Today marks the four-year anniversary of a disastrous draft-day trade by the 76ers.
Back on June 21, 2018, the Sixers selected Villanova’s Mikal Bridges with the No. 10 pick in the NBA draft. And like the Sixers’ fan base, the Great Valley High School product could not have been happier.
But 38 minutes later, the Sixers traded Bridges to the Phoenix Suns for Zhaire Smith, the 16th overall pick. The Sixers also received the Miami Heat’s 2021 first-round pick in the trade. The Sixers were always interested in Smith for his elite athleticism, just not at No. 10. And his fate in Philadelphia was doomed shortly after it began.
Due to a failure to remain healthy and live up to unrealistic expectations, Smith played in just 13 career games before being traded to the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 23, 2020, for reserve center Tony Bradley.
The Pistons waived Smith seven days later. The 23-year-old is looking to make a return to basketball after battling a severe knee injury the past two years. In July, the former Texas Tech standout will play for the Air Raiders, a group of Tech alumni, in The Basketball Tournament, a 64-team, single-elimination tourney with a $1 million prize.
Meanwhile, Bridges has blossomed into one of the league’s best young stars, complete with a four-year, $90 million contract extension he received last October.
The small forward was this season’s runner-up in voting for NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He also received the second-most votes for the All-Defensive team, garnering first-team votes on 95 of 100 ballots.
The 6-foot-6, 209-pounder finished with 96 steals and 36 blocks as a lock-down defender. Bridges also averaged a career-high 14.2 points in his fourth NBA season. A solid acquisition for the Suns, the 25-year-old has averaged 11.3 points and 1.3 steals while shooting 37.4% on three-pointers in 309 career games with 242 starts.
His success, along with existing ties to the Sixers, made this trade one the team will have a hard time living down. At the time, Bridges’ mother, Tyneeha Rivers, was a global vice president of human resources at Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, of which Sixers managing partner Josh Harris and co-managing partner David Blitzer are co-owners. Her office, in fact, was in the complex in Camden where the Sixers practice and where Bridges worked out before the draft.
And one has to feel sorry for Smith.
The shooting guard was a bad fit for the Sixers, who never gave him a real opportunity to showcase his skills. It’s obvious that their acquisition of Smith was a draft-day shocker and wasted opportunity for both sides.
His tenure with the Sixers was all but over when he suffered a bone bruise in his left knee on May 2020 and didn’t travel with the team to Florida for the 22-team resumption of the season at Walt Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
As a result, he concluded that season with an average of 1.1 points in seven appearances. In two seasons, the former high school center averaged 3.7 points and 11 minutes in 13 NBA games with two starts.
The Sixers tried to get something for him at the February 2020 trade deadline before they finally shipped him to Detroit before the 2020-21 season.
An inability to remain healthy was the first thing that kept him off the court.
Smith suffered an acute Jones fracture in his left foot while competing in a camp in August 2018. Smith was expected to return from that injury that December. However, he remained out until March 25, 2019 due to the life-threatening allergic reaction to something he ate in September 2018. The reaction left him speechless and 40 pounds lighter.
Even when healthy, Smith didn’t received a lot of NBA in-game opportunities to develop into a solid shooting guard.
That’s far from the usage expected of a player whom then-coach Brett Brown compared to Kawhi Leonard after the 2018 draft.
Leonard was with the San Antonio Spurs when Brown was an assistant coach there.
“There are some similarities with his length,” Brown said of Smith at the time. “There are some similarities with his athleticism. I think that when you look at just where I believe Zhaire can be, there are some common denominators that Kawhi had when we first brought him to San Antonio.”
The first difference is that Smith is listed at 6-foot-3, four inches shorter than Leonard. Smith was also an undersized power forward during his lone season at Texas Tech while trying to make the transition to guard. So he was considered a project.
That’s why the Sixers were vilified on social media and on local sports talk radio the moment they traded Bridges to Phoenix on draft night in exchange for Smith.
It’s finally official. The 76ers will select No. 23 in the 2022 NBA draft, picking in the latter half of the first-round, which is a position they are familiar with. Sixers star Tyrese Maxey, defensive stalwart Matisse Thybulle and backup guard Furkan Korkmaz were all chosen in that part of the draft. The Inquirer’s Gina Mizell and Keith Pompey will discuss potential picks for the Sixers and touch on a big offseason to follow.