Grading the Sixers: Covington up, Saric down, Okafor invisible

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Grading the Sixers: Covington up, Saric down, Okafor invisible

Evaluating all of the key Sixers a week into the season. The grades below are relative to the player's skill set and expectations. For example, an A for Joel Embiid would require much more than A for T.J. McConnell.

Dario Saric
Sixers fans, especially younger Sixers fans, have a borderline irrational attachment to Dario Saric. Maybe it was the two-year wait. Maybe it's his way of being simultaneously awkward and fluid on the court. Maybe it's the broken English. It's probably all of the above.

In any event, five games in, Saric is still trying to find his footing on this Sixers team. He's come off the bench and played between 17 and 24 minutes in each game. He's spent time as a forward but also as a backup stretch-five. 

So far, Saric's time as a backup center has not been pretty. He's not athletic enough or big enough to make an impact on defense against most centers, and the "stretch" element of his game hasn't worked yet. He's 3 for 14 (21.4 percent) from three and some of his misses haven't been particularly close. He's also shot 33 percent in the area between the foul line and three-point line.

It will be interesting to see how the Sixers deploy Saric as the season progresses. When Richaun Holmes returns, Saric's minutes as a stretch-five likely will go away. And unless Saric quickly becomes a more consistent shooter, it's going to be tough to play him more than 20 or so minutes per game because of the spacing issues created when he shares the floor with Ben Simmons and/or T.J. McConnell.

Season averages: 5.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 33 percent FG, 21 percent 3-PT, 3 for 5 FT

Grade so far: C- 

• • •

Ben Simmons
Man, has he been impressive through five games. You've heard roughly 40,000 times that if Simmons ever develops a jump shot, he'll be a star. Well, even if he doesn't, it looks like he'll be a star.

Simmons is averaging 16.4 points, 10.0 rebounds and 7.4 assists so far. He's had four double-doubles and came close to a second straight triple-double against the Rockets.

That's the good. The bad is that he's 0 for 3 from three and 16 for 28 (57 percent) from the line. 

Simmons is so savvy with the ball and so under control that his lack of a jumper isn't as pronounced when he actually has the ball in his hands. He can find room for a floater or lay-up. 

The issue is when he doesn't have the ball in his hands. Two plays late in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's heartbreaking loss exemplified this well. On consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter, Simmons hit Joel Embiid in the post. Simmons' defender instantly sagged far off of him and essentially double-teamed Embiid, knowing Simmons wouldn't be shooting even if Embiid kicked it back out to him. Both plays resulted in turnovers. 

That's a real issue the Sixers will have to work through. But aside from it, Simmons has exceeded incredibly high expectations so far.

Season averages: 16.4 points, 10.0 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 33 percent FG, 48 percent FG, 0 for 3 3-PT, 57 percent FT

Grade: A-

• • •

Robert Covington
Covington is a valuable NBA player and the rest of the country has begun to catch on. He plays with a ton of energy, never seems to take a play off defensively, and he's off to a hot start from long range.

Covington has made 17 threes already, fourth-most in the NBA. The top-five in threes made this season is Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, James Harden, Covington and Kevin Durant. That's a fun list.

If there's a flaw with Covington, it's that he takes sooooooo many contested threes. He's 6-foot-9 and his shot has a high arc, so he feels like he can get it off against most defenders in his face. Other teams know that dribbling and driving is his weakest skill so nobody ever gives him space, thus the contested threes.

His shot selection needs to improve, but there aren't too many small forwards more well-rounded than RoCo.

Season averages: 15.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.0 block, 49 percent FG, 49 percent 3-PT, 86 percent FT

Grade: B+

• • •

Joel Embiid
It's a small sample size, but so far, Embiid has increased his averages of rebounds and assists, he's committing one fewer foul per game, he's shooting five percent better from the field despite the misses from three, and he's 18 for 20 from the line.

What has stuck out the most with Embiid through the first four games of his second season is the automatic nature of his mid-range jumper — he's made 56 percent of them, and right now it's his most confident shot.

Embiid will probably always be a high-turnover big man because of how often he touches the ball, both at the top of the key and in the post. He has 17 turnovers in four games after averaging 3.8 last season. If the Sixers can get that average closer to 3.0 than 4.0, they'll be pretty happy.

