How Zhaire Smith's wheelchair-bound father helped mold him into a potential 2018 NBA lottery pick
With his father in a wheelchair, Texas Tech's Smith became humbled and determined -- which turned him into an elite prospect
Park the van. Get out. Walk around it. Pull out the wheelchair, open it. Help dad get out of the vehicle and into the wheelchair. Close the doors. Roll dad in.
That's how Zhaire Smith spent his high school years with his father, Billy, when running errands or going to work out at the gym or upon arriving at some of his basketball games.
"He's just a young man that's doing what's right," Billy Smith said. "I can do it, but he'd pull the wheelchair out instead of me pulling it out. Breaks it down, puts it in the van."
The one-and-done athletic virtuoso out of Texas Tech had a different kind of relationship and experience with his dad as opposed to most.
"Z's special," Chris Beard, his college coach, said. "It starts with the genes. Mom and dad have raised him to be special."
Long before his back betrayed him and put him in that wheelchair, Billy Smith was a stud athlete. He grew up in Garland, Texas, and played in high school against eventual NBA star Larry Johnson. Before going to Kansas State in the late 1980s, he played in junior college alongside another player who'd make the NBA, Mookie Blaylock; their team made it to the junior college national championship game. At K-State, Smith had a Mitch Richmond-type build, played for Lon Kruger and helped the Wildcats make two NCAA Tournaments. Standing a tick over 6-foot-5, he also bulked up to 240 pounds and walked on to play football for legendary K-State coach Bill Snyder.
Quite a journey. But when Zhaire was in middle school, Billy's body began to fail him. A leg would give out without notice and cause him to teeter, as if someone came from behind and poked a stick in the soft part of the back of the knee. Billy thought he'd unknowingly torn his meniscus, but it took months to realize it was a herniated disk in the middle of his back and it was breaking him down. He says the cause of this rupture is still unknown. Some of Billy's nerves were compressed so badly that, when he was driving, he couldn't brake sufficiently or safely because his nerves weren't responding fast enough.
In less than a year's time Billy Smith went from multi-sport coach to showing a limp, to struggling to walk, to requiring crutches, to needing a walker. It got so dire, he couldn't control waist-down functions.
Back surgery in 2013 was intended to improve his condition. Instead, things got worse. Billy left the hospital a paraplegic.
"I thought I would be able to walk again," he said. "I went into the surgery with a walker and came out in a wheelchair."
It's the first and only surgery he's ever had. Originally scheduled to be under for two and a half hours, the procedure lasted six. For four months after the surgery, he had no movement from the waist down and during that time required a catheter. Doctors could only recover about "25 percent of the problem" with his ruptured disk, Billy said. He put off follow-up surgeries because he didn't want to endure more pain, discomfort or potential setbacks while his children were growing up.
"I went into the surgery with a walker and came out in a wheelchair." Zhaire Smith's father Billy
"You don't appreciate a lot of stuff until it just doesn't work anymore," he said. "I remember when my toe barely moved. I sat there and cried because I could make it move."
Zhaire's parents never married, so Billy has lived on his own. His prognosis has improved, but very slowly. His house needed lifestyle modification. Door frames had be widened. He has parallel bars installed to help him walk. There are ramps, a custom-built shower and carpets installed that make it easy for his wheelchair to roll.
"Everything that was high up had to be put down low," Billy said.
As he's interviewed about all of this, Billy sounds cheery, blessed and full of life. His energy over the phone is infectious. He has not allowed a bad situation to change who he is. And because of his father's attitude, Zhaire hasn't been able to flip his switch to off in years.
"I think it made him stronger," his dad said.
Smith, who in March helped propel TTU to its first Elite Eight apperance in school history, will most likely be taken in the top 20 of Thursday night's NBA Draft. This reality is still a shock to him, even as he's embraced and appreciated the past two-plus months of a vigorous scouting process.
"I remember during the season my teammates said, 'You know you're on the draft boards and they got you going first round,'" Smith said. "I didn't even know what a draft board was."
Now he's worked out with seven teams, the most recent and final one being Phoenix, and been so impressive in that process that he secured a green room invite. While working out for Denver recently, Smith notched an eye-popping 45-inch max vertical jump -- besting his 41-inch pop at May's NBA Combine.
The 19-year-old's rise is stunning; it may well be unprecedented in its haste. Arguably the most surprising draftee in this year's crop, Smith is only a year removed from graduating high school as the 194th-ranked player in his class. Because of this, Smith is a unique NBA prospect (though some might argue a risky pick in the top quarter of the draft under these circumstances).
One-and-done players are almost exclusively transparent and identifiable by their wickedly talented nature long before they shake the NBA commissioner's hand. Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr., Jaren Jackson Jr. and Wendell Carter are all players who will not only be top picks, but they were pegged as elite basketball talents by the age of 15 and long ago forecast as eventual NBA material.
Even Trae Young, who exploded on the college scene and admittedly is well ahead of schedule, was a five-star prospect coming out of high school.
This isn't the case with Smith, who was the fourth in scoring on his AAU team and never commanded widespread attention as a college recruit because he played on smaller squads in smaller gyms. The draft, only to turn their fortunes after three or four years of college grooming. But to go from being ranked 194th in high school to near-certain top 20 pick in a year's time is essentially unheard of.
"I am a little bit surprised," Smith said. "Nobody, myself included, expected me to be one-and-done."
Plus, to do it coming out of Texas Tech makes it even more unusual. The program hasn't had an NBA pick in 14 years, and the only non-senior to ever be drafted out of TTU was Tony Battie in 1997, who was taken fifth overall after his junior season. Smith picked Texas Tech over Texas and Arkansas because of his trust in Red Raiders coach Chris Beard.
