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Sixers-Heat preseason observations: Ben Simmons steals the show

Sixers-Heat preseason observations: Ben Simmons steals the show

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Joel Embiid got the biggest cheers in his return to Kansas City.

Ben Simmons deserved them.

The former No. 1 overall pick stole the spotlight from his teammate and former Kansas standout Friday night, pouring in 19 points in a 119-95 exhibition victory over the Miami Heat. Simmons also had seven rebounds and five assists without a turnover while taking care of the primary ball-handling duties without Markelle Fultz, this year’s No. 1 overall pick, who remained sidelined with soreness in his right knee.

Few have questioned whether the 6-foot-10 Simmons can distribute the ball, some even comparing him to Magic Johnson. But the question that has dogged him has been whether Simmons can shoot it effectively.

For one mostly meaningless game, he provided an answer.

Simmons made his first three shots while Embiid struggled to get into a rhythm, and mixed in some deft passes to set up JJ Redick for open threes. During one first-half stretch, Simmons sealed off on the post to get an easy dunk, then scored on the Sixers’ next two possessions, capping the scoring spurt by taking the Heat’s Justise Winslow to the hole and drawing an and-one foul.

“It catches people off guard when you say you’re going to give a 6-10 guy the ball and you’re going to call him a point guard,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said prior to the victory, “but he’s our point guard right now. You give him the ball and off you go. And he’s embraced it.”

Redick also gave the Sixers a glimpse of what $23 million is buying them this season.

The sharpshooter drained his first three three-pointers, then bounced back from his first miss by knocking down two more. He finished with 19 points on 5 for 6 shooting from beyond the arc.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot scored 17 points off the bench, going 10 of 11 from the foul line.

The biggest letdown was the biggest man on the court: Embiid followed his dominant preseason debut against Brooklyn, when he had 22 points and seven boards in just 15 minutes, by going 1 for 7 from the floor and finishing with five points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes. Embiid even caused a brief scare when he crashed to the floor on a drive to the basket and appeared to flex his left knee, though he slowly got to his feet and took his place at the foul line.

The game was supposed to be a homecoming of sorts for Embiid, who played one season down Interstate 70 at Kansas. He was certainly the most popular player in the building, with fans turning out in No. 21 jerseys and the 7-foot-2 standout getting the biggest cheers during pregame introductions.

“It feels like it’s been a while,” Embiid said of his college days. “I would have graduated last year — to me it feels like it was yesterday, because i still have memories of me starting to play basketball.”

But what was supposed to cap a memorable week, which began with Embiid signing a $146.5 million contract extension, instead left him heading into Wednesday’s regular-season opener in Washington without much rhythm.

As for the rest of the team, Brown thinks they’re ready for games to count.

“I like our preparation, I like our patience and the pace we’ve put things in, making sure we don’t skip steps,” he said. “I’d be lying if I told you everything stays the same after the last preseason game. You see things differently. You go overboard with the minutia, what you’re going to have to do.

“You tick boxes — I know we haven’t skipped steps,” he continued, “but preseason basketball is completely different than regular season, and regular season is completely different than postseason. There’s three separate phases we play in and we just ended the first phase tonight.”

• Fultz sat out his second straight preseason game because of his right knee, though he did take part in the morning shootaround. The first overall pick in June’s draft only appeared in three preseason games, but Brown said he’s not concerned by the limited work.

“It gets back to we have a long lens — our vision line is long,” the Sixers’ coach said. “This isn’t something we feel we have to solve the world’s problems on opening night, especially with him. No one is rushing, no one is panicking. We’re going to have a slow, deliberate approach with him.”

• The Sixers went with the same starting lineup that they used Wednesday night against Brooklyn. That meant Embiid was joined by Simmons, Redick, Jerryd Bayless and Robert Covington. Dario Saric and Jahlil Okafor were first off the bench, followed by T.J. McConnell and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot.

• Backup power forward Amir Johnson, who sprained his right ankle in practice on Oct. 3, also sat out the preseason finale. Fellow big man Richaun Holmes was still out with a fractured left wrist.

• Several members of the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs were seated courtside, including cornerback Marcus Peters, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, linebacker Derrick Johnson and running back Charcandrick West. The Chiefs play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.

• Brown has likened the competition for minutes among backup wings Justin Anderson, Nik Stauskus and Furkan Korkmaz to a “fistfight.” Anderson must have delivered the biggest haymakers, because he was first off the bench. Stauskus checked in midway through the third quarter and Korkmaz in the fourth.

• Next to Embiid, the most popular guy in the building was Jacob Pullen, a longshot to earn a guard spot on the Sixers’ roster. Pullen starred a couple hours’ drive west at Kansas State, and played some of his best games in the Sprint Center, including the Big 12 title game against Kansas. He’s spent the bulk of his professional career playing overseas, but has made an impression on Brown and the Sixers (see story). 

“I just look at it like a great opportunity,” Pullen said. “They got a lot of great guys, a lot of great younger guys. I feel like I have a chance to help them. We’ll just see what happens.”

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.

Harris
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.

Hudrick
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 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.

Haughton
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