For the rest of their careers, Zhaire Smith and Mikal Bridges are probably going to be compared. That's the reality of being involved in a memorable draft-night deal in which a local kid goes from thinking he's playing for his hometown team to taking off his Sixers hat and getting ready to fly to Phoenix.
Thursday night, Smith and Bridges will match up for the first time, as the Sixers take on the Suns in the first round of the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League tournament. Inevitably, their respective performances will be closely scrutinized.
Bridges may have a better game than Smith on Thursday. He'll probably have a better rookie season, too, given that he's almost three years older, has a more polished game and should get plenty of minutes on a rebuilding Suns team.
The Sixers knew Bridges was a player who could help them immediately when they selected him - that's why he was their "1A," according to coach and interim GM Brett Brown. And they felt Smith could eventually be a "special" player - that's why he was their "1B." Brown decided the opportunity to have Smith and a valuable asset in Miami's unprotected 2021 first-round pick was a "Godfather of a deal," too good to pass up.
If Smith notches a triple-double and embarrasses Bridges, it will be too early to say Brown made the right decision. And if Bridges scores 40 points and Smith looks terrible, it will be too early to say Brown made the wrong move. Because Smith's potential is one of the biggest reasons why he was an enticing pick, we won't know who "won" the deal for at least a couple years, even if it's tempting to make a verdict based on one matchup, or one month, or one season.
That's not to say that Smith will be a total non-factor as a rookie and the Sixers are banking entirely on potential. With his defensive ability, athleticism and impressive feel for the game, he should be able to contribute off the bench. He's shown flashes of those tools already in summer league. But Smith still needs plenty of work as an offensive player, especially with his ball-handling. His transition from college power forward to NBA wing is going to take some time.
Bridges' transition to the NBA seems like it will be a bit easier. His length, defense and three-point shooting all project well at the next level. It wouldn't have been too hard to find an important role for him on the Sixers next season. For Smith, it's not as clear if he'll be able to make an immediate, significant impact. Brown admitted as much at the introductory press conference for Smith and fellow first-rounder Landry Shamet.
"We believe entirely in time he has the ability to be incredibly unique, maybe even great," Brown said. "So I think so that the city and you all hear me say, Mikal Bridges would have come in and slotted in and played right away. Zhaire is going to be fighting for some minutes and we're going to develop him and we are excited to do that and he may jump into this thing in a quicker way. …We believe we are going to take Zhaire and put him into our development system and polish up all of those things and we are excited. The city of Philadelphia is going to love him because of his complete competitiveness, his athleticism and his toughness. He is bred for the city of Philadelphia."
Unlike Bridges, however, Smith wasn't bred in the Philadelphia area. There may be some fans who will always resent the Sixers for the trade, regardless of the player Smith ends up becoming. Even Brown admitted that the human side of it was "disturbing." It seemed like the perfect story, until it wasn't.
But let's keep in mind that Smith deserves a chance to craft his own story in the NBA, as does Bridges.
If Smith or Bridges dominates Thursday's matchup, it's only natural that many fans' strong draft-night reactions will resurface. Ultimately, though, Thursday night is a fun summer-league matchup between two promising young players who have yet to play a regular-season minute in the NBA.