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July 09, 2018

Zhaire Smith's athleticism and IQ already starting to shine through for Sixers

Every single year in the NBA draft, we hear about players who are drafted high based on their "upside," which ends up standing in as shorthand for athleticism and tools. Teams become enamored with the idea of what someone will become down the line, with less concern about what players can do with those tools functionally as young men.

Sixers rookie Zhaire Smith is a rare exception to this rule. Sure, he has barriers that need to be overcome in order for him to be an impactful offensive player, like improving his handle and tightening the release on his jumper. But where Smith separates himself from a lot of his peers is how he's used his basketball IQ to turn those tools into something tangible, impacting games on a nightly basis.

Or at least, that was the sales pitch on Smith coming out of Texas Tech. I wrote as much when explaining why the Sixers would have been interested in him to begin with:

Smith is an outlier athlete, and his on-court IQ is tremendous. 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.

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.

The intersection of IQ and athleticism is important for someone like Smith specifically because he's making a transition from playing more like a big man to a two-guard or wing role. There have already been several small side effects from this arrangement — on plays where Smith may have crashed for defensive rebounds in college, he's now fanning out and filling lanes in transition, providing outlets for rebounders.

But after a spotty debut at Summer League, Smith had a mini breakout on Saturday night in Vegas, scoring 16 points and filling up the box score elsewhere with three assists, three steals, two rebounds, and a blocked shot.

What stood out from Smith's performance (live and on rewatch) was the degree of certainty and decisiveness he played with compared to his debut. Friday's game against the Celtics was very much a feel-out game for the rookie, with Smith playing a little too much hot potato with the basketball and deferring to other teammates. In fairness, he had decent enough reason to — Furkan Korkmaz was on a 40-point heater, and at a certain point you let the hot hand cook.

With Korkmaz cool and Landry Shamet sidelined against the Lakers, Smith had a lot more responsibility to get it done against L.A. Good news: he delivered, and showed flashes in areas that weren't just highlight-reel dunks.

For starters, Smith was a lot more willing to attack off-the-dribble against L.A. His hesitance there generally can be traced to his prior role and his underdeveloped handle, but on several occasions Saturday he put the ball on the floor and created looks for himself or a teammate near the basket. We saw very little of this against Boston, and it should definitely be seen as an encouraging sign that he pivoted so quickly the next night.

Kevin Young, the coach responsible for running these Summer Sixers, noted this is something they're trying to coax out of him as he continues to develop his game.

"I thought Zhaire looked good. I thought with some of the stuff we talked about this morning, his ability to come off different types of actions, whether it's screens or [dribble-handoffs] and get him downhill, I was impressed with his ability to have that mindset tonight," Young said. "We're trying to get him to be as aggressive as we can...I don't think it's innately in his DNA, but I think this is a great environment for him to explore that."

Young also mentioned that the Sixers allowed him to be a little more aggressive chasing offensive rebound opportunities on Saturday, and to say the least, Smith made sure he took advantage of the coaching staff's decision.

If you look at the dunk Smith had after blowing by Hart and the putback slam right above this paragraph, the same ingredients make them both possible. Smith needs almost no time to load up and explode for a finish, already up in rarified air before his opponents even have time to react.

Smith's contributions on defense look a lot different, but they stem from the same underlying set of traits. He reacts instinctively on the defensive end of the floor, and even in (fairly rare) cases where he's making mistakes, Smith's athleticism puts him in a better position than most to recover.

The Sixers already have a couple wing-ish defenders with active hands in Robert Covington and Ben Simmons, and Smith is only going to add to the "pain in the ass" factor teams face when up against Philadelphia. My favorite play of his from over the weekend came in the second quarter against Los Angeles, when he saw a pick-and-roll play unfolding and blew it up with timely help on the diving big man.

I've stressed it constantly when talking about big man defense around these parts, but good defense is less about the point of impact than it is the reads and positioning that precede it. Smith only drifts toward the paint late in the sequence, and his actions are swift once the play unfolds.

That recognition of when to step in and when not to gamble away from his man is why Smith should be expected to be a helpful defensive player early on, a rare trait for rookie players. And without getting too overzealous, it's that intelligence that prompts optimism in his ultimate ceiling — his feel for the game is already beyond his years, and there's reason to believe someone who reads the game like he does can translate that into tangible progress over time.

And look, it's also pretty darn helpful when your team can consider it a viable strategy to just throw the ball up and say, "Go get it."

Smith is a long way from a finished product, and we'll no doubt see him go through some more ups and downs out in Las Vegas. But when you start envisioning him playing next to a more talented supporting cast, it's not hard to see how Smith can help the Sixers right away, even with as much room to grow he still has left.

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