If you hear anyone say they knew that Zhaire Smith would be a 2018 first round NBA Draft pick prior to him suiting up as a freshman this year at Texas Tech, please know that you’re being lied to.
Because Smith himself had no idea, neither did his father, or his college coach with the Red Raiders, Chris Beard. His high school and AAU coaches would have laughed at the suggestion back then.
He was a great kid with a hunger for the game, a strong work ethic and some exceptional athleticism. But as a true freshman, his goal was to snag a few minutes here and there, learn the college game from the six seniors ahead of him on the roster and hopefully put himself in a position to contribute over the next few years.
Goodness gracious, how things have suddenly changed.
Zhaire Smith flirts with a triple double in Texas Tech’s win over Florida. Smith finished with 18 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists in the Second Round. Watch highlights, game recaps, and much more from the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament on the official NCAA March Madness YouTube channel.
His father, Billy Ray Smith, was optimistic when he dropped his son off on campus last summer that he might be able see the court for about eight minutes per game this past season. Fast forward a year later, and Zhaire is poised to be selected in the first round of the 2018 Draft.
To understand Zhaire on a personal level, it’s important to look at Billy Ray, and the relationship they share.
Billy was once an exceptional high school athlete who competed against the likes of Larry Johnson on the hardwood. In junior college, he played alongside future NBA point guard Mookie Blaylock. At Kansas State, he helped the Wildcats make two appearances in the NCAA Tournament. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he also walked on to play for K State’s football team.
When Zhaire was in middle School, Billy’s body began to betray him. A herniated disk in the middle of his back took him from being a physically active former athlete to someone who couldn’t walk without the assistance of crutches or a walker.
Five years ago, surgery was supposed to repair the compressed nerves in his back and improve his condition. Instead, he came out of that procedure paralyzed from the waist down. He would now need a wheelchair to get around.
And whenever the father and son were running errands, or heading to the gym for games and workouts from there on out, Zhaire could be seen setting his dad’s wheelchair up, getting him situated and rolling him towards whatever the destination was.
Highlights from Zhaire Smith’s freshman season with Texas Tech. Twitter: @SkyDesignsgfx Instagram: @skydesignsgfx
Unless you were an ardent, dedicated fan of Texas Tech basketball, fans of vicious defensive hoops squads or watched a lot of the Big 12 this year, you didn’t get your first glimpse or hear the name Zhaire Smith until he exploded onto the national radar during this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The uninitiated were shocked at his Dominique Wilkins-type attacks on the rim, how he soared into space with stealth and hungrily owned the airspace above the basket on both ends of the court. His tip-in dunks, blocks, alley-oop catches and defensive acumen made even hardcore hoops junkies wonder, “Who the hell is this guy? And why am I first finding out about him?”
With Smith’s strength and instincts anchoring one of the nations most exceptional and stingiest defenses, Texas Tech enjoyed its best season in program history by winning 27 games and advancing to the Elite Eight, where they lost to Villanova , the eventual national champions. Villanova.
Most of the freshman and underclassmen whose NBA dreams will come true tonight have been known commodities for years, like Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr.
But Zhaire, an explosive 6-foot-5 guard, blocked more shots than Bagley and snagged more offensive rebounds than Jackson, both of whom are former McDonald’s All-Americans that stand 6-feet-11.
Keenan Evans throws it up and Zhaire Smith takes it 360 to the rim! Watch Live: https://smart.link/58bf374466a57?cid=mml_partner_ncaa_game&game=222 Watch highlights, game recaps, and much more from the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament on the official NCAA March Madness YouTube channel.
Bagley, Jackson and the other expected top picks this year like Arizona’s Deandre Ayton, Slovenia’s Luca Doncic, Missouri’s Michael Porter, Texas’ Mo Bamba, Oklahoma’s Trae Young, Duke’s Wendell Carter and Kentucky’s Kevin Knox, among many others, were all expected to be first round NBA picks. Smith, on the other hand, did not have a single scholarship offer from a high major D-I program until nearly the end of his senior prep season.
Smith played on lower level AAU squads, and with a high school team that played him at center. He didn’t appear on Nike’s elite EYBL circuit until right before his senior season. He was expected to make plays as an athlete and rarely asked to dribble, shoot from range or create opportunities for others off the dribble.
But smart recruiters, watching his high school team press the ball for the entire game, could see an under-developed talent that, given the proper tutelage and skill development, might be able to blossom into something special. And that’s exactly what happened at Texas Tech. And it happened much faster than anyone, even those closest to and with the most belief in him, could have ever imagined.
His defensive abilities are what initially allowed him to see some game action for the Red Raiders, but when attrition altered their depth due to injury, Smith entered the starting lineup at the beginning of Big 12 conference play. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The NBA is a futures market nowadays. Smith will have some time to develop a better offensive repertoire while working on his ballhandling, shooting and passing. But his instincts, strength, speed, elevation, hunger and defensive abilities are NBA ready right now.
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He’s the latest example that high school rankings are often meaningless. His work ethic and belief in himself have delivered him to the doorstep of a dream come true.
And if you’re looking for someone to root for, who wasn’t pampered as an elite prospect in the eighth grade, who wasn’t a McDonald’s or Jordan Brand All-American, who wasn’t expected to be an NBA player yet alone a one-and-done first rounder, Zhaire Smith is a name that you should not only remember, but probably the one you should clap the loudest for tonight when commissioner Adam Silver announces his name.