Entering the 2018 NBA draft, Texas Tech guard Zhaire Smith was a player high on the 76ers’ draft board. While not necessarily known for his scoring ability (averaged just 11.3 ppg in college), Zhaire was an intriguing prospect due to his elite defense and “jump out of the gym” athleticism. He made the Big-12 All-Defensive Team in his sole year of college ball and was described as “freakishly explosive” by NBA scouts.
The Sixers’ front office liked Zhaire so much that they went as far as trading one of their own top prospects, Mikal Bridges, for the young guard (the 76ers also received a future first-round pick in the deal which would later help them land current starter Tobias Harris). With so much hype around Smith coming into the league, where in the world is he now?
Simply put, Zhaire Smith’s rookie season was not much of a rookie season. Before even playing a minute of professional basketball, Zhaire broke his foot and needed surgery. After finally recovering just over a month later, disaster struck. The rookie had an allergic reaction to sesame. He lost consciousness, was vomiting blood, and even had a hole in his esophagus. He spent over six weeks in the hospital, requiring constant attention just to stay alive.
Zhaire was hooked up to food tubes for the majority of his time at the hospital, ultimately losing 40lbs of mostly muscle. Despite experiencing something that would end most players’ careers, Zhaire stayed positive, watching film when he could keep his eyes open and doing push-ups despite doctors advising against it.
After a brutal, almost six month, recovery period, Zhaire finally made his NBA debut on March 25th, 2019 against the Orlando Magic. Ironically, he drained his first shot attempt, a three-pointer from the top of the key.
The 76ers are still very high on Zhaire Smith according to league reports. The front office is viewing the 2019/2020 season as his true “rookie season”. He’s currently on the 76ers’ G-League affiliate team: the Delaware Blue Coats. Through 11 games so far he’s averaging just over 13 ppg in 26.9 mpg.
Barring an unforeseen trade opportunity, the plan is to hang on to Zhaire with hopes he can contribute next season. The front office just handed out three monster contracts this past offseason (Simmons, Harris, Horford), retaining and developing cheap talent is at the top of their priority list right now.
Here at PhillySportsNetwork we actually had the ability to send one of our Sixers Staff writers: Zach Ciavolella (@ZCiavoPSN) to a Delaware Blue Coats game as a member of the media team. Ciavolella was able to get some unique information regarding how head coach Connor Johnson views Zhaire Smith and his development.
When asked about his specific play during that day’s game (Blue Coats v Skyhawks), Johnson responded saying, “(Zhaire did a) good job picking his spots, playing with the offense, knocking down open shots… I thought his ball pressure at the end was very good.”
When asked directly about Zhaire’s development, Johnson was all praise, “I think he’s gotten a lot better. I think he’s gotten better driving the ball, he’s more aggressive getting into the paint… in his 20-25 minutes he’s been playing, he’s been productive. He gets better everyday There’s lots of room for optimism, He should be happy with how he’s progressing.”
Coach Johnson also highlighted how he feels Zhaire is doing a better job using his athleticism and recognizing that he’s bigger and stronger than most players around him. Although he specified he wasn’t sure when the day would come, Johnson felt confident that Zhaire would be ready if/when the 76ers call him up for good.
While most of you haven’t been hearing his name recently, Zhaire’s story as a Sixer isn’t finished yet. He’ll continue to grow and develop down in the farm system, patiently waiting for a chance to make his mark in the NBA.