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August 08, 2018

How does Zhaire Smith's injury impact Sixers' rotation and season?

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If you thought the Sixers could get through an offseason without one of their young, talented players suffering a devastating injury, boy are you an optimist despite seeing what the Sixers went through over the last few years. Joining an increasingly long line of wounded predecessors, Zhaire Smith is likely to receive surgery this week as a result of a Jones fracture he suffered in Las Vegas.

It is a tremendous bummer for Smith, and for anyone with an interest in watching things unfold for the Sixers this season. Smith had an uneven go of things at Summer League, but he was mostly as advertised — an athletic freak who got after it on defense and still had question marks to answer on offense.

Where does this injury leave he and the Sixers? I'm so glad you asked.

A dent in the rotation

Before we get started here, an important disclaimer: Smith was still in the process of being evaluated by Sixers personnel on Tuesday, and surgery was not formally scheduled when PhillyVoice spoke to team representatives Tuesday afternoon. All we have to work with for the time being are standard recovery times, and not what Philadelphia's internal plan is.

With that out of the way, of course this is a setback for the Sixers heading into training camp and the regular season. The most optimistic timeline of 6-8 weeks — one that is often parroted as a guideline for Jones fracture recovery — would put Smith on track to be back just before the season opens in mid-October. The NBA is set to make a few official schedule announcements on Wednesday afternoon, but stray media reports have suggested their first game could take place as early as October 16.

Needless to say, it seems exceedingly unlikely for Smith to be able to get back in time for that one. So the likely outcome is Philadelphia starting their season with a hole in their rotation, albeit one they're capable of covering.

Assuming Smith doesn't miss a massive amount of time recovering, the most likely course of action is just leaning more on the veteran forwards Philadelphia has on hand to play more minutes. No one is going to complain if JJ Redick has to spend a few extra minutes on the court spacing the floor, and offseason acquisition Wilson Chandler is a flexible enough defender that he can cover several spots in the lineup as a backup.

Still, there's a hard-to-ignore hole on the wing now that Smith has gone down, particularly in light of the moves Philadelphia has made this offseason. Justin Anderson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot were both sent packing in the trade that netted them Mike Muscala, and that two-for-one swap for a big certainly doesn't help you feel better about their current predicament.

One of the benefits to drafting Smith was the idea that you could take some responsibility away from the team's top perimeter defenders, both by lightening the minutes load and putting more impactful defenders on the floor. The more competent defenders you have on the floor at the same time, the less work each individual cog needs to do in order to keep things humming. For all his offensive concerns, Smith was adequately prepared to help on defense out of the gate.

We don't need to overstate the problem here, obviously. The Sixers did just fine when they leaned on the likes of Robert Covington and Ben Simmons to carry the weight for their perimeter defense last season, and Chandler's addition will give them a better backup option off the bench than they had for most of last season, even with his recent slippage. This is a team that relied on Jerryd Bayless as a bench wing for decent stretches of last season, after all.

However, it's not the ideal way to start things off for the group as they begin their march toward competing for the Eastern Conference crown. Unlike last season, the Sixers are not going to sneak up on anybody. All-Star appearances, playoff series victories, and a year's worth of high-end exposure will change the way teams look at Philadelphia on their schedule out of the gate. This isn't a plucky upstart anymore.

That pressure necessitates a more consistently high level of play from the top dogs, but it also means the Sixers need to get more out of their bench. Though just one component of that unit, there's no immediate replacement for Smith. This will force Brett Brown to make some tough calls and perhaps result in Brett Brown playing T.J. McConnell and Markelle Fultz side-by-side in the early going.

The biggest problem, however, will be presented to Smith himself.

A loss in developmental time for Smith

The Sixers will probably be just fine if they're without Smith's services for any reasonable length of time to start the year. It's Smith who will suffer most from not being able to get out there in the thick of it with his teammates.

No matter how quickly he's able to come back, Smith will likely be in a boot or an immobilizer for a bit post-surgery and (obviously) unable to participate in basketball activities. He'll miss training camp, and preseason, and what is likely to be at least the opening stretch of the regular season.

