76ers

2019 NBA draft profile: Despite ACL injury, Sixers should strongly consider Auburn's Chuma Okeke

2019 NBA draft profile: Despite ACL injury, Sixers should strongly consider Auburn's Chuma Okeke

Position: Forward 

Height: 6-foot-8

Weight: 230 pounds 

School: Auburn

Chuma Okeke was having one of the best nights of his college career on March 29, with 20 points and 11 rebounds as Auburn held a 14-point second-half lead on North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Then, after making a cut to the left block and pump faking on Cameron Johnson, his left knee buckled. The sophomore, who averaged 12 points and 6.8 rebounds last season, tore his ACL. As he watched the rest of their run to the Final Four from the sidelines, Okeke’s teammates aimed to “Do it for Chuma,” an indication of their respect and admiration for him.

Strengths

He checks off both the “3” and the “D” boxes, and that’s not all he can do. Okeke shot 38.9 percent from three-point territory at Auburn and is comfortable both spotting up and in the pick-and-pop. He has decent touch around the rim and is a capable post scorer as well, which should aid his ability to play as a power forward in certain lineups in the NBA. Defensively, Okeke has a terrific combination of length and anticipation, and a knack for creating an impact. He was in the top-10 in the SEC in both steal percentage and block percentage. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor thinks Okeke has “shades of” Robert Covington, which is a reasonable comparison given Okeke's skills as a three-point shooter and stellar off-ball defender. His offensive rebounding, cutting and passing are all positives as well. 

Weaknesses

Okeke, like Covington doesn’t have much of a mid-range game and isn’t great at driving to the rim or finding his own shot. In the conventional sense, he’s not an exceptional NBA athlete — Okeke is likely not going to sprint past many players or wow you with too many high-flying dunks. One of the primary concerns about Okeke is, of course, the ACL injury and the uncertainty about when he might be able to return to the court.

Fit 

Once he’s healthy, Okeke seems like he would be a near-perfect fit for the Sixers as someone who will positively contribute in a variety of areas, primarily as a shooter and defender. There’s risk in drafting a player recovering from a serious injury, yes, but the risk of Okeke not panning out on the court appears low. You don’t have to hold out hope that he’ll develop promising but raw skills or turn athleticism into production the way you do with many prospects. It would make sense for the Sixers to consider him with the 24th pick, and it would be difficult to pass on him if he’s available at No. 33.

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What could possibly happen next? Sixers’ frustrating season keeps getting stranger

What could possibly happen next? Sixers’ frustrating season keeps getting stranger

In a quasi-bubble at Disney World on Sunday night, the Sixers played a lineup of Alec Burks, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Glenn Robinson III and Norvel Pelle. 

Burks and Robinson were acquired from the Golden State Warriors in February. The well-traveled Pelle is a 27-year-old rookie, while Thybulle and Korkmaz are each 23 years old. It is not a group anyone could have anticipated the team playing in a game it was trying to win.

The Sixers, though, were missing both of their All-Stars. Ben Simmons is set to have surgery to remove a loose body in his left knee and Joel Embiid exited Sunday’s game in the first quarter with a left ankle injury. The hodgepodge of players felt fitting as the Sixers faced life without their two core pieces, a Swiss Army knife defender and a 7-foot embodiment of the team’s “bully ball” philosophy who also happens to be quite skilled. 

Brett Brown has a go-to response now for these situations, of which he’s encountered many.

“You’re numb to it,” he said Friday. “You just move. It ends up, as I’ve said, like ready, fire, aim. You figure it out. You take something and you figure it out, you coach who you have.” 

Last season for the Sixers included major trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, confusion over Markelle Fultz’s shot and medical condition and a Kawhi Leonard jumper that cinematically bounced and hung around the cylinder at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto before sending the Sixers home. This season has perhaps been more bizarre, and little of the weirdness has been positive.

