Philadelphia 76ers: Zhaire Smith needs a proper playoff audition

(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

After serving fans a breathtaking debut, the Philadelphia 76ers need to give Zhaire Smith a proper rotational audition before the playoffs get underway.

I’ve always been a bit of a Zhaire Smith apologist.

Now don’t get me wrong, did I throw my phone in anger when then-Philadelphia 76ers GM Brett Brown traded Mikal Bridges, a player who’s been deceptively great for the Phoenix Suns this season, for an undersized shooting guard without a clearly defined shot?


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But since then, I’ve really come around to the move I’m thinking as a potential deceptively great for the team moving forward.

In the waning minutes of a baffling, bench-clearing loss to the Orlando Magic, Smith took the court with six minutes to go, and delivered a performance for the ages: going 1-for-1 from 3-point range while hauling in one board, and stealing another pass.

But that’s not all. Though it won’t show up on the stat sheet, or on any highlight reel, Smith took a second three after a play was called dead moments later and made that one too, showcasing the feathery touch of a grizzled veteran sharpshooter.

Truly it was a sight to see in an otherwise ugly game.

I know what you’re thinking non-Smith apologist, he only played for six minutes against the Magic, let’s not get carried away. But why not? I mean for most of that time, he was still playing against Steve Clifford starters, with Shake Milton running the point, so in a way, it may have actually been more impressive.

What Zhaire Smith, not James Ennis, Jonathon Simmons, or Furkan Korkmaz was always destined to win Brett Brown’s wing tournament, and his athletic upside, when paired with a surprisingly potent outside shot, is that bench presence the team has been so desperately missing?

Think about it: what two problem areas have consistently been the Achilles heels of the Sixers? Bench scoring and backcourt defense. Well, if Smith continues to shoot like he did against the Magic, he checks that both of those boxes with ease.

Frankly, that’s the main reason the Sixers drafted the 6-foot-4 product out of Texas Tech in the first place; his defensive upside.

Now it may be a bit premature, and unrealistic to compare the nineteen-year-old to Kawhi Leonard, which Coach Brown did during the pre-draft process, as he’s much shorter, faster, and more athletic, but on paper, Smith’s athletic gifts are tantalizing.

Simply put, Smith may already be among the five most physically gifted players in the entire Eastern Conference. Need proof? Check out his college highlights, which are chocked full of coast-to-coast buckets, athletic defensive plays, and enough hops to garner a spot in the Slam Dunk contest

There’s a reason Texas Tech’s coach moonlit the should-be shooting guard as a small ball power forward: Smith has the vertical to block shots, and the wherewithal to be a plus rebounder despite his mighty mouse physique.

As we all know, Brett Brown likes to get a bit unconventional with his glass crashers, just ask James Ennis.

Now, to be fair, Smith wasn’t exactly perfect in his first game. No, he’s still not a great ball-handler, as highlighted by an errant pass to Milton, but outside of games where Ben Simmons is a late scratch due to a stomach bug, the Sixers really aren’t in desperate need of another ball-dominant playmaker.

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No, what the Philadelphia 76ers desperately need is a defensive guard, and if Zhaire Smith’s performance against the Orlando Magic is of any indication, Brett Brown owes it to himself to use these last eight games as a postseason rotational shootout.