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The Curious Case of Zhaire Smith

What kind of value can Zhaire Smith bring to a team?

Detroit Pistons v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

There’s something truly magnificent about Zhaire Smith’s athletic ability. The ease in which he defies gravity has its own gravitational pull. You see one clip of him leaping for a tip dunk, or soaring for a block, and you suddenly yearn for unlimited highlights from a 21-year-old who hasn’t had a clean shot at the league since being drafted in 2018.

Since the draft day trade in 2018, Smith has only registered minutes in thirteen NBA games — 32 minutes of mostly garbage time in 2019-20, and 111 minutes across six games in the 2018-19 season. While bouncing back from a grim injury situation, Smith spent most of his healthy time with the Delaware Blue Coats in the G League.

Coming out of Texas Tech as an 18-year-old, Smith’s projection as a player was somewhat unknown. An uber leaper, feverish defender, low volume/high percentage 3-point shooter, surprising passer — you could say he’s a jack of all trades, master of none.

After rewatching a handful of his college games, and a large majority of his G League games, I’m pretty sanguine about his future.

He shows so much talent and ability to perform baseline tests for prospects, but doesn’t have the opportunity to showcase and grow on the Sixers.

Going into the 2019-20 season, I would’ve bet healthy money that Smith would be ahead of Matisse Thybulle in the rotation. Thybulle not only outplayed Smith in training camp, but ended up in the starting lineup in just his second NBA game.

Smith and Thybulle are similar archetypes — defensive-minded, poor shooting, would not want to see either attempt to dribble. You can sort of get away with one of those players (Thybulle) without completely compromising the offense (the Sixers offense is a whole other thing), but I would get heartburn from watching Smith and Thybulle try to navigate and grow on offense in a high-stakes Sixers game.

As of September 24, 2020... it appears that the Sixers have chosen Matisse Thybulle over Zhaire Smith. It’s hard to see a world where they end up taking the floor together in Sixers uniforms.

So if the Philadelphia 76ers were to trade Zhaire Smith, what kind of value could he provide to a team? Why should someone want him? How high could they sell him?

Starting defensively, Zhaire Smith showed great feel in college with a willingness, an understanding, and ability to defend 1 through 5.

Yes. One. Through. Five.

Tasked to chase and pester players like Trae Young and Jevon Carter, while also being required to front several college 4s and 5s, including Mo Bamba in their matchup.

Smith is an intelligent team defender and seemed to thrive off of a team mentality.

He has strong, quick hands, and great anticipation. His ability to move with ball handlers and cutters is supreme. Just an overall defensive jumping bean.

For a video breakdown on his defense in college and the G League, I put together three defensive videos for your viewing pleasure.

Offense is where Zhaire needs room and guidance to unlock what he’s shown. He has a basic understanding of how offenses work, and where he needs to be. But the lack of shooting (off-the-dribble and catch-and-shoot) are concerning for a guard trying to carve a role in today’s NBA.

There’s hope for him, but to beat a dead horse, it’s hard to believe that his offensive blossoming will come in Philadelphia.

Zhaire thrives in transition when his team can run, and lob. He crashes the offensive glass hard and finds ways to leap to the rim. As fun as these transition dunks are, they aren’t a sustainable source of offense for a player.

Cutting off ball and allowing playmakers to find you is a more sustainable way to carve out a role. But in 2020, being a consistent 3-point shooter off the catch and/or off the dribble is the best way to earn or keep minutes. Smith has never been a reliable shooter, but the form isn’t broken. Tweaks could be made to make it more fluid and shorten his load time, but the basic mechanics are present in his shot.

I talk more about his offense in these videos, but just some numbers for reference:

2017-18 at Texas Tech: 45 percent from 3 (18-of-40), 71 percent free throws (91-of-127)

2018-19 G League: 19 percent from 3 (5-of-26), 66 percent free throws (6-of-9) (nice)

2018-19 NBA: 37.5 percent from 3 (6-of-16), 75 percent free throws (6-of-8)

2019-20 G League: 37 percent from 3 (44-of-117), 71 percent free throws (20-of-28)

2019-20 NBA: 0-of-3 on 3s, 2-of-4 from the line

One more note on his offense before you go. Something noticeable was how much confidence he played with in college when he was playing particularly well. It reminded me of when Dario Saric would make a few good passes and hit a few shots, and you could see an aura around him. He played with so much swagger and fearlessness that made the game look so easy.

Similarly, when Zhaire would get hot on either end, there was a visible difference in how much energy and poise he started exerting.

Zhaire Smith offers a plethora of skills that any developmental staff would be eager to play with.

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