Sixers offer glimpse of dynamic offensive potential in preseason finale

Sixers offer glimpse of dynamic offensive potential in preseason finale

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There will be a time in the near future, perhaps even in the Sixers’ regular-season opener Wednesday night in Washington, when Markelle Fultz will fit seamlessly into the offense.

Until then, the Sixers showcased Friday night just how efficiently the trio of 7-foot-2 center Joel Embiid, veteran sharp-shooter JJ Redick and point-forward Ben Simmons can work together.

Start with Embiid, who followed up his dominant preseason debut with a clunker on paper. He scored just five points on 1 for 7 shooting, picked up a couple of silly fouls on defense and looked more like a prospect with 31 career games under his belt than the guy who was given a five-year, $146.5 million contract extension.

But his mere presence in the Sixers’ 119-93 exhibition win over Miami opened up driving lanes for Simmons, who was 9 of 11 from the floor and had 19 points, and carved out space on the perimeter for Redick, who buried five threes and also had 19 points in the Sixers’ most cohesive game of the preseason.

“When you look at the stats, you're going to say, you know, ‘Joel didn't appear to be that dominant,’ but it's so far from the truth,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “The stuff he does that you just feel as his coach, and his teammates feel, is hard to quantify because it doesn't say he had 12 rebounds or 20 points or whatever. But he still has that presence and mentality and cocky aggression that we love.”

He also drew three early fouls on the Heat’s Hassan Whiteside, sending him to the bench just three minutes into the game. That showed once more how difficult it is for another big man to guard Embiid one-on-one.

“I thought I was bad today but it’s going to take time,” said Embiid, who admitted to pressing after the news of his contract extension this week, and with a building full of his college fans from Kansas.

“I was trying to force it too much. Some days I’m going to force it.One thing I’m trying to change is my turnovers. Unfortunately last game I had one and today I don’t think I had any.”

Neither did Simmons, who had seven boards and five assists for a near-flawless stat line.

Simmons took over most of the ball-handling duties while Fultz rested his sore knee, and his unique ability at 6-10 to slash to the basket was on full display. But rather than just throwing dazzling no-look passes to set up his teammates, something that folks already knew he was capable of doing, the former No. 1 overall pick showcased a rapidly improving ability to finish at the rim.

That could add another dynamic to the Sixers’ entire offense.

“I took the sleeve off. Maybe that had something to do with it,” Simmons said with a wry smile. “I just felt comfortable. My mind was right. I came in and tried to let it come to me. Tried to be a slasher. You need someone to cut and cut hard. I try to do that for the team. It gives guys opportunities when I do that.”

Guys like Redick, who seemed to turn every pass from Simmons into an assist.

“Everybody is going to see him make threes,” Brown said of his veteran shooting guard, “but what I see is an incredible leader in the locker room. I see him being amazingly professional in the locker room. He’s an incredibly prideful pro, and we sort of see the end result that he makes shots. But it’s the ripple effect, the stuff that goes on behind the scenes.”

Indeed, Redick has been a guiding influence for both Embiid and Simmons, and the way the trio worked in concert in the Sixers’ final tune-up before the regular season was an encouraging sign.

“Ben was excellent moving off the ball, I think he's a very underrated off-ball cutter,” Brown said. “We've always taken tremendous pride on passing. The pass is king. The pass is everything. And when you talk about growing a true team offensively, and amongst that belief is how do you get Joel posted, how do you get JJ some shots, it all has to fit. And tonight it all fit.”

Sixers-Heat preseason observations: Ben Simmons steals the show

Sixers-Heat preseason observations: Ben Simmons steals the show

BOX SCORE

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.”

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.”