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10 observations from Sixers Blue x White Scrimmage in Delaware

10 observations from Sixers Blue x White Scrimmage in Delaware

WILMINGTON, Del. — The Sixers played their annual Blue x White Scrimmage at the 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware, Saturday afternoon.

The scrimmage started out with the starting five (Blue Team) going up against Trey Burke, Matisse Thybulle, Mike Scott, James Ennis and Kyle O’Quinn (White Team).

The Blue Team beat the White Team, 88-66, but who cares?

Here are observations from the intersquad scrimmage.

• Yeah, this starting five is going to be a problem defensively.

On the first possession you got a feel for how scary versatile this unit can be. Al Horford had a nice deflection which led to a turnover. On the next possession, Horford switched onto Burke. Horford baited Burke to drive to the basket where Joel Embiid was waiting to block his floater attempt. It led to a Ben Simmons’ fast break layup.

You get the feeling this Sixers’ starting unit will be turning defense into offense an awful lot. And good luck stopping Simmons and company in the open floor.

• Matisse Thybulle showed why GM Elton Brand traded up in the first round to go get him.

In the first quarter, he stripped Horford but missed the dunk on the fast break.

But the second quarter was the Matisse Thybulle Show. It started with an impressive strip on Ben Simmons on a fast break. The next possession, Raul Neto and Simmons were on a 2-on-1 break with only Thybulle in their way and the rookie broke it up. The play of the day came when Josh Richardson had what looked like a wide-open transition three on the wing. Thybulle came out of absolutely nowhere to send it into the seats. If I had to guess, Thybulle got his hands on the ball 10 times defensively in the second quarter alone … and that feels conservative. The crowd showed their appreciation for the ballhawk mentality.

At times, you could see the rawness of his offensive game, though he hit a three off the dribble early in the third and a nice spinning floater in the fourth. He looks like a guy ready to play NBA minutes.

• You definitely got the sense Saturday that Tobias Harris knows the Sixers need more from him offensively this season. He was aggressive in attacking mismatches against smaller players and looking to get to the line. He ran a pick-and-roll with Embiid in the first quarter, something Brett Brown will likely run more of with Harris as the ball handler. It led to an offensive foul on Harris, but you can see the potential bind it could put opposing defenses in. He ran a couple more as the game went on and looked plenty comfortable doing so.

• There is nothing flashy about Horford but man, he is just good. You can see how his versatility will help this team on both ends. Defensively, he’s an excellent communicator and is so cerebral, as evidenced by the way he handled getting switched onto Burke. On offense, his ability to stretch the floor (he hit a three at the top of the key after a Simmons’ drive and kick) and to cut and pass are huge assets.

• Josh Richardson had a few nice moments Saturday. He hit a nice foul line jumper in a pick-and-roll. On defense he got a nice deflection that led to a Simmons’ steal. That triggered a fast break. Simmons pulled it out after the initial break was slowed but he passed it off to Richardson on the wing who took advantage of the defense napping with a smooth drive and finish. He also took Zhaire Smith off the dribble for a layup with the shot clock winding down in the middle of the third. Smooth may be the best word to describe Richardson. He’s a terrific athlete and it makes his movements look effortless.

• Embiid and Simmons didn’t really stand out offensively — though it's fair to say not many did — but as mentioned, the entire starting unit looked scary at times defensively. Embiid played just the first half, which we were told would be the case pregame.

Simmons airballed his only jumper — a midrange fadeaway in the fourth — but did fire up a bunch of threes during warmups. His form does look better. He looks more balanced and there isn’t as much wasted motion.

Yes, I know, he needs to hit one in a game to impress you, but it's encouraging.

• The veteran big O’Quinn was looking awfully spry. James Ennis raved about his passing ability in practice on Friday and he showed that off with a nice backdoor pass to Ennis and a strong outlet pass to Thybulle. He also hit a three, which is notable since he hit just 1 of 12 for Indiana last season and has shot just 20.9 percent from three for his career. When the White squad took the lead late in the first half, O’Quinn was clapping and encouraging his teammates loudly. It was cool to see a veteran being so competitive in a scrimmage situation. There were a lot of young guys on the White team and O’Quinn took the leadership role seriously.

