The trade that brought Zhaire Smith to the 76ers may have robbed him of being celebrated.
Instead of talking about what Smith can do for the Sixers, some are focused on what the Sixers did to the guy for whom he was traded.
The team is receiving a lot of criticism for trading Villanova and Great Valley High School product Mikal Bridges to the Phoenix Suns for Smith, the 16th overall pick, and a 2021 first-round pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft. The Sixers were vilified on social media and on local sports talk radio for the move.
Sixers coach and interim general manager Brett Brown repeatedly explained his reasoning behind the trade with Smith sitting on his right during Friday’s introductory press conference. It was as if the guard didn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Bridges.
“That makes me want to work harder,” said Smith, who jumped center during his lone season at Texas Tech. “Just doing me, really. I really try not to pay attention. It really wasn’t my decision, but I’m excited to be here.”
And Brown is excited that Smith is here.
According to sources, Smith was the player that Brown always coveted. However, the team realized it would have been a reach to select him at No. 10. While the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder is a world-class athlete and defender, the Garland, Texas, native has to learn how to play on the perimeter.
Smith played center at Lakeview Centennial High School since he was the tallest player on the team and had a 42-inch vertical leap. He was listed as a guard at Texas Tech. However, the 19-year-old often played in the post and used his athleticism to get past taller players.
He managed to average 11.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals at Tech. Smith was named to the all-Big 12 newcomer team and to the conference’s all-defensive team. He shot 45 percent on three-pointers, but that came on just 40 attempts.
Brown said Smith reminds him of San Antonio small forward Kawhi Leonard, the player the Sixers want to acquire in a trade. Leonard has a good relationship with Brown from Brown’s days as a San Antonio assistant.
“There are some similarities with his length,” Brown said of Smith and the 6-7 Leonard. “There are some similarities with his athleticism. I think that when you look at just where I believe Zhaire can be, there are some common denominators that Kawhi had when we first brought him to San Antonio.”
That’s encouraging for Smith, whose favorite player just happens to be Leonard, a two-time NBA all-star and two-time defensive player of the year. Smith even tries to emulate Leonard’s game.
“I think somebody said we have the same shooting mechanics,” Smith said. “So I try to do whatever move he does to get his shot off. I try to learn that.”
Smith wore Leonard’s No. 2 while at Texas Tech. He’ll have to settle for wearing No. 8 as a Sixer, in honor of Kobe Bryant. Number 2 is off limits to current Sixers because it was the late Moses Malone’s number. The team honors him by not allowing another player to wear it. Smith, who likes single-digit numbers, wanted to wear No. 1, but that’s Justin Anderson’s number.
Regardless of his jersey number, Smith hopes to follow in Leonard’s footsteps.
“Coach Brown at the Spurs developed him,” Smith said of Leonard, “and he feels like he can do the same with me.”