Season averages: 20.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.3 blocks, 51 percent FG, 15 percent 3-PT, 90 percent FT

Grade: A-

• • •

JJ Redick
So far, Redick has done exactly what he was brought to Philly to do: make threes and create space by endlessly moving without the ball.

He's had three good games and two bad games, but the good has outweighed the bad more than that. He brings the added element of transition threes, and there are few players in the league more confident when wide open in the corner.

His long-distance shooting will create momentum for the Sixers in plenty of games this season, and even with the high price tag, this is already looking like a smart move, despite the Sixers' 1-4 start.

Season averages: 13.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 39 percent 3-PT, 5-5 FT

Grade: B

• • •

Jerryd Bayless
Bayless has 1½ NBA skills: shooting and slightly-above-average ballhandling.

He serves his purpose on this team as a floor-spacer capable of making three threes per game. But his inability to finish strong at the rim makes him susceptible to blocked shots and near-misses. 

His passing vision isn't nearly as good as Simmons' or T.J. McConnell's, which creates an interesting predicament late in games. We saw it against the Rockets. Do you play McConnell with Simmons late for optimal ball-handling and passing? Or do you play Bayless with Simmons for optimal shooting?

Season averages: 12.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 13-26 3-PT, 5-6 FT

Grade: B-

• • •

Jahlil Okafor
What does it say about Okafor that even with Richaun Holmes (wrist) injured, Amir Johnson struggling and Embiid getting into foul trouble the last two games that Okafor *still* can't get any tick?

This is a bad situation that just keeps getting worse. There's no trade market right now for Okafor, and why would one develop if his own team considers him its fifth-best center?

As our managing editor Andy Schwartz said this week, you'd have a pretty good player if you combined the skills of Okafor and Johnson. You'd get Okafor's post game and ability to finish with Johnson's hustle and physicality. Something to keep in mind if cloning ever becomes a real thing.

Season averages: He had 10 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks in the one game he played

Grade: Incomplete

• • •

T.J. McConnell
Barring a devastating injury, McConnell is going to have a long NBA career as a backup point guard. He just always gives you quality minutes as a floor general, even if it doesn't show up in the stat sheet.

Embiid said Wednesday night — and accurately so — that McConnell was "the best player on the floor" against the Rockets. McConnell had six points, five rebounds, nine assists and six steals in 28 minutes. He gained the Sixers more than just those six extra possessions, too, with deflections and taps to other players on the offensive glass.

It's just a shame T.J. didn't get 8 to 10 more minutes against the Rockets to try to cap off what would have been the most unlikely and glorious quadruple-double in NBA history.

Season averages: 3.8 points, 4.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 38 percent FG

Grade: B

Give and Go: What should Sixers be thankful for the most?

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Give and Go: What should Sixers be thankful for the most?

Each week, our resident basketball analysts will discuss some of the hottest topics involving the Sixers.

Running the Give and Go are NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Marshall Harris, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producer/reporter Paul Hudrick and NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producer/reporter Matt Haughton.

In this edition, we examine what the Sixers should be thankful for the most on this Thanksgiving.

At first glance, you take a look at Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and remember that they combined for 31 games last season and the impulse is to say health. However, we can’t ignore the injuries that have befallen the team outside of those two engines. The Sixers have been hurting without the likes of Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless, Nik Stauskas and Justin Anderson at their full disposal of late. So health hasn’t been their thing, really.
What the Sixers should be thankful for is that despite being shorthanded, they made it through 17 games of the season with a winning record. That’s in spite of 10 of those games being on the road and two games each against Golden State and Houston already in the books. 

Since a 1-4 start, the Sixers have lost just three times in their last 12 games, and two of those losses were to arguably one of the greatest teams in history in the Warriors. Suddenly everyone is reaching for their abacus or calculator, and they should be. Who had the Sixers with a winning record at Thanksgiving?
Here’s the thing, two weeks ago Jim Lynam told me the Sixers would be a top four seed in the East. I wasn’t ready to embrace that idea. I’m ready to admit my 39-win prediction may not be up to the task. Perhaps we all need to recognize that the Sixers, youth and all, are up to the challenge of not just squeaking into the playoffs. At their current rate of growth, they look like a team that could get the 45 wins they’re already on pace to achieve and maybe even more.