• Burke and Raul Neto, both fighting for the backup point guard role, were going at each other. Neto was all over Burke on a possession late in the first quarter. With the shot clock winding down, Burke couldn’t break away and wound up taking a contested layup that he missed. 

Still, you could see why teammates have been buzzing about Burke early in camp. He was able to knife through the defense a couple of times for shots around the rim in the second quarter. His ball handling drew some ooh and ahs from the crowd. That shot creation could be useful off the Sixers’ bench.

Neto showed what he brings to the table as well. He was a pest defensively and really does have a floor general mentality and a craftiness to his game. It’ll be interesting to see how that battle plays out during the preseason.

• Shake Milton had a couple “don’t forget about me” moments in the second quarter. He hit a couple threes on the wing and had a nice give-and-go with O’Quinn. Embiid switched onto Milton, Milton then pumped faked a corner three and then finished at the rim with a nice reverse layup with Simmons defending. Milton, in his second season with the Sixers, is sort of the forgotten man among the Sixers’ young players, but he stood out offensively.

• The 76ers Fieldhouse, which is the home of the Sixers' G-League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats, has an interesting vibe to it. It's a cool and intimate setting to catch a game.

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How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

The Sixers, through 22 games, have run the fewest pick-and-rolls in the NBA, and at the worst efficiency

Joel Embiid is in the bottom top 10 percent of the league in efficiency as a roll man. 

None of those stats are encouraging at first glance.

That said, are there any positive signs for Embiid’s progress as a screener and a roller? And how can he get better?

Rolling isn’t always the right option

While Brett Brown said after practice Wednesday that he wants Embiid “screening and rolling more than popping,” rolling isn’t always the right option for the All-Star center.

Because Ben Simmons frequently stations himself in the “dunker spot,” Embiid often needs to float out behind the three-point line for the Sixers to maintain proper spacing.

When opposing big men drop on the pick-and-roll, there’s typically not much to be gained by Embiid rolling.

Embiid pops on the play below against the Raptors, and it’s a reasonable move with Marc Gasol dropping into the paint on Josh Richardson’s drive. Ultimately, the bigger issue is he settles for a mid-range jumper instead of either taking an open three or putting pressure on Gasol to guard a drive to the rim. 

A game-winning variation  

Before Richardson’s hamstring injury, the Sixers were incorporating the action above more into their offense. It’s a basic look — Richardson rubs off a screen to the top of the key, then Embiid steps up to give him a ball screen. 

Embiid’s game-winning dunk on Nov. 12 vs. the Cavs came from a smart variation. After Embiid’s roll to the rim, he set a strong down screen for Tobias Harris, flowing into a perfectly executed high-low.

On most of the occasions Embiid rolls to the rim and doesn’t receive the ball initially, a deep post-up is the next best option. Instead of finding Embiid on the high-low Nov. 15 in Oklahoma City, Al Horford swung the ball to Harris and created a good angle for a post catch. Embiid will score or get fouled in these positions more often than not. 

Getting snug

The “snug pick-and-roll” is, in theory, a way to allow Embiid and Simmons to both be near the rim at the same time without the only result being claustrophobic spacing. 

Embiid set a hard screen on RJ Barrett, forced the desired switch and got an and-one Nov. 29 against the Knicks. 

“We've been trying to do that bit by bit over the years,” Brown told reporters. “I think that you have a deep pick-and-roll with those two, a lot of times they do switch. I thought Ben did a good job of finding that and if they don't switch you got Ben going downhill, and we're trying to just continue to work on his finishing. And it is a look that I think, especially in crunch-time environments, interests me a lot.” 

The obvious problem with the snug pick-and-roll is there’s minimal space for anything to develop. Simmons has little margin for error with his first read. 

Though Embiid eventually had the switch the Sixers wanted against the 6-foot-5 Malcolm Brogdon on the play above, Simmons had already committed to a righty jump hook on Myles Turner and didn’t have room to change his mind. 

Developing the tricks of the trade 

Embiid’s value as a roller increases against teams that aggressively hedge the pick-and-roll.

He didn’t even roll very far on this play from Nov. 8 in Denver — just a couple of feet after screening for Richardson — but the scheme the Nuggets were using meant Will Barton had to tag Embiid before flying out to Furkan Korkmaz. Barton couldn’t recover in time.

