Philadelphia Sixers

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.”

Joel Embiid confesses a Kansas secret that would have changed everything

Joel Embiid confesses a Kansas secret that would have changed everything

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Practice had long ended and Joel Embiid was still on the floor, putting up countless shots from every spot imaginable, the echo of each dribble seemingly bouncing off the walls of Allen Fieldhouse.

Maybe he was trying to make up for lost time, all those games he missed because of injuries.

Maybe he was just happy to be home.

Embiid returned to Kansas, where he starred for one brief season, and led the Sixers through a spirited workout before their preseason finale Friday night at Sprint Center in Kansas City.

It’s been a memorable week for the 7-foot-2 standout. He signed a five-year, $146.5 million contract extension Tuesday, despite playing just 31 games over his first three seasons, then made his preseason debut on Wednesday night, pouring in 22 points in the Sixers’ 133-114 win over the Nets (see story).

“It was a great feeling,” Embiid said of Kansas after the workout, sweat still dripping from his face. “When I was here, I don’t think anybody knows this story, but I actually decided to stay. I loved this place so much. I was actually pushed to leave. But I loved this place so much.”

Wait a minute: Embiid decided to stay? He was ready to give up NBA riches for another year in college?

Who pushed him to leave after one season in Lawrence?

“I’m not going to say,” he said with another smile, "but it was a tough choice. I still have a lot of love for Kansas, and every time I have a chance to represent, I’m going to do it.”

The lanky, raw Embiid that arrived at Kansas as an unrefined post player from Cameroon in the hot summer of 2013 hardly resembled the solid, muscular Embiid that returned on Thursday.

Back then, he was still trying to make a name for himself. He was still learning the nuances of the game, which he had just picked up a couple years earlier. And while he wound up averaging 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds, his college career ended with a thud when a stress fracture in his back forced him to miss the Big 12 Tournament and the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

The Jayhawks were eliminated before he could return to the floor.

That June, he had surgery on a broken bone in his foot, shortly before the Sixers selected him with the third overall pick. He was supposed to miss about six months but wound up missing the season, then a setback the following summer and another round of surgery caused him to miss the 2015-16 season.

“At some point my second year,” he said, “I thought about quitting, just because I had so much stuff not going my way, losing two years of basketball due to surgeries and injuries. But I’m glad I stuck with basketball. Looking where I am, I think I made a good choice.”

He certainly made a lucrative choice, signing a mega extension even though he played in just 31 games last season. He averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 boards before knee trouble ended his year early, and forced him to undergo arthroscopic surgery for a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Embiid finally looks healthy, though. He came out of his preseason debut in good shape, and Sixers coach Brett Brown acknowledged Thursday that his big man “changes everything.”

“He changes everything we talk about on offense and everything we talk about on defense,” Brown said. “His spirit is at an all-time high. His personal situation, being rewarded with the contract he just signed I’m sure changes his life and many generations of Embiids behind him, or ahead of him, and you know, he’s just a game-changer all over the place.”

Embiid was supposed to take the Sixers’ team bus to the Phog for practice, but he decided to walk over to the storied field house early. He wanted to drink in the atmosphere of college, pointing out that he still intends to return for his final three years of school, and remember what it was like to be just another kid trying to get from class to class.

Of course, these days just about everybody notices the NBA star in their midst, calling out “Trust the process!” to him as he ambled down the sidewalks leading toward Naismith Drive.

The Sixers were already scheduled to play the Heat in Kansas City on Friday night, so Brown decided it made sense to bring the team to Lawrence for practice. It would be a nice homecoming for Embiid, and a chance for backup Jacob Pullen — who starred down the road at Kansas State — to see some friends and family, and an opportunity for the rest of the team to see one of college basketball’s shrines.

“I mean, this is my first time here and I’m the son of a coach,” Brown said, “so I’ve been around the game my whole life, and the historic sort of perspective of this building combined with Joel’s history here made it a no-brainer to drive 45 minutes down the road.

“I think the team appreciated and certainly respected where we are.”

Brown wouldn’t say whether Embiid will play in the Sixers’ preseason finale, making it clear he wants to keep him healthy for the regular season. But Embiid didn’t sound like he was planning to sit things out on Friday night, not with a building full of fans on hand to see him.

“I’m back in Kansas,” he said. “Of course I’m going to play.”

Dario Saric's shooting display could be sign of things to come

Dario Saric's shooting display could be sign of things to come

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — In a four-minute span, forward Dario Saric showed just how valuable he could be to the Sixers this season coming off the bench.

The 6-foot-10 big man sank four three-pointers to start the second quarter of the Sixers' 133-114 cruise past the Nets Wednesday night (see observations), with his assigned defender — $64 million man Timofey Mozgov — oftentimes barely in the same zip code. 

Mozgov outweighs Saric by 52 pounds, and the Sixers’ sophomore was able to use that to his advantage to generate open looks.

“It’s easy, because I can drive, too, and he’s sometimes in a difficult position,” Saric said. “If he goes to step out on me a little bit more, I can drive. If he stays too low down there, I can shoot like I did tonight. I like having guys like that.”

Mozgov committed the error of hanging too far back on Saric time and again. On Saric’s fourth and final three-pointer of his second-quarter shooting spree, Mozgov committed to staying low in the paint and turned his head away from Saric as Robert Covington drove to the rim.

Saric backpedaled to the left corner and by the time Mozgov could even raise his arms above his head to contest the shot, the ball had already left Saric’s fingertips and was well on its way towards giving the Sixers a 44-27 lead.

Coach Brett Brown said before the exhibition contest began that he planned on tightening up the team’s rotation. Saric wound up playing a shade over 24 minutes off the bench and led the team in field goal attempts (14), made field goals (10) and made three-pointers (5).

Though much of the focus on Wednesday’s game surrounded center Joel Embiid’s first action on the court since the meniscus injury that ended his 2016-17 campaign in January and his new $148 million contract extension, Saric’s performance did not go unnoticed. In the postgame media scrum, Brown asked that the second question out of reporters’ mouths touch on Saric.

After a reporter complied with the fifth-year coach’s request, Brown waxed eloquently, eventually touching on Saric’s flexibility. Saric could wind up playing significant minutes spelling different starters in various roles.

“It makes him just a really fantastic sort of teammate and an improving player,” Brown said. “You forget sometimes that he’s only going into his second year.”

The fact that Saric — who was unanimously voted to the NBA All-Rookie First Team last season — will likely spend 2017-18 coming off the bench and rotating into various spots on the Sixers’ lineup demonstrates just how far the team has come in the span of one offseason. Brown is now the beneficiary of roster flexibility and depth he never had in prior campaigns.

If Saric’s three-point shooting form can hold up once the season starts, he may become a weapon beyond what even Brown could have envisioned. Saric shot just 31.1 percent from beyond the arc last year but has hit six of his 13 shots from distance in his two games of preseason action, good for a 46.2 percent clip.

“I think that in the first game I was a little bit slow in the game, but this game I understood how to play,” Saric said. “I remember how it goes in an NBA game and of course, sometimes you need this game before the season.

“I hope I have so many games like this during the season and I hope I find myself and do the right things.”