Some of the unpleasant oddities have been self-inflicted. GM Elton Brand and the front office surrounded Simmons and Embiid with size and defense. The Sixers seemed confident in this unconventional team-building approach. Brett Brown proclaimed in September that he wanted the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, an ambition that was an afterthought after a few months. Al Horford and Josh Richardson’s talents did not mesh as the Sixers had envisioned. 

The Sixers’ performances at Disney World have only accentuated a cavernous home-road disparity. They’re an NBA-best 31-2 in home games and 11-26 in road games, the worst mark of any team currently in playoff position. Logically, this could be chalked up to year-over-year variance, a random phenomenon. It’s extreme, though, and it’s thus far carried over into a setting where the only fans are virtual. 

No key player has been fully healthy, which is normal on the surface. What’s happened with the Sixers, however, doesn’t feel typical. Embiid has sustained injuries to his ankle and shoulder, in addition to a grotesque finger injury that prompted a visceral collective squirm from courtside spectators back when they were permitted. 

Before his current knee injury, Simmons had a minor shoulder injury in November and a serious back issue after the All-Star break. A variety of ailments forced Richardson to miss 17 games. In July, Al Horford said, “I probably wasn’t where I wanted to be (physically).” He’s dealt with knee injuries the last two seasons. Harris, who is No. 2 in the NBA in minutes, was “battling through it a little bit” for a Feb. 24 game vs. the Hawks with a right knee contusion, and the decision to let him play was curious

The accumulation of new obstacles with the season in its 10th month is a bit confounding, albeit not impossible to explain. The healthy version of the roster hasn’t looked like a veritable championship contender, with the lack of shooting and shot creation among the obvious flaws, but that doesn’t alleviate the frustration surrounding the injuries. 

Players hope for the best, know the worst is a very real possibility and deal with it.

“It’s not positive, honestly,” Richardson said of Embiid’s injury after scoring 34 points in the Sixers’ loss Sunday to the Blazers. “We were kind of nervous, hoping it wasn’t too bad. Honestly, you never want any of your teammates to get hurt but when it’s your best player, it’s definitely a bigger hit. We just tried to pick the slack up for him.”

Brown addressed the idea of minutes limitations for the team’s final three seeding games in an attempt to mitigate the risk of further injuries. That’s clearly a greater priority now than overtaking the Pacers or Heat in the standings, even if doing so is still on the table. 

“I think it’s true ... where you want an honest sort of medical assessment of anything that equals a potential problem — you just want to avoid (it),” he said. “And landing the plane and entering the playoffs from this vision line of a bubble and time off and tiptoeing on pins and needles where you don’t want people to get injured, and then still find a rhythm, that’s a slippery slope. 

“You mentioned Jo. I think the question extends to people like Al Horford, as an example. Making sure Tobias is in a place where we can manage his minutes going forward and still find that balance of trying to compete and find a rhythm.”

He was asked whether the players he mentioned would play in the Sixers’ next game, a Tuesday afternoon contest against the Suns. His response would’ve been appropriate for many questions about this strange team and season.

“I don’t know,” he said.

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Sixers lose Joel Embiid to injury, can’t pull off unlikely win over Damian Lillard and Blazers

Sixers lose Joel Embiid to injury, can’t pull off unlikely win over Damian Lillard and Blazers

Updated: 9:58 p.m. 

The Sixers’ number of available All-Stars has dropped from two to zero this week.

Joel Embiid left Sunday’s game vs. the Portland Trail Blazers in the first quarter with a left ankle injury and the Sixers fell, 124-121. They’re now 42-28 and next play the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. 

Damian Lillard was brilliant on his way to 51 points, while Josh Richardson scored 34, his most as a Sixer, on 13 for 20 shooting. Richardson missed a game-tying three-point try on the Sixers’ last possession, and the team couldn’t manage another attempt following a chaotic battle for the offensive rebound. 

