OK So What the Fuck Was That Zhaire Smith Game?
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"5 straight points from former Sixer Zhaire Smith pushes OKC's lead over the summer Sixers to 24-9 in the first quarter..."
I was watching the Phillies last night, planning to catch up on the Sixers' Utah Summer League capper later. I was planning on doing my usual Summer League Guys I Like and Don't Like column tonight -- like Terquavion Smith, don't like Filip Petrusev, pretty sure Azuolas Tubelis doesn't actually exist, like Jaden Springer but too scared to tell him. That’s all before I saw the tweet.
My first instinct was, ha ha, funny joke I guess? I know the Sixers aren't having the best Utah showing, and obviously OKC was pouring it on last night, but I dunno if I get it being so bad that we're invoking ghosts of Process Summer Leagues past as being the particular specters haunting the Sixers at the moment. Really, the thought didn't even occur to me that Zhaire might actually be currently suiting up for the Thunder. After all, he's not still bouncing around the NBA, is he? I mean if he was we would have heard about it, right? And if he was scheduled to play against the Sixers at some point this summer, surely we would've known about that weeks in advance? There'd be emergency pods, commemorative theme weeks... I'm pretty sure we would've sent SixersAdam to SLC to cover it. Certainly there's no way he would just, like, be there. On the other team. Playing. Not possible.
And yet, there he was. Playing. Shooting. Scoring. Looking like an alive person. We've seen some pretty weird shit across a decade of Processing, but a more destabilizing moment than seeing Zhaire Smith return from years in the wilderness to drain threes against us as a member of the Utah Summer League Oklahoma City Thunder I truly cannot recall.
It's hard to explain the Zhaire Smith thing to anyone who didn't live through it. He wasn't really a huge prospect, and he wasn't really a huge bust -- he was just a high-upside swing that flamed out in the most unexpected way possible. In some passed-down versions of Process Lore, the peanut and/or sesame allergy that short-circuited Zhaire's Sixers tenure probably ended his life as well as his career; for the rest of us, we remember that he gave us lightning claps of brilliance and long dry days of unremarkable production before being dumped to Detroit in Daryl Morey's first summer and never being heard from again. If Mikal Bridges, the local product and surer-thing he was traded for on draft night however many years ago, didn't turn out to be a likely future All-Star, we probably wouldn't have talked too much about him the past couple years. His story isn't a cautionary tale of Sixers front-office hubris or a telling failure at the developmental level -- if there was a lesson to be taken from the Zhaire Smith saga, it was God really fucking hates the Philadelphia 76ers.
To see him, without warning, on another team, raining buckets on our Summer League squad... I dunno, it just felt like one of those multiverse movies where the alternate timelines start collapsing on one another. Could there really be a world in which Zhaire Smith was not some tragic figure of driveby Process karma but instead just a guy? A tweener wing who shows up on a Summer League roster, plays his role and does a couple things that make you guy huh he could really be something and then maybe ends up as a 14th man on the bench somewhere? I was starting to wonder if maybe it wasn't too late for there to be untapped athleticism with Zhaire when I realized I had close to no clue how old he was currently; you could've told me how was now anywhere between 23 and 31 and I would've believed you. I still haven't checked.
Adding to the confusion of the evening was the fact that the ESPN broadcast crew had less than zero idea of the significance of what they were witnessing. Absolutely no mention was made of Zhaire's bizarre NBA backstory; from all indications, the announcers did not even realize that he was a former Sixer. (They instead referred to him as "the former Texas Tech star," which felt damn near like gaslighting on ESPN's part.) And so we had to humor the idea that the most important things going on in Salt Lake last night involved Tre Mann and Ousmane Dieng scoring some points and not one of the most iconic lost figures of Process history making his wildly unexpected return -- like a Metallica concert where nobody bothers to make note of the fact that Dave Mustaine is onstage, shredding on lead guitar.
And what really made it crazy is that Zhaire's return came while against a Sixers Summer League team essentially built around Jaden Springer, the Bluesky to his Twitter. For the most part, Jaden does all the things we wanted from Zhaire -- the otherworldly athleticism, the incessant rim pressure, the ball-hawking defense -- albeit with many of the same drawbacks (lack of offensive finesse, positional ambiguity, a certain unshakeable sore thumbness) that ultimately made Zhaire expendable. To see one of them chasing the other on a fast break... it was Looper screenshot, Spider-Man pointing meme, Predator handshake clasp, the whole deal all at once. Jaden Springer and Zhaire Smith really shouldn't exist in the same physical realm let alone in the same basketball game; the fact that both made it through all 48 minutes without falling into a wormhole in the Delta Center floor has to be taken by both teams as a W.
But again, maybe the wildest thing of all was what a smooth, competent game Zhaire Smith had. While Springer was in rare haywire Summer League form, scoring 17 on 5-13 shooting with seven turnovers (felt like more!), Smith was a hyper-efficient 16 points on perfect 6-6 shooting, with two turnovers and basically no other stats. It was like he spent the years away from the NBA in a deep Process cleanse; he no longer carried any of the stench from that history. There was one play where he was wide open in the basket in semi-transition but the OKC ballhandler failed to find him, and as the play developed and he tried to figure out where to relocate to, his feet got tangled and he fell. If he was still a Sixer, that would've resulted in the immediate tear of some body part ending in "CL" and the end of his 2023-'24 season before it even got started. Instead, he got back up, got back in the action -- and the very next play, he was again wide open under the basket. This time, his team found him for a score.
Could this have been Zhaire Smith all along if he'd only gotten traded for on draft night by the Thunder and not the Sixers? Would he be part of their developing young core now, maybe even a good buddy of our old friend Isaiah Joe? Would people look at the Smith-Bridges trade and go, "OK, that actaully ended up making a lot of sense for both teams"? We'll never know, and more heartbreakingly, Zhaire will never know. But we got a glimpse of what could've been on Thursday night, a short peak at a timeline kinder than this one. I don't know if it was cathartic, satisfying or just plain sad, but it was certainly a Summer League game that neither I, nor the other 20 Sixers fans still on Twitter who were gullible enough to believe that Zhaire Smith could possibly have been lighting it up for the other team, will ever forget.