76ers

The case for Duke's Jayson Tatum to the Sixers at No. 3

The case for Duke's Jayson Tatum to the Sixers at No. 3

With the 2017 NBA Draft Lottery behind us, there appears to be a consensus on the first two selections in next month's draft. The Celtics are expected to take Washington guard Markelle Fultz, and it would be a surprise if the Lakers passed on Lonzo Ball.

After that, all bets are off, and the Sixers will have plenty of options at pick No. 3.

A popular choice has been Kansas' Josh Jackson, and with good reason. The 6-foot-8 guard was an All-Big 12 first-team selection in his lone season with the Jayhawks, averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

Others have pointed to Kentucky sharpshooter Malik Monk, who would fill an obvious need. Monk consistently has shown the ability to pull up without hesitation. He shot nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc while averaging 19.8 points per game to lead the Wildcats.

There is a strong case to be made, however, that Duke forward Jayson Tatum will be the most talented player remaining on the board when it is the Sixers' turn to pick. 

As a basketball beat writer for The Duke Chronicle, I had the opportunity to watch Tatum play up close and in-person for much of the season, seeing him at his best and his worst.

A quick rise
After coming to Durham, North Carolina as one of the key pieces of the Blue Devils' top-ranked recruiting class, Tatum suffered a left foot sprain during a preseason practice that kept him out of action until early December. 

But even with what appeared to be a breakout performance against then-No. 24 Florida in early December, he struggled to find a rhythm throughout the first half of the season. Tatum shot only 30 percent from three-point range in his first 13 games.

When the Blue Devils were shocked at home by ACC bottom-feeder NC State Jan. 23, I was quick to call out the first-year player — he was not cutting it on the defensive end, and offensively, Tatum had yet to prove himself as a consistent shooting threat.

Down the stretch, however, no freshman came on stronger than Tatum. He scored 28 points on 6 of 7 shooting from distance against Virginia in February, averaged 22 points in four ACC Tournament wins in March, and notched a double-double in his first career NCAA Tournament game.

Whatever questions scouts have about Tatum's potential, he has already shown an ability to develop in a short period of time. Even if Tatum takes time to develop as an NBA player, it probably won't take all that long as the Sixers continue their rebuild.

Cool customer
In a deep ACC, Tatum was one of just two first-year players to earn all-conference honors, picking up a third-team spot in early March. He was also second in ACC Freshman of the Year voting behind NC State's Dennis Smith.

Tatum was a consistent performer at the charity stripe — unlike Jackson, who shot just 56.6 percent from the line. Tatum hit on 118 of 139 free throw attempts (84.9 percent) and has the body to get to the line at will with strong drives to the rim.

Although the Sixers have budding stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, they lack a true end-of-game threat who can score both inside and out. Tatum's improving outside shot combined with a powerful inside game could give the Sixers an option that will stretch opposing defenses.

Defensive concerns
As has been the case with a few recent young Duke prospects (e.g. Brandon Ingram, Jabari Parker), Tatum at times struggled on defense. As Sixers fans know all too well, Jahlil Okafor has the same problem. The former Blue Devil standout led Duke in scoring during his lone collegiate season but wasn't a major factor on defense and has been even worse with the Sixers, ranking 324th of 486 NBA players in defensive win shares last season.

Tatum's numbers suggest he has potential to be a better defender than many might expect. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Tatum had a 3.2 block percentage and a 2.3 steal percentage — an uncommon combination. He helped Duke limit North Carolina's Justin Jackson to only 6 for 22 shooting in an ACC Tournament semifinal matchup.

Where Tatum needs to grow is guarding away from the ball. He often found himself losing his man on back cuts and long possessions in the half court.

With the Sixers, the 6-foot-8 Tatum potentially could be the shortest member of a lineup that would feature the 6-foot-9 Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Simmons at 6-foot-10, and the 7-foot Embiid in the middle. Although he will likely need to improve his quickness, Tatum has the size to overwhelm smaller guards and the strength — weighing in at 205 pounds — to match up with most small forwards in the league.

Tatum vs. Jackson
Tatum and Jackson are comparable players in most respects. The two were right next to one another in the ESPN's Class of 2016 rankings behind Harry Giles and put up nearly identical numbers on the offensive end.

Both are considered top-five picks, but the 19-year-old Tatum is younger by more than a year and has room to grow physically. And unlike Jackson, he does not carry the baggage of a criminal property damage misdemeanor from December.

Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel told 97.5 The Fanatic last week that Tatum is "one of the most talented, most gifted offensive guys" he has ever seen. 

Agreed.

Wizards 120, Sixers 115: Studs, duds, turning point and more

Wizards 120, Sixers 115: Studs, duds, turning point and more

The Sixers put on quite a show in the season opener before ultimately falling to the Wizards, 120-115, Wednesday night (see observations).

The biggest story, of course, was Joel Embiid playing 27 minutes after head coach Brett Brown said the 23-year-old big man would play "in the teens." Both Embiid and Ben Simmons shined but it wasn't enough.

After struggling in the first half, All-Star point guard John Wall took over in the second in leading Washington to the win. Wall finished with 28 points, but it took 28 shots to get there.

Despite the loss, there was plenty to like about the Sixers' performance. They'll start the season 0-1 but have plenty to build off of going into Friday night's home opener.

Turning point
With the Sixers battling back and down just two after a Simmons layup, Bradley Beal missed a three from the corner. If the Sixers could've corralled the rebound, they would've been looking at an opportunity to tie the game. Instead, Kelly Oubre Jr. timed it perfectly for a put-back slam to make it 106-102 with 5:50 left.

