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February 20, 2019

Sixers' Zhaire Smith returns to practice, availability remains in doubt

Between Joel Embiid being ruled out for a week and Furkan Korkmaz tearing his meniscus, Philadelphia's return from the All-Star break was a somber one. There was but one ray of sunshine on a snowy Wednesday afternoon: the return of Sixers draftee Zhaire Smith, who edges closer to a full return for Philadelphia.

Since the team's G-League affiliate has a game tonight, Smith spent the day with the big-boy club in order to get some practice time in. He will rejoin the Delaware Blue Coats on Thursday to continue his practice and rehab program and was only a partial participant in Sixers practice on Wednesday.

This was as much about keeping him active as anything else. But it was still a nice boost for the team on an otherwise dreary day.

"He went through sort of a half practice, he ran around a little bit and competed," Brett Brown told reporters after Wednesday's practice. "It was great to see him, you're reminded of how athletic he is. He had a bounce today, it was just good to have him included with his teammates. It was probably like a 50-60 percent type day."

He was not the only admirer of the young man in the gym. Sixers star Jimmy Butler decided to honor Smith's return by wearing his jersey during practice, and he continued to wear it through his availability session with the media.

Butler had plenty of jokes lined up for the occasion. He claimed he "wanted to be the better Zhaire today," and even roasted Smith for (apparently) being an inferior Uno player to Butler, who seems like the sort of guy who loves to drop that Draw Four card on unsuspecting opponents. But jokes aside, he praised Smith for what he has seen from him as he tries to battle back from quite a bizarre offseason.

"He's handling it well," Butler said of Smith's habits. "Every time I see him, he's in here working on his game as much as he can, [he's] in the weight room trying to get stronger, or doing the rehab he's supposed to be doing."

That has been the overwhelming consensus about Smith whenever his name has come up at the practice facility these past few months. Did he go through a couple major setbacks? Absolutely. But once he was back up and running, everyone has raved about the time he has put in to get himself ready to play, often going through two-a-days once his body was up for it.

It has been a season filled with change for Smith, whose allergic reaction in the fall prompted an emergency medical procedure as well as changes to his diet, with help from the Sixers' staff to design a meal plan that works for him inside and outside their facility. Between physical rehab for the foot he broke in August, lifestyle changes prompted by the sesame allergy, and digestion (no pun intended) of NBA-level concepts and schemes away from the court, there has been a lot for him to do.

Maybe it should be no surprise, then, that the Sixers haven't committed to him playing this year. Brown sounded a little more optimistic about getting him into a G-League game, but suiting up for the big club still sounds like it is far off.

"No, I don't [have a return date for him]. I don't know [if he plays this year]. It wasn't my expectation, and it still really isn't," Brown told reporters. "But I think to see him move around with his teammates, from a human standpoint was pretty cool. In relation to is that going to translate to NBA games...I hope for sure we can get him in a G-League environment, but that is still being advised to me."

There is still plenty for Smith to do and learn even if he can't make it back in time to make an appearance for Philadelphia down the stretch. After Wednesday's practice, he sat perched on the wall between the court and the weight room, going through film on a laptop with a Sixers staffer. The challenge will be turning that mental preparation into instinct on the floor.

For now, it's nice to see this kid get closer to normalcy after going through what had to be one of the weirdest stretches of his life. As we all wait to see if he can help the Sixers and when, it's okay to celebrate the small milestones.

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