Ben Simmons finally does it, and more observations from Sixers' preseason opener

Ben Simmons finally does it, and more observations from Sixers' preseason opener

The 2019-20 Sixers have, after much anticipation, transformed from an alluring idea to a reality. In this new reality, Ben Simmons makes three-point shots. 

They opened the preseason Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center with a 144-86 win over the Guangzhou Loong-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association. Guangzhou was, if you could not tell from the final score, severely overmatched.

Simmons, 0 for 17 for his career from three-point range, hit a three from the right wing with 1.2 seconds left in the first half. Naturally, we’ll start with that shot in our observations:

• Simmons’ jumper might not mean much in the big picture. It was, after all, a shot in a preseason game that gave his team a 41-point lead.

Finally, though, he did it, and the crowd at Wells Fargo Center acted like he’d just hit the game-winner to seal a playoff series 

Simmons has made similar shots often in non-game situations — his pregame warmup actually ended with a jumper from close to that exact spot.

The difference between that and a real game, however, is significant. If you question whether it was an important moment, observe his teammates’ ecstatic reaction. 

Now, we’ll see where that shot leads. Simmons said at media day that he’ll take three-pointers this season when open. If those words were genuine, him taking three-point shots could eventually become a somewhat normal occurrence. At the present moment, it’s still a thrilling novelty to fans.

• The starting five took a while to find a rhythm — Guangzhou actually capitalized on a sleepy start to take a 7-5 lead.

There weren’t any startling revelations. Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid are indeed very big and very difficult to score against. Each player had some good moments, and they seemed to be on the same wavelength as a unit more often than not. They’ll learn much more about each other and how to play together when they face better competition — the Hornets, on Friday at 7:30 p.m., are up next.

• Brett Brown said pregame that he’d play a “semblance of a rotation in the first half,” with a shift to a mentality of getting most of his players minutes in the second half.

His first two substitutions were Matisse Thybulle and James Ennis, in for Richardson and Embiid, with Horford moving to center. Trey Burke was the next sub about two minutes later, replacing Simmons, and Mike Scott came off the bench late in the first quarter. 

Plenty can — and likely will — change before the opener on Oct. 23 vs. the Celtics, but those substitution patterns are worth tracking throughout the preseason. Expect to see the Horford-Simmons pairing more as Brown hones in on his best groupings. He mentioned Monday that he thinks that duo has potential. 

The Embiid-Richardson pairing is another one Brown seems determined to grow, with those two working to develop their own version of the Embiid-JJ Redick dribble handoff chemistry, which was such a fundamental part of the Sixers’ offense the last two seasons. 

• He wasn’t quite as much of a defensive pest as during Saturday’s Blue x White Scrimmage, but Thybulle had another strong game and further staked his claim for a significant regular-season role.

Thybulle is well suited to playing in a defense that hunts the ball. He’s constantly swarming opponents, flying into passing lanes and sparking transition offense. 

He finished with 10 points on 4 for 6 shooting (2 for 4 from three-point range), three steals and two blocks. 

• Neither Burke nor Raul Neto seemed to take a sizable advantage in the backup point guard battle, though Burke was the one who got to play with the regulars. Burke had 11 points on 4 for 7 shooting and four assists in 14 minutes, while Neto had two points on 1 for 2 shooting and five assists in 10 minutes. Shake Milton hit two threes soon after entering the game in the third quarter. 

It will be difficult in general for Brown to glean much from a game in which his team had such a gaping talent advantage — he likely won't read much into any stats from this one.

• The Sixers trapped and picked up full court with some regularity. Though there wasn’t much risk in doing so against an inferior opponent, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more of that aggression during the regular season.

Ime Udoka, the team’s new de facto defensive coordinator, wants the Sixers to “make them feel you” and force more turnovers. The Sixers, 27th in turnovers forced last season at 12.7 per game, turned Guangzhou over 23 times. 

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Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Around this time last year, Tobias Harris was leading the surprising Clippers to a strong start. Harris was averaging over 20 points a game while flirting with the 50-40-90 shooting line. He was a borderline All-Star.

Fast forward a year later and the 27-year-old resembles that player more now than he ever has during his tenure as a Sixer.

Harris added another impressive performance to his recent stretch of strong play in the Sixers’ 116-109 win over the Pelicans Friday night (see observations).

It wasn’t the cleanest performance for the Sixers, but Harris’ team-high 31 points helped the Sixers stay a perfect 14-0 at the Wells Fargo Center and become the only undefeated team at home in the NBA.

Every night is an opportunity for me to go out there and do the best I can to help our team win,” Harris said. "I’d love to be an All-Star — it’s a goal of mine as a player. I felt last year I was an All-Star in the beginning of the season. It didn’t happen that way. But I think each and every night, especially with our team, we have a nice amount of talent and I want to play at my best every single night to help us win games.

It hadn’t been the smoothest transition for Harris since he arrived in a blockbuster trade from Los Angeles.

The Sixers had just traded for Jimmy Butler a couple months prior and they were still trying to figure out how to use the mercurial star alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. With Harris, it was another mouth to feed and another piece to fit into the puzzle.

On paper, it looked like a master stroke by GM Elton Brand. Harris had become an elite three-point shooter and a go-to scorer for the Clippers. But the chemistry didn’t develop as quickly as they would’ve liked as Embiid missed a significant amount of time down the stretch with tendinitis in his left knee.

Over the last 16 games — and with Butler in Miami — Harris seems to have found his niche with the Sixers.

