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What Zhaire Smith brings to Cleveland Cavaliers

Smith’s athleticism and defensive ability earned him a 10-day contract with Cavs.

Cleveland Charge v Maine Celtics Photo by China Wong/NBAE via Getty Images

To say Zhaire Smith’s road back to the NBA hasn’t gone as planned would be an understatement. Smith will have a chance to take the NBA floor again for the first time since before the pandemic as the former first-round pick missed three and a half seasons due to a string of knee injuries. He signed a 10-day contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday.

Smith has been able to stay on the floor for the Cleveland Charge this season after spending training camp with the Cavs. He’s participated in 32 of their 34 games while averaging 12.8 points on .543/.404/.796 shooting splits with 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.

Isaac Okoro is the easiest comparison to make for Smith. Both are shooting guard/small forward hybrids that are disruptive, active defenders but have limited off-the-dribble offensive creation. They both derive most of their offense from corner threes and cuts to the basket. Smith isn’t nearly the shutdown defender Okoro is, but he’s a more natural offensive off-ball mover.

Smith does a good job of using the athleticism off-ball. He has a good feel for when and how to cut. When Smith gets a head of steam, there’s little the defense can do to stop him at that point even if they prevent the dunk. This is why he’s finished an incredible 70.6% of his shots in the restricted area.

Taking more threes has been a point of emphasis. However, Smith has only taken 3.1 per game while averaging over 33 minutes. His release isn’t the quickest which gives his defender plenty of time to close out.

When he does get his shot off, he’s converting it at a decent clip. Smith is connecting on 53.5% (15-28) from the corner and 36.6% above the break. Since Dec. 29, he’s shot 45% (18-40) on above-the-break threes which is a considerable improvement from the beginning of the season.

The lack of outside attempts means that his defender can lose track of him. Besides moving off-ball, Smith has done a good job of using this to get offensive rebounds and steals for easy baskets.

Defense is where Smith shines. He’s disruptive as a help defender which allowed him to average 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks per game with the Charge.

The biggest question about Smith’s potential long-term fit with the Cavs, if they decide to give him a two-way contract or convert his 10-day contract into a standard one, is his position. Cleveland has too many capable guards and threes in their lineup as it is. Although Smith played small-ball four in college and some in the G League, that isn’t something he will be able to do in the NBA.

Like Sam Merrill last season, adding Smith would be about how he fits into the team next season. Given the uncertainty with Okoro heading into restricted free agency, Smith could be insurance in case things don’t go as planned this off-season. He is also eligible for a two-way contract, as his time away from the NBA means the Harry Giles III rule applies to him.

Either way, Smith’s journey back to the NBA is an accomplishment even if it doesn’t last more than two weeks. The perseverance he’s shown during this process is what has endeared him to those within the organization including Charge head coach Mike Gerrity.

“You have certain players you coach that you want to go to war with and he’s one of them,” Gerrity said. “You’d take Zhaire Smith on your team 100 nights in a row if you can. He’s about all the right stuff. The biggest thing about G League players is knowing who they are and who they’re going to be at the next level and buying into that. Zhaire does that.”