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January 24, 2019

What return of Zhaire Smith, Justin Patton could do for Sixers' rotation

Sixers NBA

It always feels like a breath of fresh air to get positive updates on the health of Sixers players. On Thursday morning, we received two of those, as the team announced that two of the young men on their bench are closer to a return to play.

Zhaire Smith, who the Sixers acquired on the night of the 2018 NBA Draft in a trade with Phoenix, has been assigned to the Sixers' G-League affiliate and is set to begin participating in non-contact elements of the Blue Coats practices. A team source said that this step was taken to keep him progressing with the team on a road trip out west, and added that Smith's individualized workouts will continue alongside this new portion of his workload.

As for a timetable, that remains elusive. But everyone who I've spoken to around the Sixers has raved about Smith's dedication and work ethic while he has been grinding away from the spotlight, and Brett Brown told reporters earlier in January that Smith was going through two-a-days in an effort to get himself back.

He'll be joined in Delaware by Justin Patton, the young big man who was acquired by Philadelphia as part of the trade for Jimmy Butler. Patton is a bit closer to a return to play, with the team saying he will be allowed to participate in, "limited and controlled contact." While the Sixers would not put a timetable on his potential return, a team source told me that their hope internally is for Patton to make his Blue Coats debut in February, assuming no setbacks between now and then.

What does this all mean for the Sixers? First, it should be noted that both players are still a ways away from even playing for the G-League affiliate, let alone the big club. Their collective lack of experience will make it tough for the team to just throw them into the mix down the stretch, especially if the Sixers remain in the good groove they're currently in.

However, each player represents an element that the Sixers simply don't have on the roster right now, and if by some chance the Sixers can get one or both back and healthy before the end of the season, perhaps they can play a role in their pursuit for an NBA championship.

Let's start with Smith, whose place in the team is easier to grasp. The Sixers swapped Mikal Bridges out for Smith because they believe he has considerable upside, and a lot of that comes on the defensive end. Smith was an impact player on defense at Texas Tech, and he has a combination of quickness/strength/length that should allow him to credibly guard 1-3 in an opponent's lineup.

One of the real crimes of the Ben Simmons era to date has been Philadelphia's inability to capitalize on the uniqueness of his profile. The Sixers should be able to play supersized lineups that still have the skill of smaller lineups, which they had to an extent with last year's team. Philadelphia had a jumbo starting five outside of JJ Redick, but their role players did not offer the same sort of size and defensive toughness.

Smith could change that. With outlier athleticism and his 6'9" wingspan, Smith will eventually be trusted to be a point-of-attack defender, the guy who can help fix Philadelphia's inability to defend point guards. This frees up Philadelphia's bigger guys — Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, and Wilson Chandler specifically — to take on more like-for-like assignments, and in many cases take lower-usage roles on defense, where they attack with help defense and close off passing lanes.

The offensive fit will be a work in progress unless Smith shows a lot more shooting touch than he did during Summer League. But with a passer like Simmons at the center of things and Smith showing great cutter instincts throughout his amateur career, he should be able to find a role as an energy guy off the bench while the rest of his game comes around. Suddenly, the Sixers would be able to build bench lineups with a surplus of athleticism, with guys like Simmons, Butler, Smith, and Jonah Bolden running the floor and harassing teams on D.

Speaking of Bolden, suddenly the Sixers might run into a good problem at backup center. Bolden has been a revelation as the primary backup to Embiid over the last couple weeks, changing the dynamism the Sixers have on the second unit. And if Patton is able to return before the end of the year, they might suddenly have a second option to play minutes there, with the same dynamism athletically.

Patton made a name for himself at Creighton by finishing damn near everything that came his way. He made nearly 68 percent of his attempts from the field, primarily on rim runs in transition, lobs out of pick-and-rolls, and quick finishes around the basket. He's not a guy who's going to demand the ball in the post and slow down the game, and instead is a potential partner for Butler in pick-and-rolls or Simmons on dribble handoffs.

He's a little rawer on the defensive end. We'll have to see where his athleticism is at post-injuries, but Patton is gifted physically, with quick feet, a 7'3" wingspan, and explosiveness off his feet that could turn him into a great rim protector with more polish. Patton is still raw here, though, and it's going to take a bit of time before he's able to reliably switch on pick-and-rolls and protect the rim without being suckered into fouls or wayward block attempts. He also needs to bulk up, otherwise his hands and athleticism won't be as useful on the defensive glass.

Creating competition for minutes behind Embiid would be a good thing for everyone on the roster. If Patton proves that he deserves a place in the rotation, that could not only bring the best out of the bench, it could create a situation where Brown is able to get Embiid more games of rest in the final month of the season. With the workload Embiid is carrying and the small issues he has had flare up so far, a break from the grind would be welcome, especially if it can be used to help develop their young big men.

Whether we get to a point where either guy gets on the floor, let alone cracks the rotation is still up for debate. But the Sixers are getting closer to building a fleshed-out rotation, and a late injection of athleticism could be exactly what this team needs heading into the playoffs. The more curveballs you can throw at teams, the better.

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