"Beard promised me he'd play me in my freshman year -- I thought it was a lie because that's usually what all coaches said," Smith said.
Smith wound up scoring a workmanlike 11.3 points and grabbing 5.0 rebounds per game on his way to becoming Texas Tech's pogo-legged stopgap on defense (TTU ranked fourth overall in defense last season). His elite on-ball defense put him on track to the NBA, enabled because of his 6'9.75 wingspan on a 6-3 body.
Some of this is genetics. His parents set him up for success not just in how they raised him, but what they passed down to him. Zhaire's mother, Andrea, is 5-10 with an Olympian's build. She named her son Zhaire Jahi-Ihme, a spiritual name of African descent, that means "to do well and prosper in life." Nurture took hold and habits grew zealous. Andrea helped train Zhaire as he grew into a man, often joining him in gym sessions.
Zhaire and his sister, Aayinde, were trained in track from an early age. He also took up flag football. Zhaire's father coached him on those sports, and in basketball too. Billy insisted Zhaire play multiple sports to avoid burnout. He showed early signs of basketball excellence when he was an overwhelming defender in a elementary church league, which prohibited him from blocking shots. Not wanting to put any competitive restrictions on Zhaire, Billy pulled him out of the league.
"Nobody, myself included, expected me to be one-and-done." Zhaire Smith
By the time he got to high school, Zhaire's athletic prowess was so stark compared to other players, his athleticism had football coaches telling him they'd even take him on the team if only to have him run two routes because of his speed and jumping ability.
Instead, he committed to basketball. He always guarded the best player.
"That's how you get in the game," his father said. "All that other stuff will come. A lot of players think that scoring, scoring, scoring is the best way to the most prestigious scholarship and offers. Zhaire embraced being different."
On offense, he played as an undersized post-type of player, which in a way disguised him from most high-major programs who would've taken his athleticism immediately. Smith's made his way to being an NBA pick despite never having a play specifically called for him in high school or AAU, his father said. Billy believes that running track and playing flag (then eventually tackle) football at an early age wound up helping him to get to Tech, to thrive as a one-and-done and brought him to measure up to expectations at the combine.
The only gift of significance Billy Smith could ever to his son was a 2007 Saab, which he got for Christmas during his senior year of high school. Zhaire used it almost exclusively to drive to school and to his local LA Fitness, where he worked out almost every day.
"He ain't going nowhere else," his dad said. "I had to run him out of the gym. I'm telling him, 'Dude, you have to let your body rest.' I actually went in the gym, thinking maybe there's a little cutie girl there he was seeing. I went in the gym ... and he's working out. I'm like, 'This guy's got a vision.' Going to proms and all that stuff, I almost had to make him. Going to high school football games and stuff like that, he wasn't into that. 'I want to go to the gym.' He always wants to be in the gym."
At Tech, scouts came calling around Christmas, and that's when former TTU assistant Chris Ogden first said to Beard that Smith leaving after one year could wind up being a possibility.
"NBA scouts, about 20 came in," Beard said. "They beg you to tell them about some kind of vice. There's no vices with Z. I almost thought the NBA personnel were going to leave Lubbock thinking we were lying. He doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't have problems with women. He's respectful and a big-time student."
The work ethic of NBA hopefuls is often referenced. It's often true. Zhaire's relentless, though, and the evidence of that is in his draft projections. To be kind, his offensive game has a long way to go at the highest level. He wouldn't be where he is now if not for the thousands of hours of training combined with his elite fitness.
"The only thing I can say it is, is someone is going to work out four times, he's going to work out six times," his dad said. "He would almost play for free. I just wanted to make sure he was going to be enjoying the regular childhood life."
When Smith got to Texas Tech, he was so unassuming about transportation to the team's facility that he called Ubers in the first few days to get from his dorm to the gym. Beard saw him coming out of the back of a car last summer and told him he didn't need to pay for rides, that there were people with the program who would come get him.
Smith said he didn't want to bother anybody.
That image came full circle on March 26. Hours removed from the end of Texas Tech's season, a loss in the Elite Eight to eventual champ Villanova, Zhaire was in the gym. The team didn't get back into Lubbock and in their beds until after 3 a.m. By 10 a.m., Zhaire was in full sweat and swiping some waters and chocolate milks from the team lounge, having logged solo workout sessions bright and early.
Beard told his assistants later that morning that the NBA was going to happen for him, and probably soon.
"Plane lands at 3 and you're already back in the gym at 9?" Beard said. "That's Kobe Bryant stuff. He's special. My whole career I've been coaching guys, telling them about Kobe Bryant's desire, Michael Jordan's talent, David Robinson's character. Now I have my own story. I don't ever have to be on YouTube again. I can just tell every player I'll ever coach again about Z Smith."
On Sunday, Father's Day, Billy was surprised with the news that Zhaire had signed with Puma. He suspected something was coming soon because Zhaire had recently prodded about what size shoe his dad wears.
The payoff with an endorsement deal was the appetizer to draft night, the tangible signal that this is going to happen. During our phone conversation, Billy even admitted that he had a hard time reconciling with the accepted consensus that his son was going to be drafted into the NBA.
It wasn't so long ago when he and Zhaire were together, putting in the work -- Billy helping his boy with ball handling by forcing him to dribble around the wheelchair. That small gym will be replaced Thursday night with Barclays Arena. Adam Silver will call out the name "Zhaire Smith," and in that moment, Billy Smith will clutch his son and they will both stand. It might make for the proudest moment of their lives.
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