David Skretta

Sixers-Heat preseason observations: Ben Simmons steals the show

Sixers-Heat preseason observations: Ben Simmons steals the show

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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.”

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.”