fighting for his job and to keep the Sixers’ championship hopes alive.

Look, the planet is already in rarefied air and nothing is normal. Why not check in on the prospect who is most comfortable playing up in the air and who has learned to find some inner-strength when nothing else, including life itself, is certain? Especially if the team could find themselves depending on him in a matter of weeks.

First some highlights and music to refresh your memory:

No smooth ride

The 16th overall pick in the 2018 draft has had no smooth ride. Smith broke his foot during the same summer he was selected by the suns then traded to the Sixers on draft night. In Philadelphia stuff like this seems to fall under the typical category of “rookie hazing.” Other teams duct tape you to a goal post, make you pick up a monster Chick-fil-A order, fill your new Audi with popcorn. But Philly is no cupcake city. Here you gotta break a foot or forget how to shoot to truly earn people’s respect. But almost two months after the foot, Smith had a near-death experience after eating chicken that crossed paths with some peanuts or sesame (they still don’t know for sure) which triggered a horrifying allergic reaction that landed him in a Cherry Hill hospital fighting for his life. The typical hazing doesn’t hold a candle to what Smith has endured.

Six weeks after the incident that happened in late September 2018, out of the woods but still with a long recovery period ahead, here was how Alex Schultz described the situation for GQ Magazine:

“It was mid-November 2018, and Zhaire Smith didn’t recognize himself in the mirror. His face was gaunt, his arms gangly, his once-200-pound, 6’5” frame reduced to a barely-there 160 pounds. Four tubes protruded from his stomach and chest—one for feeding, the rest to keep fluids from draining into his lungs.”

This fanbase, inured to that feeling when a reasonable glimmer of hope explodes into a mushroom cloud of disappointment, took it in stride:

It’s been almost two years now since Smith broke his foot. To my knowledge there are no lingering concerns related to that injury. The allergy incident was certainly a bit more complicated and the impact it had on his athleticism and jump shot lingered.

Allergy symptoms: sneezing, wheezing, rash, new release point on your jumper

Upon losing so much muscle, Smith’s shooting form changed significantly. His release point drifted wide right like a football in the wind to make up for the lack of power he felt after losing all the weight. But that compensation lingered well after he put the muscle back on:

Here was what he said at the time via NBC Sports’ Noah Levick:

“[Moving the release point] just came naturally when I lost all that weight,” he said. “When I hit the gym for the first time, right when I put it up, it was just right there. It’s just been there ever since — it just came natural. I didn’t really put it there. It came there alone, by itself.”

It made sense because shooting off to the side like that allows one to generate more power though that can make it more difficult to aim. It’s wasn’t ideal, but the important thing at that time, was not his mechanics. His stomach still literally dangling with tubes, the point then was to get back into a gym and get his body and spirit stronger. But once it was time to consider cracking the Sixers rotation, the jumper started to matter again.

And as a fan I hoped beyond hope his new wonky mechanics wouldn’t stick and become muscle memory. Here, if you can’t stick an open triple you can’t play.

Here was how Connor Johnson, Blue G.O.A.T.S Coats Head Coach put it for Liberty Ballers last summer:

”The most important thing these guys can do is be catch-and-shoot shooters. [Smith’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.”

And to his credit, Smith remade his shot yet again, the release point now back over his head:

Whew! Let’s GoOoOoO!

After a cold start in the G League over 2019-2020 he shot 44.4 percent over his final 99 deep-ball attempts and finished the year at a respectable 37.6 percent on just over 4 attempts per contest. Very solid. His True Shooting percentage was a promising .610. These are small samples but his form certainly looks a lot better than it did one year ago, even if his follow through is still inconsistent:

Upside

Through one lens, Smith, always a terrific prospect, one of the most athletic players in the 2018 draft, who just turned 21 this month, was always going to need time to develop. His foot injury and allergy incident pushed back a timeline for readiness that was already going to take a couple of seasons. So maybe now we’re back on that original schedule. Through another lens, his strength and athleticism were back by last summer, yet he couldn’t crack the Sixers rotation at all and was often not even the best player on the Blue GOATS and all of that suggests a bleak outlook for his future. If those lenses were ice cream scoops, and we needed to create a forecast sundae, I’d put about 3 or 4 of those first scoops in my bowl and only one dollop of the sour lens to account for all of the info.

Consider me a Zhaire truther, even if my expectations may not be as high as they were back in June of 2018.

In his own words

Oh! I found some fun quotes from Zhaire himself:

Watching Smith’s highlights, it’s hard not to be reminded of Matisse Thybulle. His vision and athleticism allows him to blow up plays and ignite fast breaks, where he can get out and finish faster and higher than plenty of NBA players. He’s extremely unselfish. We know Matisse has made an impact at times this season for the Sixers. I don’t really expect it to happen for Smith this year. Most likely, he’ll be able to continue to improve and put space between him and his nightmarish summer of 2018. By the supposed start of the 2021 season it will have been over two years since the incident. But if push came to shove and Coach Brown did have to turn to Zhaire to win some key bench minutes during a critical matchup, he’s shown the raw talent and improved jump shot mechanics to deliver in an unexpected spot. I’m hoping he gets a chance.