After getting a stop, the Wizards came right back down in transition and Beal threw a pretty alley-oop to Wall. It pushed the lead to six and got the crowd on its feet. 

The Sixers had three different opportunities to tie the game with less than a minute left, but two killer turnovers and a missed three from JJ Redick ended the comeback attempt.

Key stat
We all knew the Sixers' three-point shooting would be improved this season with the addition of Redick (4 of 8) and a healthy Jerryd Bayless (3 of 7), but my goodness. The Sixers shot 15 of 35 as a team. And that's after starting the game 2 for 9.

Offensive stud
Speaking of threes, Robert Covington was lethal from beyond. After getting off to a horrendous shooting start last season, Covington was on fire Wednesday. He led all scorers with 29 points on 9 of 15 shooting, including 7 of 11 from three.  

Embiid and Simmons also get an honorable mention here. Embiid dominated early and late, going for 18 points, 13 boards and dishing out three assists (see highlights). Simmons looked in control as the team's point guard, finishing with 18 points (7 of 15), 10 rebounds and five assists in his NBA debut. Most importantly, Simmons had just one turnover.

Offensive dud
For the most part, the team performed really well offensively. Amir Johnson had a forgettable stretch offensively with a couple of ill-advised post-ups in the third quarter. The Sixers' newest big man finished 2 of 7 and fouled out in the third quarter.

Defensive stud
T.J. McConnell did an excellent job leading the second unit on both ends of the floor. Including pestering Wall. Before Wall got into a rhythm in the second half, McConnell held him to just 3 for 13 in the first. When McConnell was in the game, nothing was easy for Wall.

Defensive dud
Redick and Bayless certainly struggled with the combination of All-Star guard Wall and Beal. Then again, there are many across the NBA that have had the same struggles. And in reality, Redick and Bayless aren't here for their defense. They're here to make shots, which they did plenty of.

Injuries
Exhale, Sixers fans. The team got out of this game healthy.

Up next
The Sixers play their home opener against Kyrie Irving and the Gordon Hayward-less Celtics on Friday night at 7 p.m. on NBCSP.

Sixers-Wizards observations: Plenty of fight but no victory in season opener

Sixers-Wizards observations: Plenty of fight but no victory in season opener

BOX SCORE

WASHINGTON — The Sixers opened the season with a 120-115 loss to the Wizards on Wednesday night at the Capital One Arena. They were within two points with 20.5 seconds to play, but the Wizards played feisty down the stretch and JJ Redick missed a key three.

With 1:18 remaining, Robert Covington drilled his seventh three-pointer to cut the deficit to two. The Sixers had chances to tie or go ahead but committed two of their 17 turnovers on consecutive possessions. After Bradley Beal tacked on a free throw, the Sixers had one final shot. However, Redick couldn’t connect on a contested three with 15 seconds remaining.

In spite of the final score, the revamped Sixers strongly competed against the well-familiarized Wizards (see studs, duds, more). This game exemplified two obstacles they will face early on: overcoming the newness of their roster and juggling Joel Embiid’s playing time. Which leads to … 

• Embiid played 26:57 minutes, exceeding his (frustrated) expectation of 16. Brett Brown hadn’t set a hard number on Embiid’s playing time at shootaround Wednesday morning. He planned to be more flexible within Embiid’s restriction than last season. 

Embiid posted a double-double in his first 21:38 minutes through three quarters and seemed uncertain to return at that point. He re-entered the game, though, with 5:19 to play as the Sixers chased a win. Embiid recorded an 18-point, 13-rebound double-double with three assists.

• Ben Simmons attempted all of his shots in the paint and scored the majority at the basket. He also reached a double-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. He logged nearly 35 minutes in his debut (see highlights).

• The Markelle Fultz shoulder saga continued. Fultz took a pair of free throws with an awkward form that prompted a social media frenzy. His shot didn’t look comfortable nor natural as he deals with right shoulder soreness. Fultz made up for it with a monster block on Kelly Oubre Jr. and aggressive drives to the basket. He scored 10 points off 5 for 9 shooting from the field in 18 minutes (see highlights).

• Amir Johnson got the majority of the minutes at backup center. Brown went small with Dario Saric in the fourth. (See his train of thought here.)
 
Jahlil Okafor did not play. Okafor’s minutes may come when Embiid sits out an entire game, hypothetically, in a back-to-back. The Sixers will have to address that situation on Saturday.

• A night of firsts: Embiid’s first two points were free throws less than 45 seconds into the game. (He’s making a point of that.)
 
Simmons then scored his first NBA bucket with a driving reverse layup on a fastbreak. Fultz came in off the bench to score his first points on a fastbreak layup. Redick’s first basket as a member of the Sixers was (appropriately) a three-pointer in the second quarter. 

• Covington got into a three-point shooting rhythm. He hit 7 of 11 treys for a game-high 29 points.

• The Sixers had 17 turnovers in the game compared to the Wizards' nine.

• Fultz and Simmons made their NBA debuts, but they weren’t the only players getting into game rhythm. Take a look at how long it has been since these starters played in a regular-season contest: Bayless: Nov. 25, 2016 (wrist); Embiid: Jan. 27, 2017 (knee), Covington: Mar. 28, 2017 (knee). 

• Sixers fans chanted “Trust the Process” a minute into the game. The visiting team often is well-represented in Washington, D.C.

• The Sixers will be back in action on Friday night when they host the Boston Celtics in their home opener (7 p.m./NBC Sports Philadelphia, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports app).