Zhaire Smith’s rookie season with the 76ers began with hope, but soon, he was struggling for his life. He broke his foot last August, which derailed the no. 16 pick’s career before it got started. In September, a severe allergic reaction put his life at risk.
Smith knew he was allergic to peanut butter. He had no idea about sesame seeds. He was exposed to the latter when he ate some chicken at the 76ers practice facility, but because he was unaware of the issue, he didn’t seek immediate medical attention. A hole formed in his esophagus and he began to vomit blood. Smith was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, and doctors performed emergency thoracoscopy surgery, a procedure done to investigate the chest. He was hospitalized for six weeks, in pain and unable to eat or drink.
“It was crazy for me,” Smith told me last week in the lobby of his hotel during Las Vegas summer league. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
Smith weighed 199 pounds at the NBA combine in May 2018. He told me he was down to about 165 by the time he got out of the hospital.
It took him months to get back to the court. He made his G League debut in March, and his NBA debut later that month with nine games left in the season. He played only five minutes in Philadelphia’s two-round stint in the playoffs. When Kawhi Leonard’s jumper bounced on the rim four times before dropping in and ending the Sixers’ season, Smith was watching from the sideline.
But Smith didn’t have time to mourn the loss, or even keep up with all the moves the 76ers made in the offseason. His social media pages are inactive. He has tweeted once since he was drafted in 2018, and there are only a few sponsored posts on his Instagram page.
“All that stuff on mute,” Smith said. “I just get notified when people tell me.”
The last six months of his life were a training montage from a Rocky movie.
“I lost a lot of weight with the food allergy. I’ve been hitting the weights hard. I’m doing push-ups every night. Basically I had to start all over again. Build my foundation,” Smith said. “I’ve been with my kinesiologist and my trainer in California [since the end of the season]. Getting right to it.”
All that hard work paid off during summer league, when Smith was one of the most impressive athletes on the floor. One NBA executive told me that Smith looked like a different person. He told me he came in weighing 210 pounds, which is about 45 more than his lowest point.
Smith, 20, is bigger and stronger than he was at this time last year, when he averaged 7.7 points per game on 32.1 percent shooting in summer league. Despite missing almost all of his rookie season, he made the leap that is expected from a second-year player in this setting, averaging 12.4 points per game on 48 percent shooting.
“I was pleased with my defense. I wanted to improve on not forcing shots. Looking back on last year, I was forcing stuff, trying to get my points up instead of letting the game come to me,” Smith said after an 84-81 loss to the Thunder on July 8. “I feel like I am playing more calm.”
But his dunks were what everyone in Vegas was talking about. By my count, Smith had nine in five games. One of my favorite things to watch this summer was how often he would point up in the air to ask his guards for an alley-oop. The 6-foot-4 wing can stretch the defense vertically and force it to account for his leaping ability when he’s playing off the ball. It’s like playing a rim-running 7-footer at shooting guard.
Shake Milton, who played with Smith in the G League last season, threw three lobs to him in the Sixers’ first game in Vegas, each more ridiculous than the last:
“With an athlete like that, it’s not that hard,” Milton told me in a phone interview. “You just have to put the ball in the vicinity and let him take care of the rest.”
Smith was always careful about what he ate, but he’s taken it to another level since his surgery. He no longer tries new food. He eats only things that he knows his body can handle. The 76ers had separate meals prepared for him at every team breakfast and dinner in Vegas.
“I don’t mind at all,” he said of his new diet. “I was always a picky eater. The only time it’s hard is with desserts. I can’t eat chocolate chip cookies because they might have nuts in them.”
The 76ers had one of the most talented teams in Vegas. Smith spent a lot of time on the perimeter next to three other recent draft picks: Milton (no. 54 in 2018), Matisse Thybulle (no. 20 in 2019), and Marial Shayok (no. 54 in 2019). Summer league is designed to give those types of players the chance to stretch their games, and all four received more opportunities to create their own shot and handle the ball than they will in the regular season.
“We’re putting Zhaire in a lot of dribble handoffs, where he can get downhill and make plays,” said Philadelphia summer league head coach Connor Johnson. “We’re putting him in some pick-and-roll situations. That might not be what it looks like when it comes time for the Sixers, but those are good skills to continue to build.”
Smith is not a particularly advanced ball handler. He averaged only .333 points per possession in the 15 possessions in Vegas when he took a shot out of the pick-and-roll, putting him in the 8th percentile of players in summer league on those plays. He is fairly raw when it comes to creating his own shot too. He is at his best when he can get to the rim in one or two steps and use his athleticism to finish.
He has a unique background for a one-and-done player. He was not a McDonald’s All American, and he didn’t play in any of the all-star games at the end of his senior season in high school. He wasn’t on the NBA radar before his freshman season at Texas Tech, either. But he and Jarrett Culver, the no. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft, were part of an incredible recruiting class by Red Raiders head coach Chris Beard.
“He said we were going to be pros one day. I didn’t know it was going to happen so quick for me,” Smith said.
The college experience was beneficial to Smith’s development. He has the size of an NBA shooting guard but played as a small-ball power forward at Tech. Beard, a disciple of Bobby Knight, runs an old-school motion offense with a lot of off-ball cuts and screens. The closest thing to it in the NBA is what Steve Kerr runs with Golden State. Smith had to learn how to make quick decisions and find cracks in the defense when moving off the ball.
