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Zhaire Smith Illustration by Karyim Carreia

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How Zhaire Smith went from a 3-star recruit to a 1st-round NBA Draft pick

The surprise one-and-done from Texas Tech wowed agents during the Red Raiders’ deep tournament run.

When Zhaire Smith’s parents dropped him off at college on his 18th birthday, they were just hoping he’d find a way to get on the floor for Texas Tech as a freshman. Smith was entering the program as a lowly three-star recruit, and the Red Raiders had six seniors on the roster ahead of him.

Year 1 was supposed to be about patience, personal growth and, ideally, the opportunity to carve out a niche.

“Being realistic, you’re probably looking at something like 8-10 minutes per game your freshman year,” Billy Ray Smith says of his son. “You drop him off for one year, you meet all these friends down there, you think he’s going to be going back next year.”

Zhaire Smith won’t be back in Lubbock next year. Instead, he’s heading to the Philadelphia 76ers as a first-round pick in the NBA Draft, after a breakout season that not even those closest to him can say they ever saw coming.

Smith exploded onto the national radar as the living embodiment of a human highlight reel. He was an athletic supernova who effortlessly made plays above the rim on both ends of the court, turning tip dunks and chase down blocks into regular occurrences. He was the linchpin of one of the nation’s top defenses, while also turning himself into an efficient, if low-usage, offensive weapon.

In the process, Texas Tech enjoyed its best season in program history. It put together its longest-ever NCAA tournament run by advancing to the Elite Eight before falling to eventual national champion Villanova. It won 27 games, second-most in school history.

Smith now joins the 76ers as something between an odd ball and a mystery box. He’s a 6’4 guard who plays like a big man, blocking more shots than Marvin Bagley III and grabbing more offensive rebounds than Jaren Jackson Jr. While the rest of the American-born freshmen expected to be picked in the lottery were all five-star recruits and McDonald’s All-Americans who have been on the NBA’s radar for years, Smith didn’t have a single high major scholarship offer until midway through his senior year of high school.

“That just shows that rankings don’t mean nothing coming out of high school,” Smith said with a smile at the NBA Draft combine. “The hard work you put in is going to show one day.”

Zhaire Smith in Texas Tech v. Villanova
Smith played as a big man until he got to college.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

How does a one-and-done first-round draft pick get totally overlooked in high school? It starts with a high-caliber athlete playing out of position by necessity, and missing big-time AAU basketball until the last possible moment.

Horace Pope coached Smith from the time he was in ninth grade on Deron Williams Elite, an independent grassroots team that operated away from the shoe company leagues that so often turn young players into college commodities. It wasn’t until the team folded in the summer heading into his senior year that Smith got a chance to play on Nike’s EYBL circuit when Pope became program director for start-up team RM5.

Smith came off the bench at the start of his EYBL career, but that didn’t last long. Despite being the height of a typical shooting guard, Smith was the best rebounder and shot blocker on the team. He played power forward and center exclusively, leveraging his athleticism to make plays around the rim while rarely being asked to handle the ball or shoot it.

Smith’s EYBL experience put him on college radars, but the scholarship offers didn’t roll in until the high school season started at Lakeview Centennial in Garland, Texas. The team started four guards who were 6-foot and under, and put Smith at center. Lakeview Centennial played full court press defense the entire game, allowing Smith to wreck havoc on unassuming high schoolers.

After a breakout performance in the Whataburger Tournament in December, Smith was officially a wanted man. Colleges were intrigued by the athleticism even if Smith didn’t fit into a box. Texas Tech was the first high-major school to offer, but Texas, Kansas State, and Arkansas came calling, too. Suddenly Smith had gone from a player with only low-major offers to a legit Big 12 recruit.

Smith and his family were drawn to Texas Tech from the start. Coach Chris Beard’s aggressive defensive scheme was a natural fit for Smith’s skill set. With so many seniors on the roster, Smith thought he’d be in a pressure-free situation, allowing him to take his time to develop.

Little did anyone know he’d end up being one of the most essential players on the best team Texas Tech has ever seen.

Zhaire Smith in Texas Tech v. Purdue
His incredible above-the-rim plays were one of the things that got Smith noticed by agents.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Keenan Evans knows what it’s like to go from a lightly regarded recruit to a college star. Like Smith, Evans was barely considered a top-300 recruit when he committed to the Red Raiders. The difference is it took Evans four years to blossom into one of America’s top floor generals. Evans knew it wouldn’t take Smith nearly as long.

“There will be certain stuff during practice where I’m like, ‘Wow, I just witnessed that,’” Evans said at the draft combine. “I’m like, ‘Yo man, that’s my teammate’. I saw his upside and I was definitely excited for him.”

Smith first got on the floor with his defense, which helped him get steady minutes off the bench from the beginning of the season. When teammate Zach Smith went down with an injury at the start of conference season, Smith moved into the starting lineup and never looked back.

Texas Tech found ways to get Smith involved in the action, even with his limited shooting and ball handling skills. They saw a former high school center who could explode off the floor and decided to use him as a screener who would roll to the basket. This meant Smith was always around the paint. Per The Stephien, Smith took 65 percent of his shots at the rim, which ranked in the 99th percentile for a guard.

The results were often electric. Smith displayed a rare nose of the ball, and an almost cartoonish ability to launch himself into the air from a variety of angles. The whole country got to see that first hand when Smith threw down an absurd 360 alley-oop in the NCAA tournament.

He was even more dynamic on defense. Beard has always been a defensive-minded coach, handing out a gold-link chain to the player with the most rebounds each game and a WWE-style championship belt to whomever caused the most deflections. Smith was a frequent recipient of both. The Red Raiders’ defense fueled their success, finishing No. 4 in the country in efficiency and sparking a deep run in March.

Smith made so many incredible plays above the rim on the defensive end. Highlight reel blocks like this one became common.

Zhaire Smith block gif

When Smith’s breakout happened, his father started hearing from agents. At first they told him he was likely a 2019 draft prospect at the earliest, but as Texas Tech stayed alive in the NCAA tournament, the buzz grew louder that he could enter the league as a one-and-done.

“When it ended, we’re celebrating all the stuff that happened, but now we’re up about here make a decision,” Billy Ray Smith said. “You strike while the iron was hot. He was definitely hot.”

The freshman who was simply hoping to get on the floor ended up just shy of leading Texas Tech in minutes per game. He was the leader in total rebounds, blocks and steals — not bad for someone who measured a shade under 6’3 barefoot at the combine.

Smith remains under-developed as a shooter and ball handler, but it’s important to remember he’s barely played guard in his life. This is a player who was raised as a big man up until he got to college, which has given him unique instincts and also the opportunity to build out his offensive skill level at a rapid rate.

Smith did hit 45 percent of his threes as a freshman, but it came on only 40 attempts. He’s spent all offseason gaining confidence in his jump shot, and it’s already showing up in team work outs. Those around Smith all said he’s a gym rat who cares about nothing but basketball. Those guard skills are coming.

Smith had a good shot at being drafted in the lottery on Thursday, and he eventually went No. 16 to Phoenix before being traded to Philadephia. This has been a wild ride over the last year that no one saw coming.

“There is nobody that had been around Zhaire for the last four years that could say, ‘Man, I knew he was gonna go to the NBA,’” Pope said. “Not me, not his dad, not anybody could honestly and truly say that. I felt like he had some ability. I felt like he was a hard worker. I felt like he had the mindset that could get there one day. But nobody would ever think that it would happen as it did.”

Zhaire Smith is done being overlooked. From now on, he’ll be remembered for what he is: an NBA first-round pick.

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