Throughout a college basketball season in which his program came within 14 seconds of its first national championship, when a consumed coach might have believed there were more pressing matters, Chris Beard got word daily of just how far his toughest kid at Texas Tech had drawn back from death’s door.
Might be before practice. Might be after a game. Might be one of his assistants or team manager whispering in his ear. Might be Zhaire Smith’s father, Billy, calling on the phone. Hey, Z’s still eating through the feeding tube. Hey, Z wants to FaceTime with you. Hey, Z can talk again.
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As Texas Tech rolled to 31 victories, a share of the Big 12 regular-season title, and an excruciating loss to Virginia in the NCAA Tournament title game, those updates kept Smith at the forefront of Beard’s mind and heart. They kept Beard believing that Smith, despite the allergic reaction that nearly killed him and an NBA rookie season out of a nightmare, will still be the star the 76ers will probably need him to be.
“It was the ultimate adversity,” Beard said in a recent phone interview. “He handles adversity. The people of Philadelphia obviously got to see that in a life-or-death situation. I’m talking about basketball, but now people have seen the side of him where, things that are a lot more important than basketball, he was able to overcome.
“I have zero doubts of Zhaire Smith. He’s special. He’s guided by a different compass. He’s going to be a longtime, big-time NBA player. There’s no such thing as pressure when you start talking about guys like Zhaire Smith. Pressure is opportunity. Pressure’s a blessing, and this is who Z is.”
That’s just it, though: What side of Smith did anyone around here get to see? No one really knows who he is or trusts yet who he could be. There have been only flashes and hints: one season at Texas Tech, still just 19 years old, played just six regular-season games for the Sixers, played just five minutes in 12 playoff games.
Actually, here’s the one thing everyone knows for certain. The Sixers drafted Villanova’s Mikal Bridges at No. 10, then traded him for Smith and a future first-round draft pick — and Bridges would have been perfect for the Sixers: a 6-foot-7 wing who can defend on the perimeter and shoot from distance, who is three years older and three inches taller than Smith, who was ready to play immediately, and did for the Phoenix Suns.
Pressure might be opportunity and a blessing, but for Smith, it’s also born of a comparison to a local hoops hero that will last the lengths of his and Bridges’ careers, and the latter is off to the better start.
None of that, of course — none of it — is Smith’s fault. At best, he was a ghost. At worst, he was a punch line, the latest in a long succession of Sixers first-round picks marred by bad injuries, bizarre circumstances, and cheap laughs — a label that was unfair and downright cruel, given what he went through.
Beard and everyone else in the Texas Tech program had been aware of Smith’s peanut allergy and took precautions against his getting sick. But in September, less than three months after the Suns selected him with the draft’s No. 16 pick, a month after Smith had broken a bone in his left foot during Sixers development camp, an innocent bite of a piece of chicken unleashed an invisible monster within him: a sesame allergy that Smith never knew he had.
He vomited red. A hole formed in his esophagus. He spent weeks in hospitals and weeks bedridden at home, feeding tubes poking from his body.
“I FaceTimed him in the hospital,” Beard said. “He couldn’t talk. We just kind of were going back with hand signals and talking with his mom or dad. It got scary for all of us.”
So, yeah, go ahead and lump Smith’s crisis in with Joel Embiid’s Shirley Temple addiction or Markelle Fultz’s passive-aggressive social-media posts and jump-shot hiccup fits if you want. Just don’t question the strength it took for him to take the court again.
“There’s something about him,” Beard said. “When you’re around elite, when you’re around special, you can feel it. You don’t got to go hunting for it. It’s right there in front of you.”
Texas Tech had been recruiting Smith before his breakout moment in December 2016 — the Whataburger Tournament in Fort Worth, which Smith, a senior at Lakeview Centennial High School then, dominated — and that early bond withstood the flurry of better-pedigreed programs that caught on to him too late.
“I will forever be grateful to Z,” Beard said. “I’d been a D-I head coach for two years. Z was one of the first to really trust in us and believe in our vision.”
By the midpoint of Smith’s freshman season, Beard was telling him that there was no way Smith would stay at Texas Tech for four years. Come the end of the season, Smith had averaged 11.3 points and shot 45 percent from three-point range, Texas Tech had reached the Elite Eight, and Beard understood that one year with Smith was all he’d have.
“He’s going to compete in a preseason game just like he would in Game 7 of the Finals — it doesn’t matter to him,” Beard said. “He’s going to guard. It’s competitive. It’s personal. It’s in his DNA. With his size and toughness, I think he can be an elite NBA defender. I don’t like putting the pressure of the world on our guys, but I have no problem telling people what I think of Zhaire. I think he’ll be an all-defensive player in the NBA one day. I believe that. And offensively, I think he’s just scratching the surface of what he can be.”
Understand: Beard has a naturally exuberant personality, and when a writer from the East Coast calls and wants to talk, Beard will jump at the chance to sell his program to a place and people far from northwestern Texas. It’s natural to be skeptical about his praise for Smith, because Beard has something to gain from it, because it sounds so excessive based on the available evidence, because similar things were said about another young talent whom the Sixers needed to develop — Fultz — and, well, look how that turned out.