“When we drive, they say we are supposed to move the eye of the defense on the weak side,” he said of passing. “Cut, move, set flare screens. We did all that stuff at Tech.”
Athleticism isn’t enough to make it in the NBA. Smith is such an intriguing prospect because he knows how to use his athleticism within the context of a game. He reads the floor and moves without the ball better than a lot of NBA players. He made some advanced passes in Vegas and averaged 2.6 assists per game.
He’s not someone who has to be stuck in a corner and kept out of the flow of the offense. Once he gets the ball, he keeps his head up and looks to make the extra pass:
“I don’t look to score,” he said. “If a dude is hot, he can get the ball. I just do it on the defensive end.”
Smith’s path to playing time in Philadelphia next season is through being a 3-and-D player. But the 76ers don’t want to put a ceiling on a 20-year-old with his combination of athleticism and basketball IQ. The coaching and developmental staff has been working with him to grow every facet of his game.
“We like to put [our young players] in environments that they will see in the game,” Johnson said. “We do drills where they have to fill the corner and some guy is flying at them. We incorporate decision-making. So it’s not like they are going to shoot it every time. They have to read the defense. Do I shoot it? Do I drive it? If I drive it, I have to make another play. All sorts of different environments. Get them a lot of reps. They play [in a game] and they probably get a couple of times in the corner. We want them to get them in practice and get a hundred of those.”
The 76ers are counting on Smith. They have one of the most top-heavy payrolls in the NBA. Joel Embiid just finished the first season of a five-year, $148 million extension, and they gave out a combined $459 million in contracts to Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and Al Horford this offseason. Turning guys like Milton, Thybulle, and Smith into NBA-caliber rotation players while they are still on cost-controlled rookie deals will be huge.
There are minutes available in Philadelphia next season, especially given the amount of rest that Embiid will need to stay fresh for the playoffs. This is what their depth chart looks like:
PG: Ben Simmons, Raul Neto, Shake Milton
SG: Josh Richardson, Zhaire Smith, Matisse Thybulle, Marial Shayok (two-way)
SF: Tobias Harris, James Ennis III
PF: Al Horford, Mike Scott, Jonah Bolden
C: Joel Embiid, Kyle O’Quinn, Norvel Pelle (two-way)
The best role for Smith could be playing off Simmons in a more up-tempo second unit when Embiid is off the floor. He has the athletic tools to slide among multiple positions on the perimeter and be a disruptive presence on defense. The question is whether he will be able to knock down enough 3s to space the floor.
Smith doesn’t have a long track record of shooting. If you add up all his 3-point attempts during the last two seasons in the NBA, G League, summer league, and the NCAA, he has shot 37-for-112 (33 percent). The best shooting prospects often attempt more than 200 3s in just one season of college.
The good news for the 76ers is Smith looked more comfortable with his jumper in Vegas. While he still doesn’t have textbook form, he took a wider variety of attempts than he has in the past. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Smith took more jumpers off the dribble (14) than he did in catch-and-shoot situations (10). The ability to make more difficult off-the-dribble attempts is an encouraging sign that his shooting will translate to spot-up attempts in the NBA:
“I think getting back his strength has been really important,” Johnson said. “That has helped him become a knockdown shooter in the way that he wants. But there’s definitely room for growth there. That is an important aspect of his future with the 76ers.”
The hope in Philadelphia is that Smith can earn playing time on nights when his shot isn’t falling by impacting the game in other ways. His leaping ability means that he can stretch the defense just by staying active and moving without the ball. He can also be a dominant player in transition. He averaged 1.4 steals per game in Vegas, and many of his best dunks came after he turned over the other team. He doesn’t just have quick feet; he also has strong hands that allow him to rip the ball away from opponents and win fights for loose balls:
“When we look at how he can affect the game with the 76ers, part of it is being a knockdown shooter, but the other is finding ways to get easy buckets,” Johnson said. “Offensive rebounds, transition, getting out for layups and dunks. He had one run [in summer league] where he had three dunks in a row because he took off and ran. Having those effort plays, those motor plays, add up. I think it’s really important.”
There are no guarantees for Smith. The worst-case scenario for his NBA career might be K.J. McDaniels, an überathletic wing who was drafted by the 76ers in 2014 and spent time with the Rockets and Nets but hasn’t been able to stick in the NBA.
One key difference for Smith is the opportunity he has this season. McDaniels played a lot as a rookie, but they were meaningless minutes on a terrible team whose offense was built around Michael Carter-Williams. Smith will play off two of the best players in the NBA in Simmons and Embiid. He can slowly grow into a bigger role over the course of his rookie contract.
Sixers staffers praise Smith for his work ethic and basketball IQ. He already knows what his coaches want to hear: “I like the pull-up jumper, but I know that percentage-wise it’s not really a good shot,” he said. “We want the other team taking midrange shots.”
Smith has a wide range of possible outcomes. I asked a number of people in Vegas for NBA comparisons and got everyone from McDaniels to Shannon Brown and Andre Iguodala. But we know he’s willing to put in the work. His health scare could end up being one of the best things that ever happened to his career: Smith had to work incredibly hard over the past year just to make it back to where he was when he entered the NBA. There is no telling where he will be in a couple of years if he keeps that up.