Embiid’s chemistry with his new teammates is predictably not yet at an advanced stage. Richardson has a tendency to snake back in the opposite direction of his initial drive, and Embiid still seems to be figuring that out. 

They were on different wavelengths here. 

Since Embiid draws so much respect from opposing defenses, many pick-and-roll actions involving him are going to be inelegant. Especially late in games, teams often know what’s coming and load up to stop it.

He can still be helpful in those situations by focusing on doing the simple things. The technique isn’t textbook on this play, but his screen on Donovan Mitchell gets the job done. 

One of the next steps in Embiid’s evolution as a screener and roller will be applying a few of the dark arts that are prevalent across the NBA, whether it’s stealthily using his upper body like Horford or giving the ball handler space to drive by sealing his man in the lane.

He did the latter well vs. Larry Nance Jr. and the Cavs. 

As a 7-foot, 280-pound player with diverse offensive skills, Embiid is a threat as a roller, at least on paper.

It often won’t be as easy for him as just rolling with purpose to the rim and being rewarded with dunks, but he’s shown he has the ability to help himself and his teammates get good looks. 

For Embiid, it’s clearly important to work on dealing with double teams, refining his post game, limiting turnovers and hitting open three-point shots at a decent rate. 

But the 25-year-old big man also has plenty of room to improve as a screener and roller. 



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Sixers' turnover issues start with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons

Sixers' turnover issues start with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons

There’s no other way to slice it: The Sixers’ 119-113 loss to the Wizards Thursday night was ugly (see observations).

Ugly because their defensive effort was poor. Ugly because the Wizards are simply not a very good basketball team. Ugly because it brings their road record to 5-7 on the season.

But mostly ugly because of the 21 turnovers that led to 30 Washington points — 15 of which were committed by the team’s two young All-Stars.

It appeared the Sixers took the lowly Wizards lightly.

“I think we just came in too relaxed,” Ben Simmons told reporters postgame. “Didn’t take care of the ball. Waited too long down the stretch to try to get the game back.”

The Sixers actually came out with a purpose and built a 33-25 after one. Then everything fell apart.

Careless play on both ends tilted the game. On defense, the Sixers lost track of Davis Bertans, one of the better three-point shooters in the league, who hit 5 of 5 from three in the second quarter. They also committed six of their turnovers in what turned out to be a 40-point period for the Wizards.

The Sixers made a push and got the game to within five, but it was too little, too late.

“Terrible,” Tobias Harris said when asked about how the team responded. “We gave them looks. Bertans came out and killed us, especially in the second quarter. We turned the ball over. They got 30 points off our turnovers. That's the name of the game right there. Honestly, you got to give them credit, they made shots, but we couldn't guard them, we couldn't stop them tonight.”

Harris was one of the lone bright spots for the Sixers. He poured in a season-high 33 points and turned the ball over just once.

The biggest issue was the play of Simmons and Joel Embiid. Simmons remains unwilling to shoot and his indecisiveness on drives was a big factor in his seven turnovers. This should’ve been a game that Embiid dominated with Washington’s frontcourt banged up. Instead, he took just 12 shots and turned the ball over eight times.

Embiid expressed frustration over the carelessness with the ball but felt like he was making the proper decisions when passing out of the post.

“My teammates were open,” Embiid said. “Tobias got it going. We went to him a lot and I just do whatever I’m asked to. It doesn’t matter how many shots as long as I make the right plays. It doesn’t matter if I take 12 shots or 20 shots. I’m just doing whatever I’m supposed to, follow the game plan and go from there.”

Turnovers have been an issue since Brett Brown was hired. That’s largely been because of youthful rosters he had and Brown wanting them to get out and run. 

Those excuses are gone now. Brown has said so himself.

As has been the case with the team’s high turnover numbers this season, Simmons and Embiid were the main culprits. They’re high usage players so it’s to be expected to some extent.

But nights like Thursday simply can’t happen.

“Well, we're always trying to help our two young guys,” Brown said. “You're trying to help those guys get better. And it's not going to win anything. It won't win any game that matters, let alone a regular-season game. It's not going to put us in any position where we can close out a game. We have to get better in that area and I got to help them.”

There’s no reason to panic or think the issues aren’t correctable, but the Sixers need to take better care of the basketball.

And it starts with Simmons and Embiid.

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