The good news for the 76ers organization and its fans is that the foot fracture suffered by first-round pick Zhaire Smith on Monday doesn’t represent uncharted waters for the team. In fact, the Sixers know every shoal, every submerged wreck, and every sandbar upon which a promising young player can temporarily run aground in these waters.
The injury wasn’t a reason to merely shrug – it is extremely bad luck, particularly for Smith – but neither is it a reason to curse the fates or, more to the point, figure that the Sixers’ ultimate fate is a curse. They’ve been here before, and been here with players of whom far more was expected.
In the two previous drafts, having selected Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 overall selection each time, they were rewarded with a total of 14 games from what would have been their natural rookie seasons out of a possible 164. Now, that was bad luck, although Simmons’ absence in 2016-17 did allow the team to unfurl one more losing season and get itself into position to jockey around and eventually draft Fultz.
In all, the Sixers have had six top-10 picks in the draft in the last five years, including Simmons and Fultz. They knew that Joel Embiid, taken with the third pick in 2014, wasn’t going to play for at least a year. They traded down from the No. 10 spot twice, once to get Dario Saric, who also wasn’t going to be playing right away; and again this year, sending off Villanova’s Mikal Bridges in exchange for Smith. In each case, the Sixers got another first-round pick in the bargain.
The only high draft selection who actually got on the court for a significant number of games was Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 pick in 2015. He played 53 games as a rookie. That should tell you all you need to know about the ultimate importance of being immediately available. Okafor was discarded last season in a trade that brought back Trevor Booker, who hung around for a couple of months before being waived. So, in assessing the long-term benefit of getting on the court right away, it sure didn’t do much for Okafor.
Smith suffered a fracture of the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot while taking part in an offseason development camp run by longtime coach Tim Grgurich. It is a pesky injury that usually requires about three months to heal and, in some cases, can take longer because there is limited blood circulation in that area. Simmons suffered the same injury, a Jones fracture, on the last day of training camp in 2016, and as we know, he didn’t play a minute that season.
The Sixers were never entirely forthcoming about Simmons’ situation, and perhaps that was because it really was unclear, and perhaps that was just out of habit. His surgery was performed by Martin J. O’Malley, at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, who also repaired Smith’s fracture on Thursday evening, and previously did the successful bone graft on Embiid’s foot, and whose other patients have included Kevin Durant, Brook Lopez, and a long list of high-profile athletes who required the best in the field.
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It was always an understandable suspicion that the Sixers didn’t hurry Simmons back because, as discussed above, one more losing season wasn’t necessarily the worst thing for them. That’s also why Zhaire Smith will possibly have a more normal time line for his return. The Sixers expect to win this season and, Smith or no Smith, they expect to win a lot.
If the Sixers really thought they needed production from that pick to be true contenders now, they would have kept Bridges. Sure, the future draft pick must be counted into the equation as an asset for Brett Brown’s expected “star-hunting” expeditions, but that pick won’t make a shot, grab a rebound, or decide a game this season.
Smith, when healthy again, is more of a project. He shot erratically in the summer league and, despite his ridiculous athleticism, needs to get on the court at this level and improve. Maybe he won’t get a ton of minutes at the somewhat crowded wing positions, but he needs all he can get.
A year of playing shadow ball in the gym by himself won’t do him any good or, in the long-run, do the team any good. It’s also why expecting to see him back sometime in November is a reasonable bet, even for an organization with a history of turning simple rehabilitation stories into full-length documentaries.
That was then, however, back when the Sixers had a good reason not to win basketball games. The reason is gone now, and Zhaire Smith might be the first young player to benefit from the sea change in these well-charted waters.