Sixers notebook: Despite a quiet offseason, this young team is better than before

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Well, Sixers fans, the team is back and gearing up for the 2018-19 NBA Season. While there are no “big name” free agent signees, the Sixers are an improved team and are looking at making the NBA Finals this year out of the Eastern Conference.

 

Joel Embiid is healthy and motivated.
Questions lingered all last season as to if or when Embiid would break down and if he could handle the rigors of a full NBA season. Short of a freak play involving Markelle Fultzs shoulder, Embiid held up his end of the bargain for the team last year.

Embiid averaged 23 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and just under two blocks per game last year. Embiid finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting and with a full season under his belt, looks to build on the true first year of him playing. He’s motivated by the team getting dumped in the playoffs last season and is looking to be a beast in the low block for the team.

IF they’re going to succeed, Embiid needs to play down low in the post and dominate the players that are tasked with defending him. There isn’t really anyone in the league the Joel can’t dominate, it really comes down to whether he can mentally keep himself in the low post and not wander too far away from the basket. His biggest problem was putting the ball on the floor and that resulting turnovers that come from a center trying to play like he’s a point guard. It remains to be seen if he can control that part of his game but, if he does, the league should be on notice that Joel is going to be an even more dominant force this season.

 

Ben Simmons will look to build on his Rookie of the Year season.
Simmons averaged 16 points, 8 assists and 8 rebounds per game in his first season as the teams point guard. It was enough to have him win the ROY Award, in spite of the attempts of a lot of people to say that he wasn’t a true rookie. The real issue with Simmons was his lack of a jump shot and complete nonexistence of a three-point game. He was 0-11 from three last season, although they were all end of period heaves. In order to make himself truly unstoppable, Simmons needs to show that he can take and make jumpers as well as threes.

His attacking style worked well, but he wasn’t as aggressive while trying to score last year instead, moving the ball to teammates with open shots. This year, Simmons needs to step it up and could easily average 20+ points per game with just a few more quality shots. It’s hard to imagine him regressing at all and it’s more of a probability that he winds up close to averaging a triple-double, even more so than he did last season. With the way Ben plays, a statline line of 21/9/9 isn’t out of the realm of possibility and even seems like something that we’ll see on a nightly basis.

 

Markelle Fultz is actually playing
Fultz has been putting up shots all summer in order to improve his jumper shot. While his athleticism and talent have not been questioned, his mental toughness seemed the only thing that people were harping on last year. That he couldn’t, mentally, handle playing. That he had a case of the YIPS. The reports out of the Sixers organization, as training camp got under way, is that it wasn’t mental at all last season and that it was truly just an injury. That remains to be seen.

What we should be looking at is another talented former #1 overall draft pick that will blossom in his second season as a member of the franchise. The only thing that will really be hard will be the questions, that will repeatedly come to him, about what happened last year. What we should do is forget about last year as there’s nothing we can do about it. Let him play and hope that the player we drafted prior to last season is the player that we see on the court this year. According to his shooting coach, Drew Hanlen, Fultz is going to be a breakout star in the league this year and someone that will draw a lot of consideration for this year and future All-Star games. What the team really needs from Fultz is him to return to his college form as well as provide second team defense for a squad that desperately needed it last year.

 

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What impact will the rookies have?
The way the Sixers have done things over the past few years, it’s not surprising to see that all three of the Sixers draft picks have injuries. Zhaire Smith has a broken foot, Landry Shamet had an ankle sprain, and Shake Milton had a back injury. While all three are facing battles just to get healthy, the Sixers seem convinced that all three will see time this season and that they’ll be contributing. Smith is the key to this being a successful draft class as the team traded their own #10 pick to move back and select him in the first round. What he happens to be is an excellent defender, one of the best, if not the best pure athlete to get drafted this year, as well as pretty good outside shooter.

While the fans will no doubt give the team a hard time as they traded away Mikal Bridges, who was the local favorite, Smith provides more upside to the team and will be a key piece to the second unit. Having Smith and Fultz on the floor, for the second unit, would give the Sixers two very good defenders while their starters get some rest. The lack of second unit defense killed the Sixers in the playoffs last year and that should be much improved this season. Shamet is another guy that can make an impact immediately, if he can get healthy.

He shoots 44% from three-pointers and was considered one of the best shooters in the draft. Another plus for the team that really needs shooters to make its system work. Shake Milton, if he can get his back right, could be the steal of the draft. Another guy that shoots 43% from beyond the arc, Milton has the height and length to be a disruptive force on defense while providing timely scoring on the offensive side of the ball.  Getting healthy is the key for all three but, they should and it should really pay off for the team later in the season.

 

What happens to TJ McConnell?
If Fultz returns to his previous form, then where will TJ see time on the floor. While he’s an energy guy and has earned his spot on the team, you can’t have him and Fultz both running the point for the second unit this season. What the Sixers need to find out, early in the season, is if Fultz can consistently knock down threes. If he does, then TJ can run the point while still making sure that Fultz gets his touches. If Fultz falters, then the Sixers may be looking at TJ having extended minutes on the second unit. His 6 points and 4 assists per game were nice, but you’re looking at an undrafted guy who isn’t going to provide much more than that for the team. If he looks good early on and Fultz is playing well, the Sixers may be better moving him in order to grab another piece that better fits the team.

 

Amir Johnson is back.
Johnson was a guy that Colangelo brought in and at $11 Million for last year, wasn’t worth the 5 points and 5 rebounds per game that he put up. But, at $2.4 Million and having him as the backup center, providing the same minutes and stats, then he’s well worth it as well as being a veteran leader on the team. We’ll have to see how he plays but all signs point to him being much better in his role this year without having to worry about Richaun Holmes getting pushed for minutes.

 

Does Brett Brown have what it takes to get the Sixers to the next level?
In short, yes. Brown, while not really having any players and having a horrible record coaching as a result of it, finally was able to show what he can do when he’s given some talent on the floor. While many questioned some of his choices last season as well as in the playoffs, this year will be a big stepping stone for Brown. He knows what he has in his players and he knows better how to use them. After a full season with Simmons, Embiid, Saric, Covington and Redick, Brown will look to improve the squad with their much improved second units. While he can do better with his rotation, based on last year, if you look at the players he has available now, it should be a little easier as he’ll have some more confidence in them. Taking the team from being a complete joke and getting them to the third seed in the Eastern Conference should have been enough to get him strong consideration for Coach of the Year but, if the Sixers can improve and become a stronger force in the East, it will be because Brown finally has the players to show us what he’s truly capable of.

 

While the Sixers record should be slightly improved this year, the fans need to recognize that this is really just the second year that they’ve been able to put a good team on the floor and that some of the players that fans dreamt of being on the team aren’t here, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have superstars. You only have to look at Simmons and Embiid to realize that they have two home grown superstars playing right here with Fultz, hopefully making huge strides in proving his value. Forget the names of the players that everyone thought should be here and embrace the fact that we have a home grown, talented team, that should be competing for a title in the very near future. If you still have doubt, remember that it took four years for the Warriors with Curry, Thompson, Green, etc. to get to be the dominant force that they are today.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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