Three Sixers who have been pleasant surprises in 2022

Philadelphia 76ers’ De’Anthony Melton, left, goes up for a shot past Detroit Pistons’ Jalen Duren during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Since his first All-Star appearance, Joel Embiid has shown Philadelphia what he can bring to the Sixers and fanbase. At this point, his production and greatness are expected. What has been unreliable since his ascension is what his surrounding cast can add, leaving a big question mark over the Philadelphia 76ers’ depth chart. This season has been different though. At times, particularly when key players have been out, Embiid’s supporting cast has looked more like lead actors on the floor.

As the year finally comes to a close, let’s explore the roster and identify three players who have been pleasant surprises for the Sixers this season. We’ll examine how that question mark could now be seen as an exclamation point that punctuated the 8-game winning streak the team went on this month.

A Grizzly Gift

If you are a true NBA head, you were probably familiar with this player when the trade broke. If you’re a diehard Sixers fan who only makes room for Sixers games, you were probably wondering last summer, Who is De’Anthony Melton? After learning Melton was coming to the Sixers in exchange for Danny Green and the 23rd draft pick, there was genuine curiosity for Philly fans.

Off the bat, his statistics indicated that he was a valuable defensive player for the Grizzlies. Last season, he was second in the league in steal percentage (3.0), but other than that, the addition of Melton presented a few questions. The fanbase wondered, how would he fit on the Sixers, and what kind of minutes would be carved out for him? The biggest one was why would Memphis let him go if he was such a key piece to their playoff run?

Considering the Grizzlies’ contract extension of Ja Morant and the number of free agents on their roster, he was expendable for salary reasons. With Danny Green’s knee injury and his contract set to impact the Sixers’ hard cap, Philly had to make a move. Since then, Melton has been one of the brightest spots for the Sixers this year. How has Melton impressed, and why is it so surprising?

Let’s start with his 3-point shooting. In Memphis, his 3-point shooting average was 36 percent on 3.9 attempts per game. For the Sixers, whether it’s a corner three or a pull-up in transition, Melton has a heavier trigger finger. Currently, he is shooting 39.1 percent beyond the arc on 6.2 attempts per game, stretching the floor for Embiid and serving as a savior when the shot clock approaches expiration. This aspect of his game has helped the Sixers become a top five 3-point shooting team in the league.

Surrounding Joel Embiid with 3-and-D players like Melton has been the ideal move but came up short with moves like the Josh Richardson trade. The 76ers have always been thirsty for a perimeter scorer with a defensive mindset. Melton has been that guy. He does more than just shoot and defend though. They call him Mr. Do Something for a reason.

He seems to be locked in on doing whatever he can to help the Sixers win. Whether it’s being unselfish and making the proper pass or driving the lane with the shot clock running down, Melton has shown great versatility. 

Months ago, De’Anthony Melton had yet to prove himself in Philly. Yet, this next player has had plenty of opportunities to flourish, but couldn’t quite get it right… until now. 

The Real Shake Milton

You probably recall the pit in your stomach that lingered after the 76ers were eliminated by Miami in the 2022 conference semifinals. Remember when every Sixers player was reluctant or ineffective shooting late in game six against the Heat? Well, everyone except Shake Milton. Fast forward several months, and Milton seems to have finally turned the corner.

To be fair, the inconsistent play of Shake Milton throughout his career has given pause for some Sixers fans, causing reluctance to embrace his recent success. Probably because Killer-Shake games have been a tease in the past.

There was the well-known Clippers game from 2020 where he lit up Los Angeles 39 points. There was the bubble game versus the Spurs where Milton hit the game winning 3-pointer. In addition, reflecting back on the playoff series with Atlanta in 2021, Milton was instant offense in game two where he scored 14 points in 14 minutes on 5-for-8 shooting. So why is it so surprising that Shake Milton is stepping up and being more consistent?

The reason why this season is so unexpected is because Milton has been on the verge of a breakout role but struggled to break through. There was even hope that he could be in the running for NBA Sixth Man of the Year. However, whether it was a nagging injury or inconsistent minutes, Milton couldn’t quite reach the next level. Then came the early season injuries to James Harden and Tyrese Maxey. 

It’s easy to notice when Embiid goes on a scoring spree, but Shake Milton went on his own tear, scoring steadily and showing poise in a string of games where he was the leading scorer. In fact, between mid-November and early December, Milton scored 19.6 PPG over 10 games, putting up 20 points or more in half of those games. Up until that point, we had seen Milton on sporadic occasions put up decent numbers. This season though, he has not only been consistent, but he has played with a level of confidence that we have not seen before.

In the Houston game where James Harden returned from injury, he was sharing the backcourt with Shake Milton. At the start of a half court set, Milton deferred at the top of the key to Harden. Then, Harden passed it right back to Milton, as if to say, I saw you cook when I was out, so go get a bucket. It is that trust in Milton that some suspected he had in himself, but couldn’t say the same for the coaching staff and his teammates. 

Milton has now shown that he’s one of the best Sixers finishers, driving the lane and finishing with either hand. He has shown precision pocket-passes and the ability to score from the perimeter. His mid-rage pull-up jumper is arguably one of the best on the team. It seems that the real Shake Milton has arrived. This will only help the team moving forward, especially when they need offense in the second unit. 

Adjusting and Thriving

Let us ignore the buzzkill, Christmas Day, Adrian Wojnarowski report for a minute, and focus on the present when it comes to James Harden. Coming into the season, there was speculation about Harden’s health. There was also speculation about a commitment to adjusting his game to fit the needs of the team. Just months after a subpar Miami Heat playoff series, Harden is letting his actions put that speculation to rest.

Although he did miss some games because of a foot injury, Harden looks quicker than last season. In the summer, Harden was locked in on getting his body right for the grueling NBA schedule. In an interview with Yaron Weitzman, Harden explained how he asked his manager to build him a backyard gym with green turf and plenty of training equipment. This commitment to strength and conditioning isn’t what Harden skeptics expected after his body issues in Brooklyn. This has been just one pleasant surprise for Philly.

Another surprise has been Harden’s game adjustment. He’s not an explosive dunker like he was in Houston, but Harden is looking better on his drives. Instead of frequently getting his shot blocked after forcing his way into the paint, he is scoring more layups or pulling up for mid-range jumpers. 

Another aspect to Harden’s game that shows adjustment is his willingness to take more spot-up 3-pointers. Of course he still pounds the ball before his signature step back from beyond the arc, but he is shooting it more when he has an open look. Overall, his 3-point shooting percentage is up this season (37.4 percent) compared to his Sixers’ numbers last season (32.6 percent).

Adjusting his game so that Embiid and Maxey can effectively utilize their skillsets, James Harden has shared the ball more this season. He leads the NBA in assists per game (11.1) despite Tyrese Haliburton technically holding the title due to games played.  Harden even had a career-best night against the Clippers, dishing out 21 dimes (also good for tying a franchise record). Harden has given the Sixers playmaking ability as a legit scoring threat option that Philly has never seen. This surprise could pay more dividends than any statistic across the board for the team.

What does 2023 hold for the Sixers?

What other surprises will come in 2023? Will another player step up in a teammate’s absence? Will a trade raise eyebrows as the season unfolds? Sure, the Sixers’ 8-game win streak was spoiled by the loss in Washington and was quickly followed by another loss to New Orleans, but that range of consecutive victories was a surprise in and of itself. Hopefully, a longer win streak could offer another surprise in the new year.