Philadelphia 76ers: Zhaire Smith is going to be a big help guarding guards

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

After struggling mightily to cover opposing guards over the first 20 games of the season, Zhaire Smith’s return could be huge for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Philadelphia 76ers fans: Zhaire Smith is finally getting ready to return to the court.

While his NBA debut may not happen tomorrow, this calendar year, or even before the trade deadline, Smith has officially returned to the court for non-contact drills, and could soon find himself suiting up for the Delaware Blue Coats as he bulks up and gets back into NBA shape following a bizarre sesame seed illness that required surgery.

Which is good news, because the Sixers are in desperate need of a player with Smith’s skill set.

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Over the first 20 games of the 2018-19 NBA season, the 76ers have really struggled to guard opposing guards with wearying frequency. And in the games since the Jimmy Butler trade, that positional discrepancy has gotten noticeably worse.

Call it adjusting to life post-Robert Covington, who’s vaulted himself into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst on a recent episode of The Jump, but the Sixers are seemingly giving up 30-plus a night to any player under 6-foot-5.

Whether it be Kemba Walker, Jrue Holiday, or everyone’s favorite future-Sixer D’Angelo Russell (will it into existence), the 76ers just can’t seem to stop a guard from scoring the ball, which honestly makes sense.

The 76ers currently trot out a pretty strange starting five, with a power forward playing point guard in Ben Simmons, the 88th best defensive shooting guard in the league in J.J. Redick, a shooting guard who lines up at small forward in Butler, a small forward who lines up at power forward in Wilson Chandler, and everyone’s favorite Broad Street Bully Joel Embiid in the paint. While that crew is undoubtedly versatile, as four of them can cover multiple positions across the court, none are particularly effective at guarding guards, a sight for the sorest of Sixers fan’s eyes.

And their bench isn’t much better.

Of the five players who get even occasional minutes as reserves for the Sixers, only one, the People’s Champ T.J. McConnell, is an even average NBA defender, with their only other true guard, Landry Shamet, ranking out as the 14th worst defenders in the entire NBA, regardless of position. Now maybe, just maybe the team could opt to give Furkan Korkmaz some minutes covering opposing points, as he has a positive .01 defensive Real Plus-Minus rating, but he’s really more of a two-three wing, who probably couldn’t keep up with the Walkers, Holidays, or Russells of the world with any regularity.

Without having played a single NBA game, Zhaire Smith may actually be the 76ers’ best defensive guard, take from that what you will.

At 6-foot-4, Smith was mostly asked to play like a mini-RoCo in his lone season at Texas Tech, guard opposing team’s best scorers 1-5, and keep the ball out of the paint. While this was made harder by his role as a super-duper small forward for the Red Raiders in their uber-fast small-ball lineup, Smith obviously showed enough polish on the defensive end of the court to garner a universal first-round grade by scouts and pundits alike, even after only attempting 40 3-pointers (18 makes) over his 37-game freshman season.

This versatility could allow Smith to slide in at either guard spot on defensive stands, provide A-plus lockdown defensive effort alongside any of the team’s current crop of guards, and remain a RPM-plus even if his offensive game is at this point limited to open looks and ridiculous dunks.

While it’s anyone’s guess if the Sixers second best defensive guard, Markelle Fultz, will even still be a member of the team when Smith is ready to play, Zhaire could provide instant defense upon his debut on the court at the Wells Fargo Center, and help to return Brett Brown‘s squad to their typical place among the best defensive teams in the NBA.

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Will Smith ever elevate himself to an All-Star, or even a regular starter once he hits the court? Only time will tell, but with the Philadelphia 76ers in ‘win-now’ mode and in desperate need of some depth, it’s clear there’s a very defined role for Zhaire Smith once he returns to the court, whenever that may be.