That may be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but it slows down the development cycle for a player who is already coming into the league fairly raw. The greatest teacher for a young basketball player is experience at the NBA level, as they learn to adjust to the speed and size of the league in real time.

Yes, Smith did get plenty of reps in Summer League, but that is bottom of the barrel when it comes to development. It's the lowest form of competition an NBA player can face, which only offers you so much preparation for the real thing.

While there are other reasons their seasons ended the way they did, look at the opposite examples of Markelle Fultz and Jayson Tatum last season. The former missed the majority of the year and didn't get to go through that process of trial and error, and when push came to shove in the playoffs he quickly got lost on both ends. Tatum's rookie year was not one constant upward trend — he had a major dip around midseason or so — but he came through it better prepared to read and react to the game in a playoff setting.

(It certainly helped that one of these players had a workable jumper, of course.)

We don't have any clue how long it's going to take Smith to come back, and missing a few games toward the beginning of his rookie year won't be the difference between busting and turning into a Hall of Famer. But the longer Smith is out of the lineup, the more entrenched the other Sixers become in their spots in the rotation, and the harder it will be for him to break into a significant role this year.

Everything the Sixers want Smith to be able to do eventually — attack guys off the dribble, knock down jumpers coming off screens — are only going to become a strength with lots of game reps. Making shots in an empty gym is all well and good, and Smith did a lot of that at the practice facility this summer. But he needs to continue doing in-game skill work, and right now we don't know when his next opportunity for that will be.

If this is a doomsday scenario a la Simmons' lost first year, amplify the tenor of this conversation by a lot. Smith can certainly get to work in the film room and get used to some of the day-to-day activities of an NBA player, like dieting correctly and adjusting to the travel grind. If that's all it took to be an NBA star, however, a lot less of us would be sitting in the stands.

That doesn't mean this has to be a total loss.

Possible silver linings

Eyes will turn now, as they have for most of the offseason, to Markelle Fultz. The Sixers now have even more riding on him to be the gap-filler and ultra-talented guard they believed he could be when they traded up for him last June.

If all goes well, the assumption should be that Fultz will join the starting group and play a combo-guard role alongside Simmons. Calling either one the point guard would be a misunderstanding of where the sport is headed and what they both can do. Having someone who can take playmaking burden out of his hands is critical, and the responsibility will likely be passed back and forth as it suits the Sixers.

That partnership is going to be a focal point of this season and perhaps the make-or-break connection in Philadelphia's long-term ceiling. We've seen flashes from these two in very limited action, but we need to see a lot more.

It's when Simmons hits the bench that things get interesting. In terms of offensive responsibility, Fultz will presumably get a lot of the lead ballhandling touches, running things while the reigning Rookie of the Year catches his breath. But with a hole in the wing rotation, Fultz's size does allow him to potentially slot in as more of a pure two-guard on both ends of the floor, serving as a shooter and finisher on offense and as a switchable wing on defense.

How that role takes shape is anyone's guess until we see Fultz on the floor. But no matter what form it takes, Fultz is going to have to learn to play different positions and assume different burdens on a moment-to-moment basis. That will come with growing pains, but it will be tremendous for his development so long as his jumper is equipped to handle it.

There are a couple more beneficiaries in the short term, one who you're familiar with and one who is still fighting for his first chance. Finding minutes for Smith and Fultz was going to marginalize T.J. McConnell to a degree, but with Fultz having to slide around a bit more, McConnell should start the year with a healthy dose of minutes. The Sixers will run a lot more lineups with multiple ballhandlers on the floor this way, something they did sparingly up until Brown's desperation move to start McConnell in the playoff series against Boston.

Furkan Korkmaz couldn't ask for a better chance to make his case, either. Coming off the back of a strong Summer League performance, Korkmaz has a chance to establish himself as the backup shooter the Sixers desperately need off the bench. If he proves capable of being even a passable defender, he should get some early season reps that might not have been there for him otherwise.

And look, at least Smith will now feel some comraderie with his talented teammates right out of the gate. As a member of the Sixers first-year injury club, he is joining some illustrious company. If there were ever a way to prove he was born to be a member of this Sixers team, perhaps this is it.

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