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.

Joel Embiid credits partying in L.A. for torrid stretch

USA Today Images

Joel Embiid credits partying in L.A. for torrid stretch

CAMDEN, N.J. -- Joel Embiid sometimes looks like he’s having a party on the basketball court. It’s no surprise, then, he credits some actual partying with turning around his season.

Yes, that’s right. After Sixers practice Friday afternoon, Embiid said hitting the town in Los Angeles on the team's recent road trip helped him out of a funk.

“All my close friends live in L.A., so before that, I wasn’t really doing anything, I was frustrated because I wasn’t in basketball shape and I wasn’t having fun on the court,” Embiid said. “So I won’t lie, I decided to go out, have fun a little bit. And that just kind of gave me the energy back, and the next game against the Clippers, I had more than 30 points [32], and then the following game I had more than 40 [46], so I think it’s just about having fun and making sure I can control what I can.”

For what it’s worth, Embiid is averaging 25.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks since the Sixers arrived in Los Angeles. The Sixers are 5-1 in those six games.

As the Sixers keep winning, the expectations keep growing. Is this a legit playoff team? Contenders in the near future? Embiid deals with the pressure that sort of attention can bring the same way he does just about everything else.

“Just be myself," Embiid said. "Have fun on the court. You know, just be myself, and I know it’s going to come, I know the guys are going to find me whenever they have to find me, I know coach is going to call plays for me. I think I kind of figured out if I’m not having fun on the court, I’m not going to play well, so I really need to have fun, and that’s the main thing for me. From there, I’m going to be dominant.”

A big part of having fun on the court for Embiid is trash talk. He insists he doesn’t initiate it, but he’s more than happy to give it back. He’ll be without Ben Simmons Saturday night against Orlando, but he’s eager for some banter with the Magic.

“Me talking trash, it doesn’t usually happen because I want to, it’s because the other guys start talking trash. So if any of the guys want to, I’m up for it. It elevates my game, it makes me play better because I know if you talk trash to me I’m going to talk back, and I’m going to back it up, and that’s going to make me play better. I can’t wait, I really hope they do [trash talk]. It’s going to be exciting.”

Ben Simmons to miss Saturday's game vs. Magic with left elbow injury

USA Today Images

Ben Simmons to miss Saturday's game vs. Magic with left elbow injury

CAMDEN, N.J. -- The Sixers aren't the same team without Ben Simmons, and on Saturday, they'll see exactly what type of team they are this season without their 6-foot-10 point guard.

Simmons will miss Saturday night's game against Orlando because of left elbow soreness. Simmons, the early Rookie of the Year favorite, is averaging 18.5 points, 7.7 assists and 9.1 rebounds.

The Sixers said, after reviewing footage from Wednesday night’s 101-81 win over Portland, Simmons appears to have suffered the injury at the 6:22 mark of the fourth quarter. He was in treatment during practice Friday and will be reevaluated Sunday.

Backup point guard T.J. McConnell will slide into the starting spot for Simmons, though Sixers coach Brett Brown acknowledged the rookie is impossible to replace.

“It changes a lot of things without Ben Simmons,” Brown said. “T.J. will come in and assume the starting point guard role. Obviously, the points of emphasis change, but that’s why you have a team. The team has responded without Joel (Embiid), now we’ll get to see how the team responds without Ben.”

McConnell, averaging 6.5 points and 5.3 assists in 23.9 minutes, doesn’t plan to alter much about his approach.

“Obviously me and Ben are completely different players," McConnell said. "He’s very special. I just need to play defense, get people the ball and shoot when I’m open, so I’m not going to change how I play.”

Brown has been impressed with McConnell’s development this season, especially as a shooter. He knows McConnell’s passion and effort are always going to be there but is pleased to see McConnell making strides with his shot.

“I think he’s doing fantastically,” Brown said. “I think his perimeter shot and the comfort level he feels taking the occasional three is evident; he’s spent a lot of time and effort over the summer trying to grow that. So now is the time, he’ll come in and start out as point guard and there’s a lot of responsibility and opportunity given to him.”

A few small tweaks seem to have significantly improved McConnell’s shot. Brown noted he’s brought the ball closer to his body and has better pre-shot preparation. McConnell said his focus in the offseason was on getting more lift and shooting in one smooth motion.

The results aren’t staggering; McConnell has made seven of 13 three-point attempts this season. Compared to his hesitancy to fire and 20 percent three-point mark last year, however, and the improvement is clear.

McConnell hopes he can jumpstart the Sixers' offense, which Brown graded a C-minus after the win over the Trail Blazers. Brown, McConnell and Embiid all pointed to ball movement as the key.

“We just need to keep moving the ball,” Embiid said. We are going to miss [Simmons] a lot because the way he plays, he gets everybody else involved and everybody else open. But if we stick to what we’ve been taught, our system, I think we’ll be fine.”

“It’s just ball movement, getting people open shots, just fluid offense,” McConnell said. "You can’t really ask for much more than that. Get the defense moving from side to side, and just playing hard.”

The Sixers are averaging 25.9 assists, second-best in the NBA, which indicates the team generally does a good job of moving the ball. However, Ben Simmons is usually the one anchoring the offense. T.J. McConnell will step into the job Saturday night.