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

What Sixers need more and less of in second half

What Sixers need more and less of in second half

Now that the dust has settled on the NBA's All-Star festivities, the Sixers will reconvene this week and turn their attention back to the playoff push.

With 27 games remaining in the regular season over a 49-day stretch, it will be a sprint to the finish.

So how can the Sixers capture their first postseason berth in six seasons? Let's take a look at what the team needs more and less of down the stretch.

More: Healthy Embiid
What injury? Joel Embiid shook off right ankle soreness to participate in three events during All-Star weekend as a shining representation of the up-and-coming Sixers.

"There was never really a thought about missing out on any of these events," Embiid said Friday after the Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars game. "It's my first time, so I'm going to have fun."

The big man is always about having fun, but now it's time to get down to business. Even though the Sixers' competition appears to lighten up after the break, the schedule does not (27 games with six back-to-back sets).

The Sixers are 27-17 when Embiid plays and just 3-8 when he doesn't suit up. They need the center healthy and on the court.

Less: Turnovers
Way less, actually. 

As you know by now, the Sixers have a bit of an issue holding onto the basketball. They simply don't respect each possession enough, evidenced by their 17.5 turnovers per game. That's good enough for dead last in the NBA and it's a full 1.5 turnovers more than the closest team (Los Angeles Lakers).

And it's not just the miscues. Teams are capitalizing, too — the Sixers also rank 30th in opponents' points off turnovers (19.4).

Of the "Four Factors" statistic on the offensive end, which breaks down weighted factors that help a team win a game — shooting (40 percent), turnovers (25 percent), rebounding (20 percent) and free throws (15 percent) — the only category that the Sixers rank outside of the NBA's top 10 in is turnovers.

If they can cut down on the giveaways just a little, it will go a long way toward their goal.

More: Early execution
However, not all of those possessions end up with the Sixers running back on defense after a turnover.

With more legit scoring options on the roster this season than any previous time during Brett Brown's tenure, they have shown the ability to execute a play to perfection for a bucket.

It's a stark contrast to the days when they couldn't even get the ball in on an inbounds play.

That level of scoring punch has been particularly evident at the start of games. The Sixers are tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for fourth in the league in first-quarter points per game (28.7) and are even with the L.A. Clippers for seventh in first-half points a night (55.2).

The Sixers must continue to apply that pressure on teams at the outset of games, especially if their woes finishing off opponents is going to persist.

Less: Bad Covington
Ah, the curious case of Robert Covington.

Has any player in NBA history ever looked like they could make a push for an All-Star spot for two months only to appear as if they belong in the G League the next few months?

Covington has always been a streaky shooter, but this season has been extreme. He shot 44.7 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three-point range in October and November to help secure his multiyear extension. 

Since that point, the swingman has connected on just 37.6 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from long distance.

Whether it's the weight of the big contract or the nasty spill he took against the Cavs in December, Covington hasn't looked the same on the floor in several months. The team needs him to get it together and the sooner the better.

More: Killer D's
While Embiid's presence on both ends and Ben Simmons' wizardry at the point have put the Sixers in position to snag a playoff bid, the team didn't really hit its stride until a certain pairing found its footing: Dario Saric and defense.

Much like his rookie season, Saric struggled to find his role at the start. But that's long in the rearview mirror now. The second-year forward has increased his production each month and has been rolling so far in February (18.6 points, 51.7 percent field goals, 46.3 percent threes, 6.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game).

That surge has coincided with the Sixers' tightened grip on defense. In seven games this month, they've allowed 96.1 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting.

The type of balance Saric offers offensively and the overall lockdown defense won't only make the Sixers a postseason team, it will also make them a tough out. 

Less: Fultz speculation
This is a big deal that the Sixers could make very small with a clear decision on the No. 1 pick's immediate future.

Markelle Fultz reportedly continues to ramp up his rehab workouts for his ailing shoulder, even after team president Bryan Colangelo said earlier this month that the guard could return soon or be shut down for the season.

The franchise should obviously give Fultz every chance to come back and contribute, but that ruling should be made at the first opportunity.

It's after the All-Star break and having that type of deliberation hovering over the team isn't exactly fair to the other players. Not to mention, for a guy that has apparently dealt with questions regarding his confidence, possibly dropping him into the thick of a playoff race doesn't really do him any favors either.

Our NBA All-Star challenge — describe Embiid in one word

Our NBA All-Star challenge — describe Embiid in one word

LOS ANGELES —  From trash talking on the court to expressing himself on social media, Joel Embiid is a player of many (many) words. So if his fellow All-Stars had to describe him in just one, what would it be? 

Draymond Green: "'Funny.' He's hilarious. The stuff he says, he goes on TV talking about (Kevin Durant's) burner account, he's talking how he's a savage. His Instagram locations, pretty funny. He's a good guy." 

Andre Drummond: "I’d probably say 'charismatic,' 'funny,' 'savage.' He don’t care, he just does what he wants to.”

Paul George: “Personality,' in all caps."

(Why all caps?)

“Because he’s a big dude.”

John Wall: "He's just 'himself.' He's very confident."

Anthony Davis: “'Savage.' Cool dude, he lives by his own rules. He’s just enjoying life and having fun.”

Jimmy Butler: "'Remarkable' in the fact that his game on the court is insane. Then the way he's always saying something to somebody on social media is really 'remarkable.'"

Bradley Beal: “'Wild.' He has no filter, he doesn’t care. That’s my boy, but he just has no remorse, doesn’t care."

LaMarcus Aldridge: “'Entertaining,' because he’s always on TV expressing how he feels. So, entertaining.”