Former Sixers’ first-round pick Zhaire Smith making basketball comeback

Blue coats
Zharie Smith awaiting game action as the Delaware Blue Coats take on the Greensboro Swarm. Monday, November 11, 2019, in Delaware. (Photo by Alex McIntyre)

After being drafted 16th overall in the 2018 draft by the Sixers, Zhaire Smith’s transition to the NBA has been as difficult as any prospect ever. The former 76er has had a string of bad luck that would rightfully discourage any player. While he is oftentimes harshly remembered as the player the Sixers traded Mikael Bridges for on draft night; this does not give the true context of what a tragic story Zhaire Smith has seen so far in his career. That story looks to be taking a positive turn as Smith has begun making his return to basketball, beginning with the TBT Tournament this summer.

Zhaire Smith’s Early NBA Days

Coming out of college, Zhaire Smith was an electrifying talent. He possessed explosive athleticism and a hard-nosed mentality that had exciting potential at the NBA level. Unfortunately, his NBA transition was stalled after suffering an allergic reaction to a nut at the Sixers practice facility before he ever stepped foot on the court.

Things started out tough for Smith as he broke his foot just about a month after the draft and before the Sixers training camp even began. This was consistent with the streak of Sixers rookies at the time and led to another disgruntled sigh from the fan base. Smith began to rehab the injury and was on a strict diet plan to help bulk up so his body would be more prepared for the grueling NBA season. The Texas Tech product had impressive leaping ability and speed but needed to add some muscle to put the full NBA package together.

Smith had suffered a serious nut allergy since he was a child. After eating some chicken at the Sixers practice facility, he felt a familiar tickle on his lips. Knowing that anaphylaxis typically occurs within the first few minutes, the rookie thought he was in the clear. He popped some Benadryl, brushed his teeth, and made the trip home.

After taking a shower at his place, Smith’s body erupted in hives. He began violently throwing up and collapsed as his body fought the allergen. The epi-pen he administered to himself was expired, and Smith was rushed to the hospital via ambulance. He began vomiting blood at the hospital, and nurses found a hole in his esophagus. Smith spent weeks in the hospital, unable to eat or drink. He was hooked up to permanent feeding tubes and passed the time with visits from then Head Coach Brett Brown and texts from Markelle Fultz.

It took months for the rookie to be able to eat solid food and even longer for him to begin doing any sort of exercise. Smith typically worked out at 4:30 in the morning once he was able to return to play. He did his best to be in and out before his teammates even arrived, so they did not see him as the shell of what he once was. His once 200-pound frame was reduced to 160, and he was far from the physical specimen he came out of college as.

The then 19-year-old managed to work himself back into playing shape and regain the weight he had lost. The 6’3″ guard returned to the court for both the Delaware Blue Coats and Philadelphia 76ers after missing his entire rookie season. Smith played a total of 13 games across two years with the Sixers, which is all he has logged in the NBA at this point.

Since this Time

The string of events has not gotten much easier for Smith since this time. Smith was rostered by the G-League Memphis Hustle in 2021 but never logged a game for the team. The former Sixer took to Twitter to give an update on his health in March. He revealed he is still dealing with knee issues that occurred during his second season with the Sixers but has not given up on his dreams of playing professional basketball at a high level.

There is still plenty of hope for Zhaire Smith. He is just 22-year-old and, at one point, possessed the skillset to be an impactful NBA player. The former 16th overall pick has had some of the worst luck of any prospect, but there is plenty of time to right the ship. The TNT Tournament is certainly a lower tier of competition than he is capable of playing, but seeing him get back on the court is a massive step in the right direction. Let’s hope this is just the beginning of the Zhaire Smith comeback story.