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NBA Daily: Zhaire Smith Awaits his Opportunity in Philadelphia

Zhaire Smith may have missed most of his rookie season, but says he will be ready to take on a bigger role in Philadelphia next season, should the opportunity present itself.

Drew Maresca

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It’s easy to overlook Zhaire Smith considering he missed 76 games in what should have been his rookie season. But overlooked and unimpactful are very different things.

And it’s hard to argue the potential impact Smith can have on the basketball court.

In college, Smith was a reliable contributor in his lone season at Texas Tech. He averaged 11.3 points, five rebounds and 1.8 assists, helping to lead the Red Raiders to the Elite Eight.

He backed up the pre-draft hype in the Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 7.7 points and 2.7 assists in 24 minutes per game, showing good court vision and creativity and an innate ability to push the pace and score the ball in transition.

And while those numbers don’t jump off the page, a closer examination of his better performances provides a fuller story of what scouts saw. There’s the 16-point, three-assist, three-steal and one-block performance he had in last year’s Las Vegas Summer League against the Los Angeles Lakers. Or his 18-point, nine-assist and seven-rebound outing against Florida in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. And his 21-point and eight-rebound performance earlier in the season against Iowa State.

While these are only a few examples, it’s that kind of versatility that made scouts drool over his potential. And that coupled with the fact that he was the fourth youngest player in the draft makes the imaginations of front office personnel go wild.

For those slightly out of touch with last year’s draft day happenings, Smith was part of a 2018 trade that sent the rights to the tenth pick in the draft (Mikal Bridges) from Philadelphia to the Phoenix Suns for the rights to the sixteenth pick (Smith) and the HEAT’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. And while Bridges was probably a better fit with the team on day one, Smith was seen as having a higher ceiling.

But Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot in August, which derailed his rookie debut.

The 76ers wisely chose to allow Smith to rehabilitate his foot slowly, which was a win-win considering the depth of talent on the 76ers roster and the fact that Smith’s impact would have been limited on the contending 76ers.

But teams can change quickly in the modern NBA and the 76ers roster has its share of uncertainty. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris will both be unrestricted free agents, and both will receive numerous offers from teams around the league looking to add talent and versatility.

Both could come back. And both could move on. Either way, Smith will likely be a 76er at the beginning of the 2019-20 season.

And yet, his role isn’t entirely clear. 76ers Head Coach Brett Brown recently spoke with Philly.com about Smith.

“From where he was to where he is, it’s a remarkable story of perseverance, of toughness. What he went through this year says a lot about the person – it really speaks volumes. For that reason, I think his athleticism and a skill set that’s growing combined with the human side of it is pretty impressive.”

While Brown spoke highly of Smith, he didn’t divulge much about his role with the 76ers next season. But to be fair, Smith isn’t entirely clear on it either.

“I do not have a clue,” Smith recently told Basketball Insiders. “I’ll just continue to work on my game and let them (the 76ers coaching staff) make that decision.”

But the good news for Sixers’ fans is that the still-19-year old Smith will essentially be another rookie come the start of next season, having sat through the 2018-19 season, save the six appearances he made. He has also observed high-stakes, playoff basketball up close and personal – and he may even play spot minutes in them – all of which adds up to a strong head start for a young player.

Smith conceded that observing the first-round series against Brooklyn has been a valuable learning experience.

“I’ve just been looking to learn,” Smith said. “It’s a lot to soak in and learn. Every game I’m just learning.”

And having another defacto rookie could benefit the 76ers, especially if they lose Butler and/or Harris. In that situation, the 76ers would need to restock their cupboard around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons relatively quickly and effective players on rookie deals can be very valuable.

What’s more, the Sixers don’t have much draft capital in the near future, having cashed in much of it to trade for Tobias Harris. While the 76ers still possess more than their share of second-round picks in the next few drafts, their once rich stash of first-round picks has dwindled considerably.

The 76ers traded away the better of the Kings 2019 first-round pick and their own to the Boston Celtics in order trade up to select Markelle Fultz in 2017.

They also parted ways with their own lottery protected 2020 first-round pick in the Tobias Harris trade, as well as the unprotected 2021 Miami HEAT first-round pick.

The 76ers are left with only one first-round pick in each of the next three drafts – obviously not bad, but far from the embarrassment of riches they possessed as of Sam Hinke’s departure in 2016.

But the 76ers lack of draft capital makes Smith’s rookie contract all the more valuable to the 76ers moving forward. Especially since he’s gotten some NBA experience under his belt, albeit only five games.

But those games gave him insight into the speed and physicality of the NBA game. Sure, his first few contests were mostly forgettable; but in his last two, Smith averaged 14 points, 3.5 assists and three rebounds in approximately 30 minutes of action. He shot over 50 percent from the field and three for eight from three-point range. Say what you will about games at the end of the season, but those are impressive stats from a 19-year old who battled back from an awkward foot injury for much of the year.

And sure, his priorities and the team’s are probably a bit different right now – with Smith looking ahead to next season and the Sixers remaining focused on the present. But that doesn’t mean that Smith hasn’t taken full advantage of being along for the ride. He has done so by leveraging the numerous veterans on the roster as often possible.

Smith’s maturity was on full display when discussing the role that the 76ers vets have played in his development.

“Everybody. All of the vets (have been helpful). They reiterate what I have to do,” Smith said. When asked to specify which one has been most helpful, Smith found it too difficult to pick just one.

“James (Ennis), Jimmy (Butler) and Greg (Monroe) have all been important. All of them really.”

So while Smith a still a bit of an unknown to the NBA and its fans, there is reason to believe that Smith is here to stay. Smith is a strong fit for the position-less league and he makes for a nearly perfect complement to his 76er teammates, which he spoke about last June.

“I grew up watching Ben Simmons while he was in high school and at LSU,” Smith told Sixers Wire last June. “He’s a good passer and I feel like I can move off the ball, so he can make me look good.”

Here’s to watching him grow into a perfect supplemental piece.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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