It looked like the perfect fit. The Philadelphia 76ers selecting two-time national champion and local hero Mikal Bridges with the 10th overall pick, only to trade him to Phoenix for the rights to the Texas Tech combo guard Zhaire Smith and a future first round pick.
Bridges might be more polished, but Smith has the bigger upside, based on scouts. Smith is more athletic (he flashed a 41.5 inch vertical in the combine), and at two years younger, has more runway to be better. The extra first-round pick (Miami’s No. 1 in 2021) is just…well, let’s say The Process continues.
Be that as it may, Smith has shown that he could be ready to contribute in 2018-19. In Summer League, Smith has proven to be an able playmaker and surprised a bit with his jumpshot, an area of concern for him entering the League.
“He shot it from three probably better than I would expect him to,” said Sixers assistant Kevin Young to the Philadelphia Inquirer, who has served as the Sixers’ head coach in Las Vegas.
Before the Sixers commenced their annual mini camp to prepare the rookies and free agents for Summer League, I had a few minutes to introduce myself and speak with Zhaire Smith, and my first impression was that he is extremely humble and eager to begin his professional career.
If our initial conversation serves as a prelude for to what’s to come, I feel comfortable saying that this is the start of something great. We spoke about everything from his style of play, growing up playing football and his sneaker deal with PUMA.
Talk about the emotions of being drafted by Phoenix and then traded to Philadelphia.
About one minute [before] Phoenix was picking they said I was going to be traded, so when I walked across that stage…Philly was on my mind.
What did you do after the draft and your introduction to the city of Philadelphia?
After I got drafted, I went home for a couple of days, chilled with the family and worked out…and I got back [to Philadelphia] about three days ago. [Ed note: This interview took place on June 29.]
What do you want to work on before the season begins?
My all-around game—ballhandling, shooting, defending and just learning the game—IQ, build my IQ up.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) July 8, 2018
At what point did you realize that you could play on this level and get to this point?
Probably middle-late [portion] of my college career. I felt I could play at this point.
What was it specifically that stood out to help you with your decision?
What was it about basketball that inspired you at such a young age?
My dad, he really inspired me. I always wanted to be an NBA player, but my focus was on football in seventh grade.
Of course, you’re from Texas.
So when I stopped playing football around eighth grade, that’s when I really wanted to be in the NBA.
Was it something specific to make you switch gears from football—did you take a hit?
[laughs] Yeah I took a hit and it changed me ever since, and I started playing basketball. And then when I started playing basketball, I fell in love with it really and just continued things from there.
What did you learn in that year in college? What was it that you saw, that manifested into your decision?
Just me coming in as a freshman and doing bigger things that I didn’t expect. I expected to do a little but I was doing things that was on the NBA talent level.
You signed on to endorse PUMA. From the outside looking in, the PUMA move comes out of nowhere. Was it Skylar Diggins-Smith or the connection with Roc Nation? What were some of the things that influenced you to sign with the brand?
Of course Roc Nation, and I just wanted to be different and I see PUMA as having some things out that help me to not only stand out, but to also be different really.
What does it mean for you to be part of that great PUMA basketball history moving forward?Just really putting PUMA on the map, and just trying to get some sales, and just have an unknown [basketball] brand coming in. Everyone knows about Nike, adidas, and Under Armour…I just want to build PUMA.
Right now it’s a clean classic look, how does it feel, how does it translate as a basketball shoe on the court?
It feels real good to me. I can play in any basketball shoe as long as they’re high top and they’re tied tight. I’m good really, but they’re comfortable.
What are you looking forward to with PUMA as it continues to grow and evolve, maybe a signature shoe?
Yeah, it could be…just depends on how I do in the League, if I’m doing good, probably, but yeah…
Okay, what are you looking forward to the most as you start your NBA career?
Just looking forward to playing good basketball, playing agains my role models growing up…
Who would those be?
DeMar DeRozan, Russell Westbrook and of course, LeBron James.
What is your game?
Versatile. I’m a versatile player. Put me in any position 1 through 3—trying to transition to the 2, slash combo guard.
If you had to pick one player growing up, that you wanted to be like, pattern your game after…
Probably LeBron James. He was just always good to me, and I just grew up watching him really. Him and Kobe [Bryant].
Tell me about the Kobe fascination.
Kobe, he was a bad man when I was watching him!
Growing up, what teams did you watch?
Just my favorite players and teams. So if LeBron [James] was on Cleveland, I watched the Cavs, so really wherever LeBron was at.
Did you watch any 76ers games this year?
Yes I did, especially playoff games.
What are your thoughts of this 76ers roster?
I grew up watching Ben Simmons while he was in high school and at LSU. He’s a good passer and I feel like I can move off the ball, so he can make me look good.