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March 01, 2019

Zhaire Smith makes G-League debut; can he crack Sixers' rotation this year?

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Zhaire Smith's long journey back to the hardwood appears to be complete. The Sixers' G-League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats, announced that Smith is active for Friday night's game against the Maine Red Claws and will make his first appearance of the season.

A team representative said Smith is expected to play 15 minutes in Friday night's game. You can stream the game using Facebook Live starting at 7 p.m.

This is an important milestone for Smith, who has spent a significant amount of time on the shelf preparing for this moment. If his only issue was the foot he broke last August, it would have been a challenge for Smith to factor into Philly's plans this season. But things took a serious detour when Smith had emergency allergy surgery in the fall, which complicated his return to play and rehab program.

After undergoing that procedure, being subjected to a full allergy panel, and making adjustments to his diet/lifestyle accordingly, Smith basically had to go through double rehab, bulking back up after losing weight while also trying to get back into basketball shape.

From all accounts within the organization, Smith has been a model citizen throughout the process, and once he was back up on his feet again, Smith has committed to doing whatever it takes to get back on the floor, often putting himself through two-a-day workout sessions in order to prepare his body for the rigors of the NBA. In the few moments we've seen him at the practice facility in Camden, we've also seen him go through film study with assistant coaches on the sidelines, making sure the mental prep is there, too.

When the media has talked to Brett Brown about Smith, he has noted his physicality and athleticism above all else. Those should be able to shine through fairly quickly. And the head coach mused at practice last week that although their history of injured young guys has been a bummer, it has helped them learn about how to keep young guys engaged and learning, even during layoffs.

"I think that historically we've annually gotten better, we've learned from back in the day when we had Nerlens [Noel], Joel [Embiid], and keep on going," Brown said on Feb. 22nd. "I feel like Zhaire has reaped the benefit of studied work, thoughtful work on how do people learn. What's the environment that can still inspire and educate as there's clearly disappointment on not being able to play basketball?"

"How much of that do [we] feel like he has absorbed? It's hard to guess, and I think you do [only] know it when you start to see him play."

Frankly, it's going to be a bit hard to draw any conclusions from Smith's time in the G-League. His practice sessions with the Sixers are probably a much more helpful measure of how close he is to being a factor at the NBA level. G-League games can devolve into some pretty crazy basketball.

That being said, his time in Delaware is important for a couple of reasons. Smith can start to get back into real basketball shape, for one, and with the continuity between what they run in Delaware and what they run in Philadelphia, he can apply his theoretical knowledge to the court.

"We run the same things," Brown said after practice on the 22nd. "[Blue Coats head coach] Connor Johnson was with me forever, they're not going to come up here and [you] say a word and they won't know it. I think the connection of the dots is the strongest it has ever been."

The Sixers believe Smith 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. He has a lot to learn at this level though — his jumper remains a question mark, and he's effectively learning how to play a new position after playing a lot of his college minutes as an undersized four.

I am dubious that Smith can be a factor in the rotation this year with just a month and a half left in the year, even if he sets the world on fire in Delaware. The only caveat there is that their bench wings have been a dumpster fire since the trade deadline, and if Smith can get some NBA minutes against tanking teams in the final weeks of the season, maybe he's asked to be a change of pace off the bench in short spurts come playoff time.

Ultimately, I think we don't get our first extended glimpse of Smith until next season. But never say never.

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