March 12, 2019
It was a surprise to say the least when it was announced that Zhaire Smith would be available for Tuesday night's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He sat out a back-to-back for Delaware on Saturday night, with the team saying he wasn't ready for those quite yet. But here he is, having played with the Blue Coats on Monday, ready to suit up with the big boys.
That doesn't necessarily mean he's going to see the court on Tuesday vs. Cleveland.
"He will be with us. Whether he gets on the court or not, I do not know. But he will be with us," Brett Brown told reporters. "I'm excited to have him be a part of us tonight."
What exactly does being a part of the team mean? For Smith, it's his first crack at being part of an NBA pregame program, regardless of whether he plays or not.
In Philadelphia, that means sitting down for the "State of the Union," Brown's name for the meeting he has with his team at 4 p.m. on every game day. This meeting, which consists of a film session and a broader discussion with the players, is preceded by a 90-minute coaching staff meeting and followed by the team's pregame walkthrough, which they use to go through the plays they talked about during the State of the Union.
The Sixers believe there is value in having Smith be part of that process, even if he doesn't necessarily play meaningful minutes against Cleveland.
"Being in the locker room with his teammates, and going through film...Zhaire was able to experience that kind of for the first time," Brown said. "To let him taste NBA basketball and the process that you [use to] prepare for an NBA game on gameday is important. Stuff like that adds up. From a human side, I'm just thrilled that he's with us and here and [he] has overcome tremendous hurdles to do something as simple as I just said."
Brown credited Blue Coats coach Connor Johnson and Sixers assistant Tyler Lashbrook — who Brown says has served as a "liaison" to Zhaire as he moves between the Blue Coats and Sixers — for helping him get up to speed as quickly as he has. We've seen some of that play out at the practice facility, with Lashbrook going through film with Smith at the end of practice sessions with the parent club.
It has perhaps not been discussed enough how much trauma Smith has been through and how much it takes to get back here. On top of having to recover from a serious foot injury, Smith lost a considerable amount of weight and was tasked with getting back into NBA-player shape.
Without time to develop at the NBA level throughout the season, it sounds like Smith's opportunity on Tuesday is aimed at preparing him for next season, rather than as a boost during the playoffs.
"He will be with [the Blue Coats] and see that season through," Brown said. "Anything we can get from Zhaire will be an additional bonus. It's not anything I'm counting on. If it happens, it happens. I'm not expecting it at all. It's not like this sneaky drive to shove him into a playoff situation."
"Could it happen? Who knows. If he's with us, anything can happen. But it's not driven on that basis."
Delaware's season does end on March 23, as they are not close to a spot in the G-League playoffs as it stands right now. That would give Smith roughly two weeks after the conclusion of the G-League schedule to be with the Sixers before the playoffs. So there is a small chance they can get him developmental reps before the playoffs, at the very least.
But my advice would be to keep expectations low for Philadelphia's rookie and treat his minutes as a bonus if and when they come. At the very least, it's a feel-good story for a kid who went through a heck of a lot just to get back on the floor this season.
"[It's] a statement about two things: who he is and the infrastructure we have around him," Brown said on Tuesday night. "I'm proud of our connection with the G-League, and the symmetry between the programs...it's all connected in a deeper way than it has ever been."
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