How the Sixers are keeping Markelle Fultz busy during recovery

How the Sixers are keeping Markelle Fultz busy during recovery

LOS ANGELES -- Markelle Fultz isn’t cleared to play basketball. As long as he’s around the Sixers, though, they are going to make him feel as involved as possible.

Fultz is traveling with the Sixers on their West Coast trip while he continues to rehab his right shoulder, which has sidelined him indefinitely because of soreness and scapular muscle imbalance. He’s not slated to be reevaluated for another week. In the meantime, coaches and teammates are keeping the 19-year-old No. 1 pick incorporated into the mix.

“Take whatever negative downtime they have that they’re not playing," Brett Brown said, "and also negative downtime that they surely have spiritually and emotionally because they’re just not playing, and try to make it the best we can.”

Fultz has been attending practices and shootarounds. He went through drills Saturday before the Sixers’ matchup against the Warriors, breaking a sweat while working on driving and finishing at the basket.

The Sixers have given Fultz assignments during the games. He is tasked with watching numerous elements on the floor from a distance. They hold him accountable outside the arena, too. As a guard in the Sixers’ system, Fultz could be asked to run the floor, which creates an even bigger need to keep up with the schemes.

“We challenge him a little bit,” Robert Covington said. “Even though he’s not playing, he still has to see what’s happening. He’s doing a good job. We ask at various times, on the bench, we catch him off guard. He handles them very well. He’s engaged even though he’s not on the court. One thing I can say is even though he’s not playing, he’s still learning a lot.”

The Sixers are no stranger to incorporating young, sidelined players into the team. They are faced with an injured rookie for the fifth straight year. Those who have been in his position know how it feels to be watching the action from afar. Joel Embiid, who missed his first two seasons because of foot injuries, stays closely connected with Fultz when they travel.

“We talk about basketball all the time,” Embiid said. “We’re always hanging out together. Everywhere we go, once we get to the hotel he’s probably going to come to my room and we’re going to play board games or video games.”

The Sixers will have a better sense of when Fultz can play once he is reevaluated, slated for approximately three weeks from his Oct. 29 injury announcement. Until then, they will ensure he is very much a part of the team.

“Just trying to make somebody feel good,” Brown said. “Make them feel prepared. Make them still feel loved.”

How to manage Joel Embiid's health while pushing for playoffs

How to manage Joel Embiid's health while pushing for playoffs

CAMDEN, N.J. — In some ways, Joel Embiid is a dream to coach. You can go to him in the post whenever you need a bucket, rely on him to erase defensive mistakes, sit back and watch as he takes over games.

But in other ways, coaching Embiid is not an easy job. Brett Brown has to constantly weigh Embiid’s health with the immediate desire to win. That balancing act has never been more difficult for Brown, who commented Wednesday on how he plans to manage Embiid with the playoffs in sight.

“Everything is still, and it should be, delivering him to a playoff round,” Brown said. “It’s not cramming for the exam and doing whatever you can to get home court, it’s not that at all. And so I feel like the path that we’re all on is both professional and responsible. So it’s that more than trying to cram for an exam.”

The Sixers have six back-to-back sets in their final 27 games. Embiid played his first ever back-to-back on Feb. 2 vs. Miami and Feb. 3 at Indiana. Since then, he’s had an injury scare with his right knee (on Feb. 10 vs the Clippers) and missed the Sixers’ final game before the All-Star break with a sore right ankle.

That said, Embiid’s obviously taken major steps forward. After being sidelined for his first two NBA seasons and playing just 31 games (and only 25.4 minutes per game) in his rookie year, he’s played in 44 of the Sixers’ first 55 games, and is averaging 31.4 minutes per game.

But the Sixers are 3-8 when Embiid doesn’t play. Without Embiid, the Sixers don’t look like a playoff team. With him, they look like a team which could earn home-court advantage. The Sixers are currently seventh in the Eastern Conference at 30-25, two games behind the fourth-seeded Washington.

When asked how he’ll generally manage his players’ minutes in the final third of the season, Brown referred to his time as a Spurs assistant, implying that the Sixers will approach things more aggressively than a championship contender.

“In my old life, when you felt like you were going to be in the finals and win a championship, you definitely started managing stuff differently in this final third,” Brown said. “That’s not where we’re at now. We are fighting to get in the playoffs.

“And we’re in a fist fight, we want a little bit more than that. And we’re going to play with that in mind, and when the opportunity arises when I can rest some of our guys, I will. But it’s not about being conservative right now or feeling like we’re entitled and we’re in the playoffs; we aren’t. So we’re still fighting to do that, and I’ll coach it accordingly.”

It might sound like there’s a contradiction between that desire to fight for the postseason and Brown’s goal of “delivering [Embiid] to a playoff round.” The Sixers probably need Embiid to play the majority of their final 27 games to make the playoffs in the first place. On the other hand, nothing in Embiid’s past suggests that he’s capable of playing all six remaining back-to-backs and suiting up fully healthy in Game 1 of the postseason.

The key for Brown is finding the perfect middle ground between riding Embiid hard every night and babying his 7-foot-2 star to the detriment of the team. With the playoffs finally in sight after five seasons of processing, that’s going to be one of Brown’s greatest challenges in the home stretch.  

Rookie of the Year down to 2 and Ben Simmons' odds slipping

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Rookie of the Year down to 2 and Ben Simmons' odds slipping

Donovan Mitchell continues to creep closer to Ben Simmons in the NBA Rookie of the Year race, and the gap in Bovada's odds for the two is as close as it's been all season.

Simmons is now -250 to win the award, meaning a $250 wager is required to win $100. 

Mitchell is at +170, meaning a $100 wager wins you $170.

In the most recent odds update in January, Simmons was at -650; Mitchell was +400.

It's a clear two-man race at this point.
Simmons is averaging 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.9 blocks this season. No player in recorded history has hit all five criteria in the same season.

Mitchell, however, has been on fire for the NBA's hottest team. The Jazz have won 11 straight games to test the Pelicans for the 8-seed, and over that span, Mitchell has averaged 21.3 points, albeit on 41 percent shooting.

For the season, Mitchell is at 19.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals. He's made 35.4 percent of his threes and 83.6 percent of his free throws.

Both are stars in the making, but it's worth noting that the Jazz are playing better than they have all season and Simmons is still the favorite. Where Utah ends up will be a determining factor in the Rookie of the Year race — if the Jazz can somehow end up the 7-seed in a loaded West, arguments for Mitchell will grow louder.

Both Simmons and Mitchell were two of five guests this week on NBA TV's Open Court: Rookies Edition. Interesting talking points from the special: 

• Mitchell referenced former Sixer Jrue Holiday as an under-the-radar tough player to guard, saying he watches film of Holiday every day.

• Simmons recalled LeBron attacking him frequently in the first quarter of their first meeting, saying he wasn't surprised LeBron wanted to send a message by going right at him.

• The Morris twins were mentioned by Simmons and Jayson Tatum when asked about the most imposing players in the league. Everyone cited DeMarcus Cousins.

• Simmons downplayed the importance of his NBA redshirt season, saying you don't really know what it's like to play back to back and deal with the hectic travel schedule until you're involved in it every day.