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June 14, 2018

Sixers prospect preview: Does Zhaire Smith have enough skills to compliment his raw ability?

In advance of this June's 2018 NBA Draft, the Sixers have a lot of preparation to do in order to narrow down the field of candidates who will be available at the No. 10 pick. They haven't asked for our help, but I will provide it for the fans in the form of scouting reports on a mix of players who (realistically) could be available when the Sixers are on the clock at No. 10.

Not every one of these players we will profile at PhillyVoice is someone I would advocate drafting, and in fact, a large part of this exercise will be forming and explaining my personal view on players who exist on either end of the plausibility spectrum. You will (hopefully!) read about guys like Mikal Bridges, viewed as a near-consensus target, and wild-card picks like Zhaire Smith, raw but talented young men who might represent a bigger home-run swing.

By the end of this process, my hope is that you feel a little bit stronger about whatever beliefs you have about these guys, or that I have challenged what you thought you knew about the various players on the board.

Up next on the hit list: the aforementioned Smith, an under-the-radar recruit who helped turn Texas Tech into one of the surprise teams of the last NCAA season.

The measurables

Age: 19 (turns 20 in June 2019)

Height: 6'4"

Wingspan: 6'9.75"

Weight: 198.6 LBS

College averages (1 season): 11.3 PTS, 5.0 REB, 1.8 AST, 55.6/45.0/71.7 shooting splits

The offensive package

Explosive athleticism and off-ball production

Chances are if you've seen Zhaire Smith play at all over the past year, you have seen him throw down a gnarly dunk. He has crazy explosion off of either one or two feet, and more importantly, he uses it well! Athleticism is only useful provided it is functional, and Smith is excellent at identifying plays where he can leverage his athleticism into impact plays.

We strive for a higher level of scouting than cursory YouTube searches here at PhillyVoice, but to drive the point home, here is a video titled "Zhaire Smith dunks" which shows exactly what you'd expect — the Texas Tech product throwing it down in every possible manner. There are plenty of great athletes throughout history who have plus-athleticism and let it go to waste. Smith is not that guy: 

There is something to be said for having outlier athleticism and the instincts to match. Smith is a relentless player on both ends of the floor, and he has proven capable of using that to great effect already. His activity is not all dunks and highlight reel plays, either, and manifested itself at the college level in areas like screening. Smith was downright giddy to hunt down players to hit with a screen at Tech, helping to create separation and open looks without ever needing the ball in his hands.

Smith would need to take an astronomical leap forward to cut the mustard as a primary ballhandler, but that's not likely to matter as much within a Sixers context. The Sixers already have ballhandling prospects they believe in between Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, and provided the latter rounds into shape, the Sixers simply need players who can be functional creators for themselves and others in times of need.

On that front, there's a reasonable amount of hope for Smith. There are kinks for him to work through with his handle, but he didn't look out of place when asked to take more responsibility in Tech's offense last season. He is both unselfish enough and creative enough as a passer to lend hope that it'll be part of his arsenal at the pro level.

(That doesn't mean it'll always come off — during his workout with the Sixers on Tuesday morning, Smith tried to throw a between the legs pass to a trailer in transition that ended as poorly as it sounds a play of that sort might.)

Given his youth relative to the rest of the class — he only just turned 19 on June 4 — and his meteoric rise from three-star recruit to legitimate NBA prospect, there's reason to believe he has a lot of untapped potential to offer teams. But how much is there? That's where the debate surrounding Smith begins.

Lack of refinement in important skill areas

The difficulty in projecting Smith's future is trying to find a comparison for him in a current or former NBA player. He's built like either a big point guard or an average shooting guard, but doesn't shoot a lot of threes, isn't a prolific playmaker, and gets a lot of his offensive production working off-the-ball, either as a cutter or on put-backs. There are not many guys you can draw comparisons to that fit all those criteria.

Shooting and the dribble-drive game are the areas to hone in on if you're trying to determine Smith's fit on the Sixers. He knocked down 45 percent of his threes in his lone collegiate season, but that figure came on just 40 attempts, which isn't enough to be trusted whatsoever. Had he been a very good or elite free-throw shooter, there'd be reason to believe in the shot translating, but his 71.7 percent mark from the charity stripe is not enough to make that argument.

From what we have seen from him as a shooter, he's also fighting uphill on the mechanical front. Smith sports a fairly slow release, and he had a tendency to miss some of his jumpers badly, rather than just too long or too short. Being a non-shooter is basically not an option for other guards on the Sixers' roster, as the ramifications of building around a player like Simmons are felt all over the court.

Then there's the question of whether he is actually capable of creating with the ball in his hands at an adequate enough level to score and create for others. Smith was in a low-usage role for a first-round pick, particularly for a guard, and you have to believe this is a function of his role and surrounding talent more than it is about Smith.

That case isn't impossible to make. Tech's offense ran largely through Keenan Evans, who was one of the country's best guards at drawing fouls and scoring out of the pick-and-roll. If you have a fourth-year player on your roster who is capable of carving opponents to shreds with the ball in his hands, why hand the keys over to an unproven freshman? Players prove capable of handling more responsibility all the time, and sometimes it just takes the right coach and system to empower them.

I'm not sure that holds weight in this instance, however. You'd be expecting a guard who showed very little self-creation equity at the college level to suddenly unleash it in the NBA. The percentage of his made shots that were assisted is staggering for a guard — almost 59 percent of his makes at the rim were assisted, per HoopMath, which is closer to profiling like a big man than it is for a high-level guard.

