The start of the 2019-20 campaign looked to be a chance for Zhaire Smith to earn himself a spot in the Sixers’ rotation. He was coming off of a rookie season plagued by injury and a near-death situation, but the young guard battled his way through those hardships to even appear in a few actual NBA games during the 2018-19 season, posting a career-high 17 points in a game against Chicago.
However, Sixers fans have rarely seen Zhaire Smith in an actual Sixers uniform this season. He had mainly been down in Delaware, sent to develop alongside Marial Shayok. To be exact, we’ve only seen 32 minutes of Smith this entire season, down from the 111 minutes we saw last year when he wasn’t even healthy for the majority of the season.
With the recent news of Zhaire Smith suffering a bone bruise, you can’t help but ask the question: Have we seen the last of Zhaire Smith as a Sixer?
It’s a tough question to answer when you break down all the variables currently surrounding the team.
The Sixers were far from a deep team to begin the season. Apart from the usual starting five, the bench was primarily inconsistent for the majority of the season. Coming into the season, most people expected the bench unit to be led by last year’s playoff rotation bench pieces: James Ennis and Mike Scott. Frankly speaking, that didn’t quite work out to be the case.
James Ennis was a solid defensive player off the bench, but at points, got outplayed by rookie Matisse Thybulle. Mike Scott has largely been a no-show this season, having his 3-point percentage drop from 40 to 36 percent.
The Sixers front office led by Elton Brand did address the bench scoring issue by adding two solid players from the other coast, Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks. We’ve seen the two play in limited time (due to them walking across the United States to get here, and then, COVID), but it’s a common consensus that they would both be above Zhaire Smith in the rotation even if he was healthy.
While the Sixers did ship off a wing at the trade deadline (in James Ennis), they essentially added two more. Include Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris (at times), Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton, and newly signed Ryan Broekhoff into the mix and it’s safe to say that the Sixers are loaded at the wing spot. Zhaire Smith has been buried by depth.
There’s a good chance that this offseason will decide Smith’s future in Philadelphia. The Sixers will have two free agents at the wing spot in the recently acquired Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks. Both of those players will be looking for possibly the biggest paydays of their respective career(s) coming off some of their best stretches of play.
Ultimately, the Sixers will be very limited in what they can do during the upcoming free agency period. The team will have access to a Mid-Level Exception (or MLE) worth approximately $6 million per year. They can only hand this out to one free agent signee, making the chance that they resign both Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III very low.
However, there is a chance that one of these two players may be willing to take a paycut to be on a contending team. It is more unlikely that the Sixers maintain Zhaire Smith in the scenario that they somehow manage to retain both Robinson and Burks. The Sixers are officially in “win-now” mode and likely won’t put Smith’s development above winning games anytime in the near future. Smith will be entering his third NBA season at that point and I’m sure he’ll be itching to get some NBA time.
There are many scenarios that can play out in the coming months, involving trades, draft picks, free agents, etc. I’ll avoid that endless loophole of “what ifs” with this:
In my mind, the Sixers should keep Zhaire Smith around, regardless of whether they do or don’t re-sign their free agent wings. Smith has a ton of upside and is only 21 years old. He unfortunately lost that season of development with a very dangerous allergic reaction his rookie year. All things considered, this was Smith’s first real rookie season to actually play.
Speaking of his actual play, he’s actually put together a great year of development in the G League with the Delaware Blue Coats. Just look at his averages between his first and second year:
2018-19: 11 GP (0 GS), 22.7 MPG, 7.2 PPG (40.5% FG, 19.2% 3PT on 2.4 attempts-per-game), 0.7 BPG, 0.3 SPG, 1.6 APG, 3.0 RPG
2019-20: 28 GP (25 GS), 28.2 MPG, 13.5 PPG (53% FG, 37.6% 3PT on 4.2 attempts-per-game), 0.5 BPG, 0.8 SPG, 2.1 APG, 3.2 RPG
With the 2019-20 campaign offering a larger sample size, we got to see Zhaire Smith improve across the majority of his averages. His biggest area of growth was his 3-point shot (which we all know is crucial to him being a successful Sixer).
The Sixers have Zhaire Smith on contract for $3.2 million next season with a team option in 2021-22. In my mind, the answer is simple; you should keep this guy around. Don’t give up on him. Smith is an athletic wing with an improving jumper. He’s a notoriously hard worker with natural born talent.
A lot of things can happen in the upcoming offseason, but trading away a young prospect with high upside shouldn’t be one of them. The Delaware Blue Coats have a very solid track record with producing NBA talent and have helped develop three current Sixers into real contributing NBA players: Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, and Norvel Pelle. Zhaire Smith can join that list of successful Blue Coat alumni.
So, have we seen the last of Zhaire Smith in Philadelphia? His Sixers future is as foggy as it’s ever been, but I sure hope the answer is no. The former Texas Tech Red Raider is likely just getting started on his NBA career.