Zhaire Smith shows off explosiveness, defensive potential in Delaware Blue Coats' win over Fort Wayne Mad Ants


WILMINGTON, Del. — The Zhaire Smith show made its debut Monday night in Delaware.

The Sixers rookie, who will be with the Blue Coats for the rest of their season, played 19 minutes and posted 12 points on 5 for 9 shooting, two assists and two rebounds in Delaware’s 112-109 win over the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

Unlike Friday, when Smith showed plenty of rust in a loss to the Maine Red Claws, the 19-year-old closely resembled the explosive player we saw in his single year at Texas Tech. 

Here are some observations on his performance:

• Smith’s first points of the night came off one of the features of his game at Texas Tech — a putback dunk. After Rashad Vaughn’s layup came up short, Smith swooped in from the left wing and slammed it home.

He added two dunks later in the game, one off a broken play, the other a casual slam in transition.

After Smith’s two practices with the Sixers, Brett Brown remarked that Smith “really has a bounce.” Brown is right; despite losing about 35 pounds at one point, Smith hasn’t lost his springiness. 

• Before the game, Blue Coats head coach Connor Johnson said he’s in regular contact with the Sixers about Smith and his progress. Three Sixers player development staffers who have worked with Smith throughout his rookie year were in attendance Monday. According to Johnson, the Sixers are most interested in monitoring Smith’s defense during his stint in Delaware. 

We’re all working toward this same goal: It starts with him being an elite defender. That’s really the No. 1 thing we want to see. We’re really working on him guarding the ball and getting through ball screens. Just making it difficult so when he sees some of the better perimeter offensive players in the G League that he can sit down and guard them and contain them — that’s the No. 1 thing we’re working on. 

• In the first half, Smith was tasked with guarding Fort Wayne’s Edmond Summer, who entered Monday night averaging 24.6 points per game. Smith defended Sumner well, drawing two travels simply by sticking with Sumner on drives to the rim and refusing to give him an opening. When he got beat on the initial move, Smith’s recovery speed was impressive. Smith did get caught off guard by a couple of screens, but that’s understandable in his second game following a long, unusual hiatus that Brown described Saturday as “deeper than concerning.”

• Though Smith missed his first three jumpers, his shot looked smoother and more fluid than in his pro debut. In the third quarter, he sized up his man in isolation with a few between-the-legs dribbles, pulled up and knocked it down from the right elbow.

Smith has tweaked his shot since we last saw him in summer league, moving his release further to the right side of his head.

Here’s what his jumper looked like in July, at rookie minicamp:

And here’s Smith warming up before Monday’s game: 

• Shake Milton (right hand fracture) is “getting close” to a return, Johnson said pregame. Johnson is “hopeful we’ll get [Milton] back before the year is over.”

The Sixers’ other two-way player, Haywood Highsmith had 11 points and 11 rebounds against the Mad Ants. 

• Delaware has 10 games remaining, with a matchup at the Capital City Go-Go on Friday next up, followed by a home game Saturday vs. the Grand Rapids Drive. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on Smith, especially after his encouraging performance Monday night. 

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