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Learning to Fly: Sixers' issues apparent in preseason opener

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Learning to Fly: Sixers' issues apparent in preseason opener

Hear this of our 2017-18 Philadelphia 76ers and know it to be true: Joel Embiid or it doesn't happen. 

After a competitive first half, the 76ers got pummeled last night by the Memphis Grizzlies, losing their preseason opener by a score of 110-89. Embiid was not in the lineup, nor will he be Friday against Boston; I'd wager we probably don't see him at all this preseason. (Though Embiid did practice full-court 5-on-5 at Thursday's practice.)

What we will see in his absence is a team led by our two new No. 1 overall picks — which, in theory, should be exciting at the very least. And it may still be that, at least in part, but it's also going to be very, very messy. And, as we saw Wednesday, it's going to be rather unsuccessful. 

Let's start with Ben Simmons, whose first official game action in a Sixers uni since the 2016 Summer League went about as expected. He electrified early, particularly in the open court, where he hooked up with Richaun Holmes on a half-court alley-oop, and he scored at the hoop with disarming ease. He had four assists in a blink, ending with nine in 22 minutes, to go with seven rebounds and six points. The highlights were damn impressive, and after the game, Grizzlies coach David Fizdale was raving about the 21-year-old, calling him a "super freak" and declaring "I don't wanna see that for the next 15 years." 

All fair, but ... I dunno. For all the raves about his all-around game, I mostly see a guy who's elite at passing but still has no idea how to score consistently. Simmons clearly has zero faith in his jumper, which he kept in cold storage the whole game, and that too often leads to half-court congestion that there's really nothing he can do about. He's already a master at manipulating chaos — give him a step to the basket, give him a mismatch on the floor, give him a missed assignment in transition and he'll kill you for any of it — but for now he seems unable to create the chaos himself, to force the defensive adjustment, to generate offense where there was no offense previously. Give him a competent defense and he ends up attempting a lot of layups and floaters over defenders, with a predictably low success rate. It's an untenable way to run an offense. 

Of course, expecting Simmons to have mastered offensive efficiency at the ripe old age of 21 with zero regular-season NBA games under his belt is beyond foolish. But the concerning thing to me last night — and in much of the (admittedly exceedingly limited) footage I've seen of him from last summer and earlier — is just how uneasy he seems to even try his jumper when it's given to him. Maybe it's just something he needs to build the proper confidence in off the court before he feels comfortable integrating it on the court, but doing that is easier said than done, and meanwhile, we're still not totally sure if he's even shooting the damn thing with the correct hand. It's a concern, and one that's going to lead to a whole lot of intra-Process arguments and debates before the season is over, or even starts.  

It's not the biggest concern the Sixers have at the moment, though, because something is very clearly not right with Markelle Fultz. Our top prize of the 2017 draft went 2 for 13 for four points last night, and not that there's such a thing as a pretty 2 for 13, but this was a particularly ugly 2 for 13. Fultz spent most of the game careening into traffic, drawing contact but not fouls, and either failing to finish through contact or backing off and missing contested floaters and mini-jumpers. He found his teammates occasionally — three assists, with two coming early alongside Simmons — and showed sporadic spark on defense, but proved thoroughly unsuccessful running a half-court offense. 

And he also avoided shooting from any kind of range about as much as possible. From Simmons, this is concerning but understandable. From Mr. Hesi Pull-Up Jimbo, this is downright alarming. Reports from the team's scrimmage at the Palestra over the weekend mentioned that Fultz's shooting form looked off — Brett Brown even confirmed as much after the game — but the fact that he appears to have totally lost faith in his shot effectively neuters the rest of his game without Simmons' size, athleticism or vision to fall back on. It's not totally clear to me why reconstructing his jumper over the summer was a priority for Fultz — the thing looked pretty good to me over the summer, for the most part — but he appears to have totally lost his shooting form in the interim, and his mojo along with it. And while our offense can maybe abide one non-shooting point guard, two on the court together is guaranteed poison. 

Is this the ruination of the Process, in one preseason game? Assuredly not: These issues are hopefully fixable and probably improvable, and there are many years still ahead of us to figure them out. But they are issues, and it would be prudent for all of us as Sixers fans to take a step back this preseason and disavow ourselves of some of our loftier notions about the team's win-loss record this season. With these two dudes in our starting lineup — and a forever-increasing likelihood that Embiid is limited or missing outright for much of the early season — there are going to be some serious struggles, and they are going to come at the expense of our much-hoped-for playoff push. Not to say it's impossible, but it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of luck, and Process Trusters should at least know not to count on the latter by now. 

It wasn't all bad last night. Robert Covington has sprouted cool new hair, and he looks (and plays) more like a defensive monster than ever. JJ Redick was basically as advertised for his debut game, scoring 11 points on 4 for 7 shooting (including a trademark four-point play!) and ending a plus-5 for the night. Skinny/Vegan Jah is more than a myth; Okafor ended with 13 points on 5 for 6 shooting and occasionally even looked engaged on the boards, though he still got beaten to some easy ones. Kris Humphries got booed every time he touched the ball toward game's end, which is probably unfair but still sorta feels right. Things will be better with Dario Saric around — he was held out tonight by Brown for rest — because things are always better when Dario's around. The team around our Big Three is largely as it should be. 