While his athleticism is undeniable, it's fair to wonder whether he'll be able to leverage it to the same degree he did in college once the average athleticism/size across from him increases. NBA spacing often helps mitigate concerns surrounding dribble penetration, but because the Sixers need complimentary players who will actively provide that spacing, Smith's fit on offense should be scrutinized heavily.

With his late-bloomer profile and lots of positive IQ/awareness traits to point to, Smith's ability to improve should not be undersold here. Combine that with the fit concerns, however, and Philadelphia feels like a less than ideal place for him to make the proper growth journey. Buyer beware.

The defense

Tools and defensive toughness

The same relentless motor that serves him well on the offensive end of the court is a key to his success on defense. Calling someone "tough" is a bit of an oversimplification, but it's a worthy descriptor for the way Smith competes on the other end of the floor.

Though he wasn't asked to shoulder a heavy burden on offense at Texas Tech, Smith quickly morphed into a do-it-all defensive player for the Red Raiders, credibly defending players at every spot on the floor. Some of his underlying traits suggest he will continue to impact the game as a defender when the bar is raised at the next level — he closes hard on shooters, is not deterred by opponent screens, and isn't the sort of player who shies from contact.

If you listen to him talk, Smith seems hyperaware that being a difference maker on defense will be part of his path to NBA relevance. Speaking to reporters following a Tuesday workout in Camden, Smith insisted that was his calling card as a player.

"Defending [is my go-to]," said Smith. "I feel like anybody can score, and if you just do that small thing that coach wants you too, you can do [well] in the league."

I'm not as bullish on his defensive versatility as perhaps some in the draft community are, but that comes down to size more than it is technique or instinct. Smith's measurements at the NBA Draft Combine came in a little underwhelming on the size front, which should cast doubt on his ability to cope with bigger wings at the next level. He may have defended the likes of Mo Bamba for stretches in college, but he's almost certainly not getting away with that (or anything close) in the NBA.

Even still, his instincts and activity on the defensive end made him a tremendous disrupter at the NCAA level. He averaged 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks per 40 at Tech, and some of the latter were of the same highlight variety as his putback dunks. Smith has a great feel (and the requisite athleticism) for pulling off chase down blocks, which are a nice cherry on top of his defensive package.

There is a soft spot in my heart for players who actually turn their tools into defensive production, and perhaps Smith's journey as an unheralded, late-developing recruit helped instill this mindset in him. Whatever the case may be, expect him to continue competing on the defensive end at the NBA level.

Will his tools provide him the same advantages against NBA-caliber competition?

As was mentioned in discussing his versatility above, however, there is a limit to the impact Smith can have as a defender at the NBA level relative to his college success. He tested great in the athletic tools portion of the combine, but ended up measuring shorter than he'd previously been listed. This is not uncommon in prospects, though it does raise questions about what his ultimate upside is as an NBA defender.

Smith had a significant athletic advantage over his competition in almost every game he played at Tech, and his size was more than adequate to handle switches against college competition. That's going to change in a hurry. Wingspan can only make up so much of the difference — the NBA is an army of 6'7"+ wings these days, and in playoff matchups in particular, teams will hunt switches until they get size or speed mismatches they want.

Having the proper compete level will aid him in these situations — he's not just going to concede the basket or refuse to fight through a screen — but there's a logical limit to which that makes a difference if you're outgunned. If you assume that his defensive versatility will be dampened at the next level, that takes a decent amount of luster off of his case as an impact player.

With the breakthroughs he needs to make in several key areas on the offensive side of the ball, you need to know you're getting certain value from Smith on the other end to justify giving him the sort of developmental minutes he likely needs. I think you'll probably get it to some degree but at a level that's a bit more understated than optimists are concluding right now.

There is some course correcting being done by draft analysts by Smith, which tends to happen with guys who rise from unheralded status to hot prospect. Rapid growth is absolutely a good indicator for future success, but it shouldn't be assumed as a constant just because a player shows it at one stage of his development.

Does he make sense for the Sixers at No. 10?

If I were a betting man, I would imagine Smith is not all that serious an option from the Sixers' point of view. With Simmons' shot being what it is and the additional Fultz question mark they didn't think they'd have when they drafted him a year ago, taking another potential non-shooter with a top-10 pick seems out of the question.

The best player available vs. fit argument is one worth examining on a year-in, year-out basis, and I don't think the separation between the back end of this year's top 10 through about 18-20 is all that large. When that tends to be the case, I think the argument for targeting better-fitting players makes sense. You're more likely to maximize that player's value — and have him inflate the value of the pieces you already have in place — by putting them in a position to succeed.

If the Sixers were in a position where they didn't have their tentpole players and were looking for a home-run swing, I think Smith would be an excellent candidate at No. 10. His progression suggests it's not out of the question for him to continue adding elements to his game, and if he ever rounds the jumper and handle into shape, there's a potential star within him.

But that doesn't seem like an especially likely outcome, and there's a much more likely outcome where Smith never shoots well or handles well and you're left with a bench player/energy guy you can find much deeper in the draft. In a scenario where the Sixers trade back and pick up extra assets, it'd be a more palatable gamble, but still come with significant downside.

I understand the fascination with Smith and don't think it would be a huge reach if the Sixers decided to take him at No. 10. But seeing (and producing) is believing on my end, and I think you run a real risk of selecting a player who just can't do several important things perimeter players need to at the NBA level, and not because he simply wasn't asked to.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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