76ers

Sixers Mailbag: Jahlil Okafor situation; jumpers of Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz

Sixers Mailbag: Jahlil Okafor situation; jumpers of Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz

It's time for another Sixers Mailbag and wow, between Markelle Fultz's shoulder and Jahlil Okafor's playing time, did you have a lot of questions. So let's get right to it. (And thanks to all those who replied with #SixersMailbag.)

There were too many questions about Okafor to fit each one in here. This situation is not going how many people (including myself) expected.

Brett Brown said on Friday Okafor is “not in the rotation,” (see story). So there you have it. Amir Johnson beat him out for playing time and Brown has been going with Dario Saric after that. 

Heading into the season, it was obvious Okafor (still) didn't have a clearly-defined role on the team. Was he going to be the backup? Was he going to start when Joel Embiid didn't play? Whatever the case, he was going to have some kind of playing time, right?

After all, Okafor had gone mostly vegan and shed 20 pounds over the past year. He was moving better, wasn't hampered by inflammation in his knee, still could score, and seemed on the verge of boosting his trade value. In order to do that, he would have to play, too.

Perhaps an early-season move, like the Sixers made for Jerami Grant last October, would happen if other teams saw this slimmed-down, improved version of Okafor. (That's how I thought this would play out). Maybe the logjam could get cleared up in a matter of weeks and it wouldn't be an ongoing situation? 

It hasn't happened yet.

Okafor has played a mere 22 minutes this season. He did it as a reserve behind Johnson when Embiid didn't play against the Pistons because of back-to-back games. The Sixers don't have another pair of consecutive games until Nov. 29-30. By then, Richaun Holmes (wrist) should be back. There's no guarantee Okafor will get on the court then. 

The Sixers are in a phase where they are trying to build consistency with their rotations. Gone are the days of a new starting five every game. They want to narrow down their lineups and form chemistry among the groups to build upon for the season. 

Okafor, clearly, is not part of that vision for them. Now it's a question of, will he be part of another team's plan?

Shooting has been the criticism against Ben Simmons since he entered the draft. The crazy thing is, he's averaging 16.4 points per game without a jumper.

Simmons is playing alongside teammates who take the pressure off of hitting outside shots. While others on the Sixers can spread the floor, Simmons is attacking the basket at an effective rate. He has taken 39 of his 69 field goal attempts from within five feet of the rim and made 59 percent of them. In contrast, he has hit just 3 of 12 shots from greater than 10 feet from the basket, according to NBA.com.

The jumper could come with time. Simmons put in hours with the Sixers' shooting coach this summer to improve it. At this point, though, he is doing a lot — a lot — of other things really well right now. Over five games, he is averaging a double-double in scoring and rebounding as well as dishing 7.4 assists per game. I say hone his strengths, continue to be a threat as an oversized point guard driving the basket, and then focus on the jumper when it will enhance his game, not substitute these strong parts of it.

The look of Fultz's shot is highly anticipated like a big reveal on a before-and-after show. You know, the ones where a curtain would drop when he walks to the free throw line and a split screen appears on the court.

At this point, it remains to be seen. Brown plans to work on Fultz while he is taking games off to help get the No. 1 pick back to an effective form. It could reflect his days at Washington, it could be new, or it could end up a hybrid of past and present.

I've said since the offseason I like Saric in a sixth man role off the bench and that hasn't changed. This question has a lot more layers than just Jerryd Bayless versus Saric, though.

If the Sixers want Saric to be a key reserve player, he's going to have to see more minutes in that capacity. Bumping him back into the starting lineup would only be a temporary fix. If he's not going to be in there all season, he should get acclimated to the role he will have.

Starting Saric at the four would shift Robert Covington. The Sixers have been happy with how the change from small forward to power forward has impacted Covington this season. The shift has helped him boost his three-point shooting (48.6 percent) as he has the advantage on the perimeter matching up against fours.

Lastly, I'm in favor of keeping Bayless in the starting lineup. The Sixers have a 21-year-old point guard with five games of NBA experience running the floor. Bayless, who has played the point, gives Simmons an in-game veteran presence in the early stages of his career.

Mitchell-Nance Jr. showdown highlights All-Star Saturday

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AP Images

Mitchell-Nance Jr. showdown highlights All-Star Saturday

LOS ANGELES — Rookie Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz put on a show in the slam dunk contest to cap off NBA All-Star Saturday.

Mitchell edged Larry Nance Jr. by two points, sealing his victory with a close approximation of the 360-degree spin dunk that Vince Carter used to win the 2000 contest.

"I wanted this so badly," Mitchell said. "This is one of my favorite events of All-Star weekend. To not only be in it, but to win it, it's crazy."

Before making his winning dunk, Mitchell peeled off his Jazz jersey and wore a vintage Carter jersey from the Toronto Raptors.

Mitchell -- three inches shorter than the 6-foot-6 Carter -- needed a score of 47 to beat Nance, and he got a 48 from the five judges: DJ Khaled, Mark Wahlberg, Chris Rock and Hall of Famers Julius Erving and Lisa Leslie.