Still, with that Big Three struggling and/or hurting, it's going to be ... well, it's going to be a process. These guys have a lot to learn and a lot to prove, and without a healthy Embiid to anchor the whole operation, sloppiness is almost guaranteed to ensue. Pity poor Brett Brown — we'll get you to that season where everything is finally easy someday. Maybe. Hopefully. 

Mask-wearing pioneer Rip Hamilton has advice for Joel Embiid

Mask-wearing pioneer Rip Hamilton has advice for Joel Embiid

Detroit Pistons star Richard Hamilton wasn't the first player to wear a mask in the NBA but sometimes it feels like he was.

Newsweek caught up with Rip this week to talk about his mask-wearing days and to see if he had any words of wisdom for Joel Embiid. Hamilton first wore a mask for breaking his nose, but he continued to wear it for the remainder of his career.

Embiid made his first playoff appearance of his career last night in Miami while rocking a new mask complete with a custom visor to protect his eyes. It was clearly bothering him but he didn't let it dictate his play.

“It was difficult,” Embiid said of the mask. “But to me it wasn’t really about getting used to it because at the end of the day, no matter how much it bothers me, I’ve still got to be a basketball player."

Hamilton has famously said that he embraced the mask to the point of it becoming his "Batman cape" which allowed him to be more aggresive.

"Over a period of time I started to get used to it. As basketball players, a lot of times you go to the basket and it’s a lot of elbows being thrown, guys are getting poked in the eye," he told Newsweek this week. "You tend to clench up because you don’t want to get hit in the face. Once I started wearing that mask I wasn’t clenching up no more. I was willing to take contact more. I was able to get to the free throw line more because now I’m not scared of getting hit in the face. It kind of made me into a more aggressive and better basketball player."

Hamilton's message to Embiid prior to the series?

"Embrace it. Make it cool. Make it fun. Make it like a prop. Don’t get caught up in saying like, 'I got a piece of plastic on my face. I’m worrying about how I look, I’m worrying about my perception when I shoot.' When you’re out there in, like, shooting drills, don’t be so caught up in putting the mask on and trying to worry about how you shoot with it on. Put it on in the game and just wear it because our game is a non-thinking sport. React. You gotta read and react as quick as possible. The less thinking you do, the better you’ll be."

Rip also took notice of Embiid's frustration with the mask following the game. He encouraged Jo that it only gets easier.

I’ve thrown my mask off numerous times lil bro @joelembiid ...It will get more comfortable game by game ..Trust The Process. #MaskOnMaskOff#YouGotTheJuiceNow #Holdat #Yessir#Mask #TnT #nba #nbaplayoffs #sixers#sixersvsheat #LoveThisGame

Eagles players with the most to gain at OTAs — S Tre Sullivan

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Eagles players with the most to gain at OTAs — S Tre Sullivan

The Eagles don’t hit the practice field as a team for another five weeks, yet each year coaches point to players who distinguish themselves during the months of April and May. These are the players with the most to gain in phases one and two of OTAs.

There isn’t an unheralded prospect in better position to climb the Eagles’ depth chart this spring than Tre Sullivan.

Never mind the fact that vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas just got done lauding Sullivan’s performance in a pre-draft interview on Thursday. The 24-year-old also happens to be one of only four safeties on the Eagles roster for the time being, creating a huge opportunity for an undrafted free agent from Shepherd College.

Competition will come soon enough, as safety is an obvious target for the Eagles in the upcoming draft. Even then, Sullivan could find himself in the mix for a big role with a good spring.

Last season, Corey Graham was the Eagles’ third safety behind Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. Graham, a free agent departure, wound up playing nearly 40 percent of the team’s snaps.

This isn’t merely a backup job. There’s serious playing time at stake – and Sullivan can get a jump on the competition.

Sullivan made a name for himself in last year’s preseason opener against the Packers with a vicious hit on wide receiver Malachi Dupre. It was a scary moment, as Dupre was knocked out by the collision, but also a clean play and an example of the defensive back’s physicality.

Sullivan forced a fumble on the hit and finished with four tackles. He would go on to acquit himself well in three other preseason games, eventually landing on the Eagles’ practice squad.

Listed at 6-foot-0, 200 pounds, Sullivan is a relatively average size for a safety, but plays downhill and hits like a truck.

The Eagles liked the instincts and aggressiveness they saw on the field. Now, Sullivan has a chance to work out and learn from coaches in an environment where there really aren’t any other young players right now and he can be the focus of a lot of attention. Phases one and two of OTAs and the two weeks before the draft in particular could be a pivotal period.

If Sullivan impresses during these early stages, it could go a long way toward solidifying his place with the team.

Even if Sullivan is bested for the third safety spot, he could still wind up on the 53-man roster. The Eagles may opt to carry five since Chris Maragos primarily plays on special teams.

Sullivan will likely enter training camp as a player who’s considered to be on the bubble, and what he does when the pads go on will be most important. However, if he showed up and really nailed these workouts, that could go a long way toward how the team views him heading into this summer.