WILMINGTON, Del. – Zhaire Smith was close to the basket, with the chance for a short turnaround jumper, but when the defender converged his instincts took over.
Why force a shot, even inside when an open teammate could get a better look? Smith passed out to a teammate who missed a corner three.
This was the opening game last Saturday for the Delaware Blue Coats, the 76ers’ G League affiliate. Smith, traded to the Sixers on draft night of 2018 after being selected 16th in the first round by the Phoenix Suns, was blending in with the rest of his Blue Coats teammates.
The Sixers have him playing in the G League because there weren’t any meaningful minutes on the varsity.
Smith is there to work on his game, specifically his offense, but unlike many in the G League looking to earn their way up to the NBA, he won’t go the gunner route. A 6-foot-3 guard with a 42-inch vertical leap and a reputation as a shut-down defender, Smith won’t impose his will offensively, at least not yet. It’s simply not part of his personality.
“It is the story of my life,” being unselfish,” he said. “It is hard. Like my natural ability is there. I have to get it out of my head.”
In that opening game, Smith had 14 points, five rebounds, two assists and two turnovers in more than 30 minutes of action. He made 1 of 5 from three-point range.
The Blue Coats lost that game, 148-125, the score being an example of the no-conscious attitude that many players have in the G League, looking to fill it up. Defense is often an afterthought, but not with Smith.
“I feel I can be the best defensive player in the G League,” Smith said after the Blue Coats beat Greensboro, 141-135 on Monday.
Smith is a team player in a league where so many are looking to put up numbers. In a way he seems out of place. But then again, before this year’s preseason, there wasn’t much speculation of Smith being in the G League, even after his well-documented difficult first season.
His rookie year was hampered by a foot fracture and then an allergic reaction to something he ate at the Sixers practice facility, Smith appeared in just six late-season games for the Sixers. He also played 11 for the Blue Coats, rehabbing from the injury/illness.
Before this year’s training camp, Smith was considered at least a candidate to earn some wing minutes off the Sixers bench. However, this year’s first-round pick, Matisse Thybulle, moved ahead of him early in training camp. The Sixers felt he needed minutes and Smith agreed, as much as he or any player enjoys the luxuries of being in the NBA.
“It’s much better,” he said after Monday’s game about getting the chance to play. “You don’t want to be up there [in the NBA] watching and working out and not getting any games in.”
Connor Johnson, the Blue Coats head coach, says it is simply a matter of Smith getting consistent minutes to work on his game.
“He has the right mindset,” Johnson said after Monday’s win. “He is an unselfish player who sees the floor really well. The more reps he gets the more he can figure how to pick it apart and that is what the G League is for.”
And contrary to his nature, Smith will have to become a little more selfish offensively, instead of trying to blend in. His biggest goal is improving his three-point shooting.
“I am mad that they are not going in, but I have to keep shooting it,” said Smith, who was 1 for 7 in his first two games from beyond the arc. “I can’t rely on it, but when it starts going in, I have to rely on it."
And if not?
“I have to just find something else to get to the basket,” said Smith, who averaged 11 points in the first two games.
Smith will likely never get to the point of say, his G League teammate Marial Shayok, a second-round pick of the Sixers in this year’s draft. In his first two games, Shayok has averaged 38 points and not surprisingly with seeing that number, he has an aggressive offensive mindset, always looking to attack.
That isn’t Smith’s nature. Still, honing his offensive skill is the best way to work his way back to the Sixers and that might mean being a little more selfish in shot selection.
At this point, Smith is part of the Sixers future.
Last month the Sixers picked up the third-year option of his rookie-scale contract for Smith. If the Sixers hadn’t done that, then Smith would have become a free agent after this season. The third-year option is worth $3.2 million.
How long will Smith be in the G League? Not even the Sixers know.
“His overall path is one of patience, one of communication, the systems are aligned,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said earlier this week. “What does that does mean in relation to him like navigating back to the NBA, I don’t know.”
All that is known is that Smith needs to keep working on his game, while continuing to believe in his ability.