It’s never the same time of year. It’s sometimes the same injury. Top draft picks for the 76ers miss games their rookie season. Zhaire Smith became the latest victim to one of the stranger curses in basketball, fracturing his foot earlier this week.
Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid were hurt when the 76ers drafted them. Each missed their first, and in Embiid’s case second, seasons. Jahlil Okafor last 53 games before season-ending surgery. Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz were top overall picks. Fultz was the lone one to play in his true first season, and it’s well documented he wasn’t exactly healthy as he managed to play 14 games. Smith might have been only a three-star recruit this time last year, but he’s supposed to play a role on this year’s team. The 76ers desperately need defensive wings capable of slowing down the dynamic weapons on the Boston Celtics. It’s unclear how long Smith will be out to begin the season, but a Jones fracture, the reported injury, isn’t ideal. It’s a roadblock to his development to progress where the 76ers need him to be come April.
Smith showed how he could help Philadelphia this year. His three-point shot release is a bit robotic, but watching him play in Las Vegas it was easy to envision him catching lobs from Ben Simmons, or cutting back door to receive feeds from Joel Embiid or Dario Saric. There’s a sense of urgency to get him back as soon as possible, but his long-term health remains paramount, because Philadelphia doesn’t need Smith to advance to the conference or NBA Finals.
This team will go as far as Simmons, Embiid and Markelle Fultz takes them, which is why the NBA gave Philadelphia every possible nationally televised game available Wednesday. Two on opening week, a conference semifinal rematch on Christmas afternoon and a home matchup against the Houston Rockets on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The rest of the schedule will be released on Friday, but three years after being scheduled zero times on national television, Wednesday’s announcement that the 76ers will be the center of attention felt gratifying (Sam Hinkie made that possible).
Some people commented that the NBA scheduling the 76ers in Boston against the Celtics on opening night and Christmas was overkill. The Celtics fans brush off the 76ers as real competition. After all, the Celtics beat the 76ers in five games without their two best players. (You’ll hear that stat from every single egghead imaginable this year, so I’m just preparing you for the sheer insanity). It’s OK to question why both games will be in Boston. The Celtics fans despised Simmons from the beginning, because frankly his smug attitude makes it easy to hate if he’s not on your team. The disdain only escalated after Simmons scored a point in Game 2 of the conference semifinals, although Boston should have been cheering for Simmons because he was a minus 23 in a five-point Boston win.
On the surface, Embiid is much harder to hate. He battled back after two lost seasons, he says funny things on Twitter and he cuddled with cubs in Africa. There was going to come a time when Embiid’s Twitter fingers and trash talk would become an issue. Surfing the Celtics Reddit page hours after each Celtics win over Philadelphia and the hate for Embiid grew and grew. At least in Boston, he became a loathed individual. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes a national thing. Embiid continued to trash talk Aaron Baynes after Philly was eliminated, adding fuel to the fire. That beef makes the game fun, though. Embiid has said several times he welcomes that attention. On opening night Embiid won’t have to wear that stupid mask, and he’ll be well conditioned after a full off-season healthy. He’s going to embrace that challenge.
Smith will be back at some point during his rookie season. It’s an unfortunate and weird thing to have happened, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter all that much, because this 76ers team is that good with or without a rookie. Wednesday’s schedule announcement exemplified that.