BOSTON — Ten hours before game time on Saturday afternoon, the corners of the court at TD Garden presented observers with an interesting construct to consider. In one of them, Furkan Korkmaz caught a pass from an assistant coach and elevated into a three-point shot with a rhythm so smooth and a release so effortless that it would make even the most hardened skeptic laugh at the fact that, at this time last year, the Sixers were willing to let him walk away for nothing.
In the other corner was Zhaire Smith.
At some point between now and next Thursday at 3 p.m., Elton Brand is going to find himself confronted with a series of decisions that could have a significant impact on the Sixers’ championship hopes, both this year and in those beyond. One part of that calculus will involve a weighting and prioritization of the shortcomings of the current roster, from its inconsistent three-point shooting to its need for a perimeter playmaker to the perpetual room for improvement that every team has on the defensive end. In the short-term, those are the considerations that will most affect the Sixers’ title odds. But from a longer point of view, another question emerges: what sorts of assets should Brand and his front office be willing to give up?
That’s where Smith comes in. A year-and-a-half after the Suns drafted him at No. 16 overall and then traded him to the Sixers, the 2018 first-rounder has exactly nine NBA games on his professional resume, a total that each of the other top 42 picks from that June has surpassed (each, by at least 23 games). Any negotiator worth his salary is going to spend the next week insisting to Brand that Smith’s lack of experience leaves him with little value on the trade market, that he is the sort of chip you need to be willing to cash in order to secure even a marginal veteran upgrade. That rival general manager will have plenty of material for his case. When Smith was drafted, the big concern was that he did not fit offensively in the back court, but was undersized compared to the premiere players he would need to guard on the wing. Not only would Smith need to prove that he warranted a spot in an NBA rotation, he would need to prove where. To date, he simply has not played enough basketball to accomplish either of those things.
Question is, what do the Sixers believe? Have they seen anything in the 30 G-League games that he’s played that would suggest he could occupy a significant role in their rotation within a couple of years? On the flip side, have they seen anything that would leave them to conclude that it won’t be the case? Whatever the answer, a third question emerges:
Are they right?
Last year, they were wrong in a way that easily could have cost them one of their most important bench players this season. The Sixers’ decision to decline Furkan Korkmaz’s third-year option was puzzling at the time, given that it would have cost them just $2.03 million to retain him, and, at worst, would have left them with a contract that would have been able to be moved in a giveaway trade. In hindsight, it could have been disastrous, given the dramatic improvement the one-time first rounder has shown after failing to attract much attention on the free agent market and re-signing with the team on a two-year, minimum salary deal.
All’s well that ends well, and the Sixers ended up with Korkmaz under their control for the same number of years and a modest discount from his rookie deal. But if the Sixers had imagined that the 22-year-old would be playing 21 minutes a night and shooting 38.6% from three-point range on 4.6 attempts per game, they would not have cut him loose even at four times his current salary. And if the Clippers or Timberwolves had told Brand that they preferred Korkmaz over a second-round draft pick in their trades, he would not have put up a fight.
So what about Smith? The belief around the league is that the Sixers will need to part with the former Texas Tech star in order to acquire any of the targets they have identified. Depending on the deal, they might not have a choice. Because the Sixers are over the salary cap, any deal will need to include a certain amount of outgoing salary depending on the amount of salary that they take on. The only non-starter who makes more than Smith’s $3.1 million figure is Mike Scott, which means his salary could be required to facilitate the acquisition of a certain player. Most of the targets that have been connected to the Sixers — Derrick Rose, Langston Galloway, Robert Covington, Davis Bertans, etc — make a reasonable enough salary that Brand could cobble together a package that does not require the inclusion of either Smith or rookie Matisse Thybulle. Anything over $13-$15 million range and the Sixers would almost certainly have to part with Smith.
But if he has a choice, is it something that he should resist?
Given what we’ve seen so far, it’s difficult to picture Smith emerging as a rotation fixture before the end of his rookie deal. While Josh Richardson’s hamstring injury has opened up a spot for him on the active roster, Smith hasn’t had a chance to show much in his 21 minutes of action. You can see the quick feet and explosive leaping ability that make him an intriguing prospect on the defensive end, but also the couple of inches and the 20 to 30 pounds that he’ll give up against most NBA wings, as well as the slow release that call into question his offensive potential as a two-guard.
Asked what he’s seen out of Smith in his limited action, head coach Brett Brown responded, “Stuff you’d expect me to say. Athlete. Can be a legitimate league defensive type of player you can put on a bunch of people. He’s not shy. He’s not caught up in the moment. Those types of things."
It’s difficult to envision Smith getting a chance to show anything more than that in the near future. With five starters under contract through next season, plus Korkmaz and Thybulle, plus the acquisition in question, there wouldn’t appear to be much of an opening for Smith to even begin to play his way into a role. In which case, his potential doesn’t really matter, since he isn’t going to have an opportunity to realize it with the organization.
At the same time, that was also the assumption with Korkmaz. Granted, Korkmaz had the makings of at least one elite tool. But it’s also true that nobody has yet to see enough of Smith to conclude what, exactly, he can do. In 19 games in the G-League this season, he has hit 36% of his threes, a significant improvement over his 5-for-25 showing in 11 games last season. If he continues to add weight, it isn’t out of the question that he develops into a capable three-and-D player.
“I definitely feel like I’ve grown,” Smith said after the Sixers’ shootaround on Saturday morning. “My shot has gotten better, just with the reps.”