The 76ers coaches have the task of convincing their players they are good enough to make some noise in the Eastern Conference this year.
By Al Thompson
Sixers fans across the Delaware Valley waited and watched to see if their team would land a marquee free agent like LeBron James or Paul George when the bidding started July 1.
There was hope for a while that interim general manager Brett Brown would use the unprotected 2021 first round draft pick he acquired in a draft-night trade with the Phoenix Suns, plus other assets, to land all-star forward Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs.
None of that happened. James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, and George stayed with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Leonard has made it clear he wants to be moved to Los Angeles.
That leaves the 76ers coaches with the task of convincing their players they are still good enough to make some noise in the Eastern Conference this year, despite being left out in the cold after attempts to upgrade their roster failed, at least for this season.
That process started at the team’s Summer League practices at their training complex in Camden for four days from July 1–4.
Then 18 rookie hopefuls headed to Las Vegas to take part in the Summer League that goes from July 6–19 at the Thomas and Mack Center.
At the top of the lineup is Sixers first round pick Zhaire Smith, out of Texas Tech. The Sixers acquired Smith when they traded №10 pick Mikal Bridges, a former Villanova star, to the Suns for Smith and the 2021 Miami Heat first-round pick.
Smith was asked if he was getting antsy to play in the Summer League.
“A little bit,” Smith said after practice Tuesday. “I can’t wait to play five-on-five, it’s been a while.”
Smith, who was selected №16 overall after one collegiate season at Texas Tech, averaged 11.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals in 28.4 minutes per game. The 6-foot-5 guard-forward helped lead the Red Raiders to the school’s first Elite Eight appearance in program history, averaging 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists in four NCAA Tournament games.
The 19-year-old out of Garland, Texas talked about the form he needs to use shooting an NBA 3-point shot.
“It’s a big adjustment,” Smith said. “Because you have to use your legs more. Sometimes I’ll be shooting like its college without using my legs and come up short. I’ve got to use my legs more.”
The Sixers’ other first-round pick, Landry Shamet, out of Wichita State, talked about what he wants to get out of the Vegas summer league.
“First and foremost, I think I want to win,” said Shamet, who was taken with the №26 overall pick. “That’s what everybody on this team’s agenda is, we want to win. We’re all eager, and hopefully everyone gets an opportunity. Winning has to come first, and playing hard.”
And for him?
“Personally for me, I want to learn the system, start carving a niche for myself early, figure out how I am going to compete in the NBA,” the 21-year-old said. “I want to find out how to play and adjust. I want to use this (Summer League) as a learning tool and get used to the game at this next level.”
With all the player movement going on, first as rumors, then actual signings, and much of it possibly involving the Sixers, Smith was asked how he is able to stay focused on what he is doing.
“I just focus on myself,” Smith said. “You see it all over social media, you look at it, scroll past it and don’t get too deep involved it it and just continue to work on my game.”
Did he at least imagine possible lineups if the Sixers had been able to land LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Paul George
“I haven’t put a thought to it,” Smith said. “You’ll be crazy (thinking about it).”
Smith was asked for his comment on six-time all-star center DeMarcus Cousins signing with the Golden State Warriors, adding more elite talent to an already championship roster.
“I thought wow, that’s crazy,” Smith said. “The West (Western Conference) is crazy now.”
Shamet played a pair of collegiate seasons at Wichita State. A product of Kansas City, Missouri, he averaged 14.9 points, 5.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds in 31.7 minutes per game in his redshirt sophomore season at Wichita State. The 6-foot-4 guard led the American Athletic Conference in assists (166), ranked second in 3-point percentage (.442) and his .825 free-throw percentage ranked fourth in the conference.
Shamet was asked if he was paying more attention to the NBA moves more now than when he was in college or high school.
“Honestly, it’s probably the opposite,” Shamet said after practice. “I have a lot more on my plate at this time. I’m at that level now in the NBA. You hear about it, your friends talk to you about it, you see it on Twitter, whatever, but I’m not taking any more of a vested interest in it than I would have before.”
Shamet was asked as a follow-up about news as it pertained to the Sixers as it could affect his playing time.
“I guess if it applies to us and our team, than I’d obviously pay a little more attention to it,” he said “Around the league, I see it, hear about it, at the end of the day, that’s just what it is.”
Both players complimented each other’s game and personality.
Smith talked about working with Shamet.
“It’s a good relationship,” Smith said. “When we play on the same team, we work the pick-and-roll and on our shots, and it’s good to go against each other.”
Shamat said he was really impressed with Smith and his abilities.
“Zhaire is a freak athlete, he makes tough things look effortless,” Shamet said. “He’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around. There’s a lot of them we have in this group but Zhaire, he’s a good guy. I already have a relationship with him. He plays really hard, real athletic, plays the right way and someone I’m going to enjoy playing with. He’s got a really bright future.”
With the Sixers missing out on all the big names this offseason, their fans certainly hope Shamet’s prediction comes true. ••
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii