Some of us are too young to remember the late 1990s title run by the Chicago Bulls. I am one of them, as I was not born until the late 90s. I was going across some basketball highlights on YouTube (as I often do), and I noticed something: Ron Harper and Zhaire Smith came into the league with similar skills and both added to that to potentially play the point guard spot.
For those of you that don’t know, Ron Harper played his college at the University of Miami in Ohio from 1982-1986. He made an immediate impact and put up numbers not too much unlike the numbers from Zhaire Smith’s freshman season with the Red Raiders. Harper ended up being a great player for the school as he capped off his senior season with 24.4 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game.
Remember, the 3-point line wasn’t universally adopted by colleges until the 1986-87 season, the season after Harper graduated. He was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 6th pick of the draft and made an immediate impact for them alongside 1st overall pick Brad Daugherty, and newly acquired guard Craig Ehlo, who is from Lubbock. In his second season, the Cavaliers acquired Larry Nance Sr. and the team got very good with Harper leading the way with scoring.
Harper wasn’t an amazing shooter, but he could get to the rim like no other (sound like anyone you know?). This was the style of play back in the day, if you could get to the rim, you could thrive as a player. Harper was averaging around 20 ppg in his first few years in the league and lead his team to the playoffs.
Rough times were ahead for Harper however as in the 1989 season, he was traded to the worst-run franchise and worst team in the NBA at the time in the Los Angeles Clippers. He also tore his ACL in that season. He put up great numbers in his years with the Clippers but after averaging 20 points, 6 rebounds, and nearly 5 assists in 1994, Harper made a decision. He wanted to win, and he wanted to win now. He joined a dynasty in the Chicago Bulls led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
His numbers decreased dramatically, but he played a position he had never before in point guard. This is the comparison I draw to Zhaire Smith. Coming in to the NBA last season, Smith looked like a guard/forward type that would shoot occasionally and get to the rim often. He was also looked at like someone who could guard a ton of different positions. This season was injury and allergy prone for him and he never really got going this season.
In the summer league, it was abundantly clear to those who watched that he was NBA ready. The one thing that really stood out to me and others was the strides he made in running the offense and being a facilitator. This is similar to the strides that Harper made in his transition to becoming the main facilitator on a Bulls team that had a ton of firepower.
One of the greatest things that makes Smith really work for this team is the fact that he can work without the ball. When you have a ball-dominant guard like Ben Simmons on your team, being able to work without the ball is something that can help the team thrive. Being able to facilitate from an off-ball position will definitely get Smith more playing time this season.
Zhaire Smith still has a ton of potential still in the NBA. I’m not saying that he won’t turn into an all-star because I think he has the ability to become that, although I don’t think he’ll be able to do that alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embid. But if he wants to contribute to this team and be a solid part of this rotation, he needs to continue this upward trend towards being able to facilitate at a high level.