76ers

Jacob Pullen hopes 'great journey' comes to an end with Sixers

Jacob Pullen hopes 'great journey' comes to an end with Sixers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There’s a very real likelihood that Jacob Pullen’s opportunity with the 76ers is over.

That’s the harsh reality of trying to make it in the NBA.

But if there’s anybody who understands the harsh realities of life, it’s the undersized journeyman from Kansas State, who parlayed his prodigious college scoring and prolific outside shooting into a lucrative and successful career overseas — only to feel the pull to give the NBA one more shot.

That is how Pullen found himself back in Sixers camp, five years after playing for them in the summer league, trying to force his way onto a roster packed with lottery picks.

“It’s just a great feeling, a dream come true,” Pullen said, sitting in front of a locker room inside the Sprint Center in Kansas City, where he once led the Wildcats against Kansas in the Big 12 title game.

“I just looked at this as a great opportunity,” he said. “They got a lot of great guys, a lot of great younger guys. I just felt like I had a chance to come in and help them. We’ll just see what happens when it comes down to the chopping block.”

Even if he’s chopped, Sixers coach Brett Brown acknowledged the impact Pullen has made in camp.

“When you study his background internationally, and listen to him, he’s an adult. And he has a grit about him that’s very endearing, you know?” Brown said. “He loves basketball, he’s tough, he’s had an experience that I think is very impressive. And like a lot of young guys we’ve had, he’s just trying to find a chance, to get an opportunity.”

The Sixers have plenty of backcourt weapons, though. They drafted Markelle Fultz first overall, signed arguably the league’s best three-point shooter in JJ Reddick, and are loaded with versatile perimeter players such as T.J. McConnell, James Blackmon Jr. and Jerryd Bayless.

Still, the soft-spoken Pullen has managed to at the very least raise eyebrows.

“He's been an A-plus teammate, A-plus worker, no back down,” Brown said. “I think all those things have made him a really professional addition to our roster.”

Most of those traits Pullen picked up playing overseas.

After going undrafted in 2011, he played a season in Italy, bounced through the Israeli league and back to Italy, then starred for FC Barcelona in Spain. He had a stint with the Flying Leopards in China, returned to Spain and Italy, played for a club in Croatia and spent last year with a Russian team based northwest of Moscow. Pullen even picked up Georgian citizenship along the way, allowing him to play for the country in European tournaments.

“It's been a great journey,” he said. “I saw a lot of culture, I grew up a lot. I spent a lot of time over there, embraced it, learned a lot of different languages. Now I just want to stay home, enjoy the States for a while.”

A big reason for that is his soon-to-be 3-year-old daughter, who lives with her mom in Chicago. Pullen has made enough money overseas that he’s able to fly her out to see him on the road, but living overseas would make those kinds of trips impossible.

That money stashed away is also why Pullen said he’s open to signing a two-way contract or playing in the development league. He doesn’t necessarily need an NBA paycheck to get by, at least for now, and he’d be willing to pay for pennies on the dollar if it means an opportunity to fulfill his dream.

“I had other teams that were interested,” Pullen said before he recorded three points and two assists in 10 minutes of action during Friday's preseason finale. “I just felt like Philly was the best opportunity — not to wish injuries or anything, but if something happens over the course of a season, I’ll be able to step in.”

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 Wizards.

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.