Below are observations on the game: 

Embiid’s injury 

Embiid grimaced after his left foot landed awkwardly on the basket stanchion during a first-quarter play. His momentum carried him into the stanchion after he ran back on a fast break to contest a shot by Blazers rookie Wenyen Gabriel. Following the play, he appeared to be moving less freely than usual for a few possessions before Brett Brown called a timeout. 

With three seeding games remaining before the playoffs, Embiid’s health should be the clear priority. His availability matters much more than whether the Sixers catch Indiana or Miami in the standings. A core tenet of the Sixers’ plan in Simmons’ absence was to lean on Embiid, and he’d been playing like someone who might just be skilled enough to carry a team. In his first four games at Disney World, he’d averaged 30.0 points, 13.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists. 

“I’m going to learn more physically," Brett Brown said after the game. "I don’t know enough to comment on it. ... Joel was fully engaged as a teammate. As it relates to what his injury is or what it actually means, I can’t comment. I don’t know. But it was great just to see him being a part of the group.”

An admirable effort 

While it seemed little was going right for a deflated Sixers team immediately after Embiid left, the effort was good given the circumstances and the team erased a Blazers lead once as large as 17 points. 

Richardson led the charge with an offensive showing that was by far his best in Disney World. His jumper from the right wing with 4.1 seconds remaining in the third quarter gave the Sixers an unlikely 92-91 lead. We’ve seen in a few games this season that he’s capable of scoring in bunches — his 17-point fourth quarters against the Pacers on Jan. 13 and Clippers on Feb. 11 come to mind. Placed in a central offensive role Sunday, he stepped up. 

Alec Burks had another efficient, confident performance, scoring 15 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter and again closing over Shake Milton. 

Defensive challenges 

Richardson got the initial, challenging assignment on Lillard. He didn’t fare very well early, offering Lillard unobstructed paths to the rim and struggling to get on top of ball screens. Lillard had 12 of the Blazers’ first 16 points. The five-time All-Star also blew past Milton and Matisse Thybulle on several occasions and got hot from long distance in the fourth quarter. 

Brown’s pregame analysis of the defensive challenges the Sixers face without Simmons proved spot-on, and those issues were exacerbated when Embiid exited.

“Ben’s versatility was off the charts,” Brown said. “Even him being found on centers didn’t really worry me. I don’t think people really understand how bull strong he is. And so it’s complicated and bothersome. I think, no matter what you do, I would use words like it’s gotta be done by committee, you can’t rely on Joel, it’s gotta be a group thing, and so on and so forth. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that you do feel immediately a level of pain with his absence.”

More defensive switching and zone defense were two specific schematic adjustments Brown mentioned as possibilities, and perhaps we’ll see some unconventional looks moving forward. It would’ve been difficult to successfully play zone in this matchup against the Blazers’ dynamic, sweet-shooting backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum. 

Unusual lineups

Embiid’s exit prompted Brown to insert Norvel Pelle for the first time in the seeding games. The big man was surrounded by Burks, Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Glenn Robinson III. That all-bench lineup was, as one might imagine, rather disjointed and frenetic. There was sparse offensive direction outside of Burks looking to find space off the dribble and Pelle setting ball screens. The Sixers trailed 33-19 after the first quarter and shot just 6 for 24 in the period. Tobias Harris then replaced Korkmaz and, with Richardson, became a focal point of the offense. 

Brown said before the game that he still intended to maintain a nine-man rotation without Simmons, but that plan obviously had to be abandoned. Twelve Sixers played, including Kyle O’Quinn, who checked into the game when Al Horford picked up his third foul. Mike Scott was used as a small-ball five in the fourth quarter ahead of both traditional backup centers and did a decent job in that role, posting nine points and four rebounds.

Along with Pelle and O’Quinn, Robinson made his seeding game debut. The 26-year-old wing, who’d been sidelined by a left hip flexor injury, had four points and three rebounds in 17 minutes. 

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