Sixers' Palestra scrimmage observations: Ben Simmons takes over; Furkan Korkmaz surprises

Sixers' Palestra scrimmage observations: Ben Simmons takes over; Furkan Korkmaz surprises

The Blue-White Scrimmage at the Palestra on Sunday didn’t count for the official record book, but it did give the Sixers — and a packed crowd of fans — a closer glimpse into what the team could look like this season.

The white squad defeated the blue squad, 124-122, in overtime off a pair of free throws by Nik Stauskas. Members of the Sixers' ownership and front office, including special advisor Jerry Colangelo, were on hand to watch the 2017-18 team. 

Here are observations on the Sixers' scrimmage: 

• The coaches alternated lineups and teams throughout the scrimmage. In doing so, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons were paired with and against each other. 

“It’s fun. It’s scary, though. Once he has the ball, I don’t know what he’s going to do,” Simmons said. “I try to create space and cut for him, get open. But he can do it himself, he can really get to the rim, score, and find his teammates.”

The two will be sharing the backcourt a lot this season, and when they aren’t, they amp up the competition. Simmons conceded Fultz got the best of the first quarter, but he took the fourth. 

“We’re going to make each other better,” Fultz said. “That’s what the team needs from both of us … I had fun doing that. I’m pretty sure he did too.”

• Simmons got more aggressive with the ball as the game went on. He showcased his size and strength barreling to the basket on the fast break. Brett Brown noted Simmons put his game “into another gear” in the second half. 

“People get caught up in the looks of the passes,” Simmons said. “It looks nice but at the end of the day, I know how to get to the rim and score and finish.”

• Furkan Korkmaz looked significantly more comfortable in the scrimmage than he did at summer league in July. He has been trying to get adjusted all week in camp and it started to jell Sunday. 

“Holy s---,” JJ Redick said. “He just came out of nowhere and surprised us today.”

Korkmaz was more fluid on both ends of the floor. He also brought the ball up the court multiple times. Brown praised his defensive efforts, which has been a focal point in camp. Korkmaz had an obvious chemistry with Dario Saric, his friend of three years going back to international play. 

“Every day I start to feel better and better,” Korkmaz said. “I know I have to be better and better. Everybody is trying to help me on the team … That’s pushed me.” 

• Jahlil Okafor played in front of Sixers fans for the first time since March (right knee soreness). The big man, who adopted a vegan diet and dropped 20 pounds since last training camp, moved well on the court. He rode the exercise bike behind the bench to stay loose when he wasn’t in the scrimmage. 

• Joel Embiid did not participate in the scrimmage but was very much part of the afternoon. He immediately entertained the crowd by dancing his way onto the court (and during timeouts). 

Embiid watched the scrimmage from each bench and across the court with assistant coaches. On Sunday, he went through basketball, resistance and aerobic training. 

• The Sixers scrimmaged in front of a sold-out crowd at the historic Palestra. Fans chanted “Trust the Process” when the team took the floor to stretch and stayed vocal throughout the day. The players soaked in the cheers.  

“Hearing how supportive they are already, it’s exciting,” Fultz said. “It helps us going into practice knowing we’ve got the city behind us.” 

The team appreciated the significance of the Palestra, built in 1927. That being said, Redick (in good spirit) referenced his alma mater, Duke, when discussing historic arenas. 

“Before the game, Coach (Brown) said this building is of national importance. It’s on the same level as Butler’s Fieldhouse,” Redick said. “I don’t know if that means like that Cameron is way above those, because in terms of national importance I would think that would be pretty high. Eh. But whatever.”

How to manage Joel Embiid's health while pushing for playoffs

How to manage Joel Embiid's health while pushing for playoffs

CAMDEN, N.J. — In some ways, Joel Embiid is a dream to coach. You can go to him in the post whenever you need a bucket, rely on him to erase defensive mistakes, sit back and watch as he takes over games.

But in other ways, coaching Embiid is not an easy job. Brett Brown has to constantly weigh Embiid’s health with the immediate desire to win. That balancing act has never been more difficult for Brown, who commented Wednesday on how he plans to manage Embiid with the playoffs in sight.

“Everything is still, and it should be, delivering him to a playoff round,” Brown said. “It’s not cramming for the exam and doing whatever you can to get home court, it’s not that at all. And so I feel like the path that we’re all on is both professional and responsible. So it’s that more than trying to cram for an exam.”

