Zhaire Smith 2.0, Matisse Thybulle's defense, Shake Milton at point guard and more to watch with Sixers in summer league


Basketball is almost back.

Amid the free-agency frenzy, the Sixers held their summer league minicamp from Monday through Wednesday at their facility in Camden, New Jersey. The team is now in Las Vegas, with its first game set for Friday afternoon.

Their full schedule is below: 

Friday, July 5: Sixers-Bucks, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Saturday, July 6: Sixers-Celtics, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Monday, July 8: Sixers-Thunder, 3 p.m. (ESPNU)
Wednesday, July 10: Sixers-Pistons, 3 p.m. (NBA TV)

And here are a few storylines worth watching:

Zhaire Smith 2.0

The resilient, relentless Zhaire Smith endured plenty in his rookie season (see story). He returns to summer league eager to compete defensively and continue growing confidence in a jumper he had to rebuild after losing approximately 40 pounds following a severe allergic reaction.

Smith's explosiveness didn’t magically return all at once either.

“[Body] went through a whole lot,” Smith said Monday. “It took my athleticism. When I first came back, I tried to dunk and that didn’t work very well. I had to rebuild all of that again, but now I’m all good.”

Smith’s shot, which he gradually reconstructed with the help of player development coach Tyler Lashbrook, looks as it did at the tail end of last season — a good sign for someone seeking consistency. There’s a clear emphasis on proper footwork and extending his follow through. 

From the Sixers’ perspective, Smith’s defensive talent would seem to fit well on a team that’s staked its identity on that side of the ball. 

Zhaire’s exciting to me,” said Connor Johnson, the head coach of the Delaware Blue Coats and Sixers’ summer league team. “He’s a guy that’s getting better every day. Getting so much stronger and really becoming comfortable in his body. And you can see his athletic ability, especially on the defensive end. He’s got an unbelievable ability, in my opinion, to stay in front of the ball, fight through screens and be an on-ball, point-of-attack defender.

A defensive duo 

You don’t have to stretch to find the similarities between Smith and Matisse Thybulle, the 20th pick in this year’s draft.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for the two to form a connection. 

“For me, it’s really cool playing with Zhaire because me and him are really similar players,” Thybulle said Tuesday. “Having him be such a good defender and already knowing what to do, he’s someone I’ve been watching, looking up to and trying to kind of mimic his game — follow in his footsteps a little.” 

The two were part of the same group in various drills at the end of practices and are starting to build a relationship.

Like with Smith, Thybulle’s jump shot is something to monitor. He shot 35.8 percent from three-point range in his four seasons at the University of Washington but dipped to 30.5 percent as a senior.

An initial impression with Thybulle’s shot is that he seems to have success when he’s in rhythm and has his feet set. 

Smith, Johnson and Shake Milton all praised Thybulle’s active hands and sharp instincts defensively. 

“Man, he gets in the passing lanes like crazy,” Milton said Wednesday. “You’ve got to be careful — you can’t really be loose with the ball around him. Quick to the ball, he’s active and he makes it tough on you.”

The Sixers' backup point guard? 

Though the Sixers signed veteran Raul Neto to a one-year deal Wednesday, Milton should still have an opportunity to earn minutes this season.

The 22-year-old, who received a four-year NBA contract Tuesday, can play both guard spots and shoots a well-balanced, uncomplicated jumper.

Milton had the ball in his hands a lot with the Blue Coats, and Johnson said a key part of summer league for Milton will be further demonstrating his abilities as a point guard. 

“The best thing we can do for Shake and for the Sixers is show his versatility,” Johnson said Monday. “Show that he can play in multiple ways. He can play off the ball; he can play with the ball; he can play in more of a scoring role; he can play as more of a facilitator. We’re just trying, for all of our guys, to expand their skill set, expand their versatility, so they have multiple options for themselves, and then also for our program.”

Before the draft, as inquisitive reporters watched Milton working out at the Sixers’ facility and wondered what was next for the SMU product, general manager Elton Brand said, “I haven’t seen a player so excited to play in summer league.”

Milton, who missed last year’s summer league with a stress fracture in his back, explained Tuesday why that’s the case.

“I mean, I didn’t get to play last year,” he said. “It sucked having to sit there and watch everybody out there practicing and having fun. Summer league is such a great opportunity to get together and play, so I’m excited.”

Others to watch 

Smith, Thybulle and Milton are three of the 14 players on the Sixers’ summer league roster. 

Norvel Pelle, a recent recipient of a two-way contract, second-round pick Marial Shayok and Terry Harris, the sharpshooting younger brother of Tobias Harris, are three others to watch.

High-scoring guard PJ Dozier and 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje are also players of interest, and two possible candidates for the Sixers’ vacant two-way spot (see story).

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