Dario Saric

Markelle Fultz begins final stage of rehab

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Markelle Fultz begins final stage of rehab

CAMDEN, N.J. — There’s still no timetable.

For Sixers fans skeptical Markelle Fultz will return anytime soon, that’s the bottom line. But there’s no question Fultz is making progress.

According to the team, Fultz is cleared to begin “the final stage of his return-to-play program.” This final stage for Fultz will consist of “gradual re-integration into team practices and training, complemented with additional conditioning work to support fitness readiness for gameplay.”

What exactly does that mean? Tuesday, Fultz played half-court 4-on-4 with his teammates at practice. He also played some 1-on-1 with Jacob Pullen and James Michael McAdoo and did individual skill work after practice, including pull-up jumpers from about 15 to 18 feet (see more here).

“I think he looked OK,” Brett Brown said. “I think everybody shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves in relation to what does that mean, but it is the most he’s done with me in a while. What I saw today was just encouraging to see him playing with his teammates, and playing live basketball.”

It’s not as if Fultz is on the brink of game action, but it’s the closest he’s been since he was shut down in late October.   

Brown is confident Fultz can make a major difference once he finally does return.

“The reality of the whole thing is, the more you feel a team and coach a team, his skill set ties everything together,” Brown said. “He can make plays. And when you are missing some of those qualities in a group, things get exposed. And he can do that, he can create a shot for himself and he can create a shot for others. So when you ask, do I project out and anticipate what he can do when he gets in there? Every day.”

It’s clear that the Sixers could use another player with dynamic offensive skills. Whether or not Fultz can be that player remains an open question. The Sixers thought he fit that description well when they drafted him No. 1.

In the short term, Fultz would almost definitely be an upgrade on the Sixers’ current guard play off the bench.

Justin Anderson has been sidelined with shin splints since Nov. 15. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is averaging 6.0 points and 1.7 rebounds in 16.3 minutes per game. His 6.49 PER is 10th-worst among qualified players. Furkan Korkmaz is out indefinitely with a Lisfranc injury.

Everything is still hypothetical until Fultz actually returns, but it’s easy to see him immediately helping the Sixers once he’s back.

Like Brown, Dario Saric thinks the Sixers will be a better team once Fultz’s saga ends and he gets back onto the court.

“I think Markelle will find his spot there, and for sure he will help us a lot with his drives, with his shots, with his moves, because he is a pretty good player,” Saric said.

“And we are here to help him. He was the first pick, a lot of pressure on him, and all the guys are here to help him. It will be hard for him the first couple games to find a way to play with a new team, new roster, NBA basketball, but I think he’ll find a way and be a very, very good, excellent player.”

Dario Saric the best thing about Sixers' December

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Dario Saric the best thing about Sixers' December

Though it ended on a relative high note — a 3-2 road trip, capped with a well-earned 123-110 win last night vs. the Suns — December was not an overly kind month for the Sixers. 

The team went 5-10 for the month, without winning consecutive games until these last two Ws at month's end, sinking them out of the playoff picture in the standings and raising a number of serious questions about the team's current trajectory. Ben Simmons has struggled, Robert Covington has gone cold, and Joel Embiid, while brilliant (26-10-4 for the month), only played in 10 of the 15 games and may end up missing more time with a sprained hand suffered in the fourth quarter in Phoenix.
 
However, one unqualified positive did come from the Sixers' cruelest month of the season: the breakout of Dario Saric. It's easy to forget now, but Dario was colder than Times Square at the ball drop to start the season, not even scoring in double figures until his sixth game. Part of that was because Brett Brown had him coming off the bench to start the season, but it was also because his shot looked flat, his chemistry with his new teammates seemed lacking and he just generally felt disconnected from the rest of the team. 