Nance, who was trying to win the contest 34 years after his father won it, had earned a perfect 50 with a dunk off a double alley-oop off the glass.

Mitchell advanced to the finals with a creative dunk in the first round that used his sister, Jordan, as well as Kevin Hart and the comedian's son as props. For that dunk, Mitchell wore a Darrell Griffith Jazz jersey. Griffith participated in the first slam dunk contest in 1984.

"I appreciate Kevin Hart coming out there and helping me out," Mitchell said. "He's my favorite comedian."

Booker wins 3-point contest with record final round
Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns won the 3-point contest with a record 28 points in the final round. He beat 2016 champion Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors and Tobias Harris of the Los Angeles Clippers.

"It feels really good," Booker said. "I wanted to go out there and make a name for myself."

Did he ever. He was sensational in the final round on Saturday, when he missed only five of 25 shots.

Each player shot five five-ball racks with a one-minute time limit. The final ball of each one was a "money ball" worth two points, and one of the racks, usually the last one, was all money balls. Booker made the money ball shot on his first four racks, and then made four of the five balls on the money ball rack.

Harris, Booker and Thompson advanced from the eight-man field to the finals. Harris scored 17 points before Booker scorched the nets for 28 points. Thompson followed and scored 25 points.

The previous record was 27 points, set by Stephen Curry in 2015 and matched by Thompson the following year.

Booker, the 21-year-old sharpshooter in his third season with Phoenix, is averaging 24.2 points per game this season as the NBA's 12th-leading scorer. Eleven months after the shooting guard dropped 70 points against Boston to become the youngest player in NBA history to score even 60 in a game, Booker added another accolade to his promising career with the 3-Point title.

Thompson beat the buzzer with his final shot of the first round to reach the finals with 19 points. Booker also scored 19 and Harris had 18.

Dinwiddie tops Markkanen in Skills Challenge final 
Spencer Dinwiddie of the Brooklyn Nets won the skills challenge to kick off NBA All-Star Saturday.

Dinwiddie, who played at Taft High in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, beat Lauri Markkanen of the Chicago Bulls in the final round.

The skills competition consisted of two players going head to head. They dribbled around pylons, passed the ball into a net, dribbled to the other end of the floor for a layup and then dribbled back to the other end to take a pull-up 3-pointer.

Eight players started the competition, with Dinwiddie and Markkanen advancing to the final.

Markkanen struggled passing the ball into the net, giving Dinwiddie a big lead. Dinwiddie dribbled down the floor and missed his first 3, but drained the next one to win.

Skills Challenge sparks Embiid's inner point guard

Skills Challenge sparks Embiid's inner point guard

LOS ANGELES — Joel Embiid loves the spotlight. But that doesn’t mean the Sixers' big man is unfazed by the magnitude of the stage on which he is competing.

“I was actually extremely nervous,” Embiid said after the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. "I don’t know why. My heart was beating so fast. I have no idea why. But I thought it was fun.”

Embiid was one of eight players to test their versatility in dribbling, passing and shooting drills. Embiid defeated Al Horford in the first round and lost in the second to Lauri Markkanen. Spencer Dinwiddie took home the trophy.

Embiid pulled off a comeback victory Horford. He trailed after the dribbling and passing drills but beat out the Celtics' veteran at the three-point line to advance.

“That was wild,” Embiid said. “I lost the ball, I didn’t make the first pass and then I just threw the other two balls. That’s a good way to do it instead of wasting time. Then I was way behind and I came back and I ended up making that three and won.”

Horford was stifled when he thought his first three-point shot attempt was going in … and it didn’t. That miss opened the opportunity for Embiid to claim the round.

“The shot, which I was making before, I felt good, and then I think the pressure got to me a little bit,” Horford said. “I just wasn’t expecting that (to miss). I thought I was good. So then by that time, Joel caught up to me.”

Markkanen, the Bulls' rookie, got the best of Embiid in the next round. Embiid tried to rush through the passing drill to catch up to Markkanen, who ended up crossing in front of him at halfcourt for the clinching trey.

“After he made the layup he was a little bit in front of me,” Markkanen said. “But we couldn’t switch sides, so I had to get to the other side someway. So I tried to sprint and get in front of him and distract him a little bit. I think that worked.”

Embiid said with a big smile, "I kind of thought Lauri kind of cheated a little bit. He went in front of me, but it’s all good. It's all fun."

Even if Embiid didn’t win this contest, it wasn’t a total loss. The 7-foot-2 center has long claimed he wants to be a guard one day, and he showed off those backcourt skills. 

“I think I can still be a point guard in my future,” Embiid said.

All-Star Weekend does not end for Embiid with the Skills Challenge. After competing in the Rising Stars game Friday and this contest on Saturday, Embiid has been making sure to preserve his energy for the All-Star Game Sunday. He will start for Team Stephen.