Under-the-radar players pushing Philly teams forward

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Under-the-radar players pushing Philly teams forward

Carson Wentz, Fletcher Cox, Malcolm Jenkins, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Wayne Simmonds, Claude Giroux ... the city of Philadelphia now has its share of big-time players. Stars, if you will. It feels good to say that because that was not the case all that long ago. 

Gone are the days when James Anderson leads the Sixers in scoring or DGB is starting for the Eagles. There's no denying that talent wins — ask any coach. You can draw up the greatest plays in the world, but if you don't have the players to execute, it doesn't matter. And while the cupboard is beginning to fill with lead actors, let's recognize those understudies who may have snuck up on us a bit to play a bigger role in their team's success than we thought. 

Patrick Robinson
He looked so lost in training camp this summer that many observers, including myself, thought he wouldn't make it to final cuts. He was playing on his third team in as many years and at 29 years old and entering his eighth season, he appeared on his way out of the league. But aided by a move to the slot and a better grasp of Jim Schwartz's scheme, Robinson slowly but surely improved. He's consistently covered well and been a sure tackler. 

Robinson's turnaround is one of the more remarkable storylines of the Eagles' amazing start. Pressed into duty because of injuries, the veteran Robinson and the youngster Jalen Mills have been perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise of the season.

Jake Elliott
Speaking of Eagles coming out of nowhere, when Caleb Sturgis went down after Week 1, it appeared the Birds would be going on the kicker carousel tour, populated by the likes of Mike Nugent and Nick Novak. But to Howie Roseman and crew's credit, they found a winner in Jake Elliott. 

The rookie, a fifth-round pick who was sitting on Cincinnati's practice squad, is a remarkable 8 of 9 from 40-plus yards, 5 of 6 from 50-plus and 1 of 1 from 60-plus. You might remember that 61-yard cannon shot to win the Giants game. 

Excluding a couple of missed PATs in the wet conditions Sunday vs. the 49ers, Elliott has been money.      

T.J. McConnell
While our Sixers focus has been on Embiid's play and health and Simmons' ridiculous skill set, one of the other players who catch your eye and admiration night in and night out was undrafted and given little chance of playing in the NBA out of college. 

McConnell surprised many when he stuck with the Sixers in 2015. Most thought he was nothing more than a "camp body" with no chance of making the team, even one with as little talent as the Sixers. So even after making the team initially, he was written off as just another name in a parade of guys who wore a Sixers uniform during that time. He'd be gone before you knew him, as the club did its best to fill out a roster while trying to lose to ultimately win. 

But each game, each year, McConnell showed his mettle. He's transformed himself into a quality NBA role player, not a novelty with great hair. The mere thought of him guarding a James Harden would have made you cringe a few years ago. But now he is that guy. He has also made himself a decent threat from the outside, something that was not in his arsenal until this year. He's done it through hard work, something not lost on his teammates.

Robert Covington
Covington, much like McConnell, was not drafted coming out of Tennessee State in 2013. And after signing with Houston, he bounced between the Rockets and the G-League, even winning the league's rookie of the year honors. But he was waived in October 2014. 

The next month, Sam Hinkie and the Sixers signed him. Covington came here with the reputation of being a standstill shooter. And while that is still a key component of his repertoire, he's diversified his game and is now one the better stretch-three defenders in the league. He will soon be paid big bucks.  

So while the stars get most of the shine, let's celebrate some of the better supporting acts in the city.

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.

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.

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.

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