Ancient history now, because The Homie has been scorching of late. In the 12 contests since he missed the Lakers game early in the month with an eye laceration, Dario's averaged an 18-8-4 on 48 percent shooting and 40 percent from three-point land. Those are awesome numbers from a guy who isn't even supposed to be one of the main cogs, and the last one is probably the most important — the shooting and spacing he's provided as a stretch four is truly invaluable to a team like the Sixers, especially in lineups with both Embiid and Simmons. You saw his value in the Lakers game he missed (and the Sixers lost) — without him, there's no forward to play alongside Embiid that doesn't make JoJo's life more difficult. 

And his best numbers have come at month's end. He largely no-showed the Christmas game against New York — just 4 of 15 from the field, and a nearly back-breaking 0-6 from three — but has gone an absurd 12-18 from deep in the three games since, scoring over 20 in each, the longest such streak of his career. He's shooting better from everywhere on the floor than last year (including the free-throw line, where he hasn't missed in five games), he's turning the ball over less frequently, and as Derek Bodner points out, he's especially excelling alongside Joel, after struggling on court with him at season's start. 

You hope he keeps up this efficiency as the Sixers (hopefully) hit more of a stride in the new year, even once Markelle Fultz (hopefully) slots back into the rotation at some point. The Sixers don't need Dario to be a Big Three-type guy, but if he can keep doing what he does and provide wins around the margins of games, that's a huge asset for when the Sixers (HOPEFULLY) are ready to emerge as true contenders. 

Sixers close out 2017 calendar year in fashion

Sixers close out 2017 calendar year in fashion

BOX SCORE

PHOENIX — The Sixers jumped on the third quarter roller coaster Sunday night in Phoenix, and held on for a 123-110 win over the Suns, a score that doesn't reflect how close the second half was.

An 18-point lead dwindled away over 10 minutes in the third until the Sixers were hanging on to a three-point advantage heading into the fourth.

Like the Sixers did to the Nuggets the night before, the Suns staged a comeback with a 28-10 run in the third to change the tone of the game and turn the fourth into a battle.

The Sixers held the Suns scoreless in the final 1:31 to prevail with their second win of this three-game road trip. With this victory, the Sixers won back-to-back games for the first time since Nov. 20-25. 

• Joel Embiid took a hard fall late in the third and came up grabbing his right hand. He stayed in the game, tallying 22 points, nine rebounds and five assists on the night. Embiid said his hand is not broken and thinks it is a strain (see story).

• The Suns were active fouling Ben Simmons in the fourth. He shot 5 of 9 from the line in the final quarter. Simmons posted 21 points, nine rebounds, six dimes, three steals and three blocks.

"I know coach needs me to be more aggressive offensively, so I definitely had to do that this game," he said. 

• Dario Saric led the Sixers with another strong offensive outing, with 27 points off 4 for 5 three-point shooting. He is averaging 24.0 points in his last three games.

"I need to stay focused and believing in myself, believing in what I am doing on the court," Saric said. "The last couple of games I've had some good games." 

JJ Redick added 22 points.

• Devin Booker, who dominated the Sixers with 46 points in their previous game, still did damage. He scored 32 points after only four in the first half. While the focus is on Booker, TJ Warren posed problems with 28 points (11 in the first quarter).

"It had to be a team effort," Brett Brown said of defending Booker. "I think we did a really good job. He's really hard to guard. If you weren't coaching against him, he's somebody you would pay to go see. He's got a real balance and a real ability to put points on the board."

• Yet again, turnovers came into play. The Sixers committed seven of their 21 in the third.

• Tempo was a focal point of this game. Players and coach alike could be heard from the court yelling to push the ball and get back on defense.

• In a matchup reminiscent of practices of the past, T.J. McConnell and Isaiah Canaan were matched up at point guard. All that was missing was a guest appearance by JaKarr Sampson. The Suns signed Canaan in mid-December as a backup.

• Markelle Fultz continued on with the team to Phoenix. He was working with coaches on individuals drills before the game.

• There was a strong cheering section for former University of Arizona players Jerryd Bayless and McConnell. Bayless saw a bump in minutes (25) after Saturday’s 14-point performance.

• Justin Anderson (shin splints) was inactive for the second straight game.