The Sixers have six back-to-back sets in their final 27 games. Embiid played his first ever back-to-back on Feb. 2 vs. Miami and Feb. 3 at Indiana. Since then, he’s had an injury scare with his right knee (on Feb. 10 vs the Clippers) and missed the Sixers’ final game before the All-Star break with a sore right ankle.

That said, Embiid’s obviously taken major steps forward. After being sidelined for his first two NBA seasons and playing just 31 games (and only 25.4 minutes per game) in his rookie year, he’s played in 44 of the Sixers’ first 55 games, and is averaging 31.4 minutes per game.

But the Sixers are 3-8 when Embiid doesn’t play. Without Embiid, the Sixers don’t look like a playoff team. With him, they look like a team which could earn home-court advantage. The Sixers are currently seventh in the Eastern Conference at 30-25, two games behind the fourth-seeded Washington Wizards.

When asked how he’ll generally manage his players’ minutes in the final third of the season, Brown referred to his time as a Spurs assistant, implying that the Sixers will approach things more aggressively than a championship contender.

“In my old life, when you felt like you were going to be in the finals and win a championship, you definitely started managing stuff differently in this final third,” Brown said. “That’s not where we’re at now. We are fighting to get in the playoffs.

“And we’re in a fist fight, we want a little bit more than that. And we’re going to play with that in mind, and when the opportunity arises when I can rest some of our guys, I will. But it’s not about being conservative right now or feeling like we’re entitled and we’re in the playoffs; we aren’t. So we’re still fighting to do that, and I’ll coach it accordingly.”

It might sound like there’s a contradiction between that desire to fight for the postseason and Brown’s goal of “delivering [Embiid] to a playoff round.” The Sixers probably need Embiid to play the majority of their final 27 games to make the playoffs in the first place. On the other hand, nothing in Embiid’s past suggests that he’s capable of playing all six remaining back-to-backs and suiting up fully healthy in Game 1 of the postseason.

The key for Brown is finding the perfect middle ground between riding Embiid hard every night and babying his 7-foot-2 star to the detriment of the team. With the playoffs finally in sight after five seasons of processing, that’s going to be one of Brown’s greatest challenges in the home stretch.  

Rookie of the Year down to 2 and Ben Simmons' odds slipping

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Rookie of the Year down to 2 and Ben Simmons' odds slipping

Donovan Mitchell continues to creep closer to Ben Simmons in the NBA Rookie of the Year race, and the gap in Bovada's odds for the two is as close as it's been all season.

Simmons is now -250 to win the award, meaning a $250 wager is required to win $100. 

Mitchell is at +170, meaning a $100 wager wins you $170.

In the most recent odds update in January, Simmons was at -650; Mitchell was +400.

It's a clear two-man race at this point.
Simmons is averaging 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.9 blocks this season. No player in recorded history has hit all five criteria in the same season.

Mitchell, however, has been on fire for the NBA's hottest team. The Jazz have won 11 straight games to test the Pelicans for the 8-seed, and over that span, Mitchell has averaged 21.3 points, albeit on 41 percent shooting.

For the season, Mitchell is at 19.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals. He's made 35.4 percent of his threes and 83.6 percent of his free throws.

Both are stars in the making, but it's worth noting that the Jazz are playing better than they have all season and Simmons is still the favorite. Where Utah ends up will be a determining factor in the Rookie of the Year race — if the Jazz can somehow end up the 7-seed in a loaded West, arguments for Mitchell will grow louder.

Both Simmons and Mitchell were two of five guests this week on NBA TV's Open Court: Rookies Edition. Interesting talking points from the special: 

• Mitchell referenced former Sixer Jrue Holiday as an under-the-radar tough player to guard, saying he watches film of Holiday every day.

• Simmons recalled LeBron attacking him frequently in the first quarter of their first meeting, saying he wasn't surprised LeBron wanted to send a message by going right at him.

• The Morris twins were mentioned by Simmons and Jayson Tatum when asked about the most imposing players in the league. Everyone cited DeMarcus Cousins.

• Simmons downplayed the importance of his NBA redshirt season, saying you don't really know what it's like to play back to back and deal with the hectic travel schedule until you're involved in it every day.