“Yeah, there’s definitely a comfort level, just being able to get familiar with guys on this team on and off the floor,” Harris said. “I think as a team, the comfort level from each and every one of the guys that’s on the floor is continuing to increase. I’m able to find ways to play with Ben in different pockets of the game, and Joel, also. There’s been a lot of things that I’ve liked. I’m going into games understanding more of what we need to do, where I’m at, where I’m going to get this play, that play, things like that.”

While the All-Star game doesn’t generally account for defense, that is likely where Harris has seen his most improvement.

In Friday night’s game, he was tasked with guarding former Sixer JJ Redick. As we saw during Redick’s time in Philly, that’s not an easy ask. Redick runs a marathon every game, navigating around screens and running dribble handoffs. Harris did a decent enough job, as Redick went 6 of 15 on the night.

Improving on the defensive end was Harris’ biggest point of emphasis this offseason. He went to Brett Brown before the season began and let him know that he wouldn’t be the weak link amongst a starting five that had elite-level defenders.

The notion of putting Harris on someone like Redick wouldn’t even have crossed his head coach’s mind last season.

“Could Tobias have done something like that last year? I didn't see him like that,” Brown said. “Maybe he could have, but I never saw him or played him like that and this year I do. And I think that it's part of your question about, 'Oh, he's having a great year,' and you go right to offense. I think he's having a hell of a year defensively.”

Harris is 13th in the conference in scoring and fourth among forwards. His 2.6 win shares are second-most among any forward in the East.

Throw in the last 16 games, where Harris has averaged 22.1 points and shot over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from three, and the case is making itself.

You don't need much more ammunition," Brown said. "I mean, he's been so steady and just responsible, reliable, go-to guy. I put him kind of in a bunch of different spots — middle pick-and-roll, iso, three balls, making his free throws, plays that back down pound, pound game and can jump over people, smaller people. He's having a hell of a year.

A good enough year to be in Chicago on Feb. 16 for the All-Star game?

There’s a strong case to be made.

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After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

Norvel Pelle is not the typical NBA player.

A native of Antigua and Barbuda, Pelle was a top recruit out of high school — that part was normal. Then his path went sideways.

The wiry center never played college basketball because of eligibility issues. He traveled to Delaware, Italy, Taiwan and Lebanon before signing a one-year, two-way contract with the Sixers this summer and reaching Friday night, where Brett Brown turned to Pelle, in his third NBA regular-season game, as Joel Embiid’s main backup. 

“It’s just knowing that this opportunity is once in a lifetime,” Pelle told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I worked hard to get here and I can’t mess up. So, just getting the jitters out — obviously there are going to be jitters regardless, but just meditating and staying positive throughout the whole thing.”

In 12 minutes, Pelle was exceptionally active. He had six points, five rebounds, three blocks and a handful of altered shots. Every time Pelle has stepped on an NBA floor, it seems he has been immediately challenged by players on a mission to embarrass him. It hasn’t always gone his way. Julius Randle slammed one in over Pelle in his NBA debut in New York and Kevin Porter Jr. dunked on Pelle last Saturday and then flexed in his face despite the Cavs trailing by more than 40 points. 

A member of the G League’s All-Defensive First Team last season, Pelle sees no shame in taking the occasional ferocious dunk to the face. He’s a showman who enjoys playing to the crowd and feeds off its energy, and he never likes to show any fear. 

“Next play,” he said of his mentality. “Next play, next play, next play. At the end of the day, I’m a shot blocker, so if I get dunked on, I get dunked on — that’s my mentality. Next play.” 

After picking up two early fouls, Pelle waited out a series of pump fakes from former Sixer Jahlil Okafor to record his first block of the night, leading to a Ben Simmons dunk. He then denied a slam attempt by Brandon Ingram, creating a fast break that concluded with a James Ennis three. 

“You know every game he's going to bring you energy,” Simmons said following the Sixers' 116-109 win over the Pelicans (see observations). “He loves blocking shots, just risking his body for those blocks and protecting the rim. I love having him as a part of this team.”

Both Simmons and Brown said Pelle reminded them of Nerlens Noel. Like Noel, Pelle’s offensive game is not too extensive — it’s mostly screening and rolling, lob catching and energy. The defensive package, though, is intriguing.

“Just wanted to see what we have in him,” Brown said. “We had a little taste in New York. I wanted to see more. And I thought he was really good. I thought he was really good. He is sort of Nerlens like to me — rim protector, shot blocker, quick off the floor. I thought he was good.”

It’s uncertain whether Pelle could eventually have a consistent role with the Sixers. The man whose job he temporarily took Friday, Kyle O’Quinn, was signed this offseason to be insurance for Embiid. Al Horford should assume the primary backup center position once he returns from the left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness that’s sidelined him the past two games. 

Pelle’s two-way contract also means he can’t be with the Sixers for more than 45 days between the start of Blue Coats training camp and the end of the G League regular season, and he’s not eligible for the NBA playoffs.

Brown didn’t attribute Pelle’s five fouls vs. the Pelicans to being “undisciplined,” but the big man would likely need to refine his game a bit if he was tasked with a regular role.

Embiid wasn’t worried about any of that. 

“I told him if he got the minutes, he would probably lead the league in blocks,” he said. “He has a chance to become a fan favorite, so he should just keep doing whatever he’s doing.”

After all the empathic dunks and dramatic poses and swatted shots in foreign gyms, Pelle had time to reflect Friday night. 

“This was more than what I expected,” he said. “I’m appreciative of everything and everybody. I’m taking it day by day, moment by moment, opportunity by opportunity and just go out there and do what I have to do.”

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