Rookie Zhaire Smith an unlikely candidate to fill ‘vacuum' created by James Ennis' injury


A few months ago, the thought of Zhaire Smith getting warm applause from the Wells Fargo Center crowd as PA announcer Matt Cord announced he was checking in for his home debut — in a game against the NBA-best Bucks, no less — seemed improbable.

Smith, with a feeding tube in his stomach, was working on his shot not too long ago. He wasn’t close to a meaningful NBA game. Now, he’s not far from legitimate, non-garbage time playoff basketball.

James Ennis will be re-evaluated in approximately two weeks after aggravating a right quad contusion Wednesday night in Atlanta, the Sixers announced before tip-off against the Bucks. Ennis' injury created a hole in the Sixers' rotation, and Smith helped fill it vs. Milwaukee. 

He played 17 minutes and had six points, three rebounds and an assist in the Sixers' 128-122 loss Thursday to the Bucks (see observations). 

Smith’s night started on a high note, with him draining a three-pointer from the right wing 33 seconds after checking in, and the fans were poised to erupt again early in the fourth quarter when the rookie poked free a steal and took off toward the rim. 

Instead of a jubilant, high-flying dunk to put the Sixers ahead 96-88, Smith lost control of the ball as he went up and missed a layup. The Bucks grabbed the rebound, pushed the ball up the court, and cut the Sixers’ lead to three with D.J. Wilson’s three.

The sequence highlighted Smith’s fascinating blend of defensive ability, athleticism, rawness and rust, all of which Brown knows he has to weigh. 

Can he jump into NBA life quick? … Because he’s not a deer in headlights. This is a thing that I do like. He's not afraid of the moment. He touched the ball for 20 seconds and he made a three. It's just playing at a pace and dealing with reads on NBA athletes. … His breakaway layup — which really was a five-point swing — he had a great steal and kind of loses himself along that way, and that's just because he hasn't played basketball. So how quickly can he get into a rhythm of playing again? Because it's not like he's afraid. That's not it. That type of stuff I intend on growing over the next period of time, and who knows?  … With the vacuum of minutes now required to be filled, maybe he can grab some of those.

In the G League, the 19-year-old Smith had 11 games to develop confidence in his new jumper, sharpen his defensive skills, and get comfortable with the core principles of the Sixers’ offensive system. Blue Coats head coach Connor Johnson challenged Smith to be “an elite defender,” well aware that the Sixers were lacking players who could capably guard opposing ball handlers and hold their own in the pick-and-roll.

There’s no doubt Johnson and the Blue Coats helped prepare Smith for life in the NBA. In fact, Smith, Shake Milton and Jonah Bolden, all of whom suited up for the Blue Coats less than two weeks ago, combined for 55 of the Sixers’ 69 minutes off the bench Thursday.

The more pressing question for the Sixers is whether Smith can go from suffering a Jones fracture in his left foot, to enduring severe medical complications from an allergic reaction, to playing in the G League, to contributing in the NBA playoffs within a single season.

If Smith does indeed step into the rotation while Ennis is sidelined, his teammates have faith in him.

“We trust all our teammates,” JJ Redick said. “I love Zhaire's energy. I thought he actually played great tonight. When he had minutes the other night he played great, too. We have all the confidence in the world in him.”

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