Health is the obvious thing to be most thankful for, but I'll take it a step further. The Sixers should be thankful that the best is yet to come.

Any other season during The Process, Markelle Fultz's situation — being the No. 1 overall pick that the team traded up to acquire that suffered a weird injury that the team appeared to mishandle — would be considered a catastrophe. To say Fultz has become an afterthought would be a stretch, but his situation has certainly taken a backseat to Embiid, Simmons and the Sixers' success.

We won't know the full extent of Fultz's impact and role for quite some time. But the thought of Embiid, Simmons and Fultz on the court together should still tantalize Sixers fans. I'm still dying to see what Fultz can do in pick-and-roll situations with Embiid and even Simmons.

Am I worried about the jumper? Yeah, a little. But this is a guy who took five threes a night in college and shot 41 percent from distance. He then went on to shot 38 percent on five treys a contest during three summer league games. I still believe the shot is there. He just needs to get his confidence back and his shoulder healthy.

And don't listen to the doubters. Markelle Fultz is an excellent basketball player and was the top pick in the draft for a reason. He's not Anthony Bennett or Andrea Bargnani. This kid can play.

And the Sixers should be thankful when looking at his future.

While Embiid already shared what he’s thankful for on this holiday, the Sixers can only look back on how they landed the budding big man and smile.

Let’s rewind a bit. Embiid was well on his way to being the No. 1 overall pick in 2014 as he averaged 11.2 points on an insane 62.6 percent shooting, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game during his lone season at Kansas. That was until he suffered a stress fracture in his back late in the season that sidelined him for the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments.

Even after the back injury, Embiid appeared on his way to locking up the top spot in the draft … until the next setback. This time it was a broken foot suffered just before the draft that cast serious doubt about his long-term health.

As Sixers fans know all too well, that troublesome foot caused Embiid to miss his first two NBA seasons. However, what they’ve witnessed since has been nothing short of spectacular. In just 46 career games, Embiid has averaged 21.0 points (48.2 percent shooting), 8.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.3 blocks. His superstar ability has captured the hearts of the team’s faithful, and his huge social media presence has only made them love him even more.

As for the two players taken before Embiid, their careers don’t exactly appear to be trending in the same direction. No. 1 overall selection and Embiid’s Kansas teammate, Andrew Wiggins, has shown flashes of brilliance. However, his production with the revamped Minnesota Timberwolves is down this season after signing a massive extension of his own and questions remain about whether he can go from being a very good player to great. As for No. 2 pick Jabari Parker, he’s been a stud on the court for the Milwaukee Bucks but is recovering from a second left ACL tear since 2014.

All in all, Embiid is the prize of the crop and fell into the Sixers’ laps. So this Thanksgiving the Sixers should take a moment to reminisce about the process that brought them “The Process.”

Joel Embiid has plenty of reasons to be thankful

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Joel Embiid has plenty of reasons to be thankful

Joel Embiid is very appreciative. He is healthy, signed a mega-contract and has become the face of a franchise on the rise. 

The night before Thanksgiving, following a 20-point win over the Trail Blazers, Embiid reflected on why he is thankful.

“I’m thankful for my family,” Embiid, who grew up in Cameroon, said. “I live by myself, they don’t live here. But my mom is actually here.”

Embiid’s mother took in Wednesday’s action from courtside at the Wells Fargo Center and was all smiles as her son put up 28 points (11 for 19 shooting), 12 rebounds and two blocks in the 101-81 victory (see game recap).

Embiid also recognized the Sixers’ faithful, who have pulled for him during injury after injury and never wavered from their trust in the process.

“I’m thankful for the city of Philadelphia,” Embiid said. “This has become my home and I hope to be here for the rest of my career. I’m just thankful for the fans and just everybody around me, people that have been supporting me.” 

Embiid even gave a shoutout to the media, which doesn’t always happen, especially after a team struggled for so long.

“You guys hype me up so much,” he said. “So thank you.”

And last but not least, the player with 1.02 million followers on Twitter and another 1.4 million on Instagram, Embiid is grateful for every like and retweet. 

“I’m thankful for social media,” he said. 

#Fitting. #Thankful. #HappyThanksgiving