WILMINGTON, Del. — When we talked with Shake Milton back in December, he was focused on “being a star in the role I have right now” with the Sixers.
With the Delaware Blue Coats, he’s just been a star — no qualifiers needed.
The rookie scored 25 points to lead Delaware to a 124-117 win over the Maine Red Claws on Saturday night in the Blue Coats’ season finale. Since returning from a broken finger on March 5, he scored 23 or more points in nine of 10 games.
Head coach Connor Johnson said before the game that Milton, fellow two-way player Haywood Highsmith, Zhaire Smith and Jonah Bolden will all join the Sixers for the remainder of their season.
You’d expect Bolden will remain a backup big man option for Brett Brown, with his athleticism, three-point shooting and ability to hang with more agile centers. Bolden posted 17 points (6 for 11 from the floor, 2 for 6 from three-point range) and 12 rebounds Saturday.
As far as the other three players are concerned, Milton appears the most likely candidate to play meaningful minutes for the Sixers in the team’s final nine regular-season games, and perhaps even the playoffs.
The SMU product plays at a pace that is comfortable for him, running the offense with exceptional poise and balance. Johnson aptly called him a “sneaky-good athlete.” His smooth jumper (36.9 percent from three-point range in the G League, 42.7 percent in college) might be his calling card in the NBA, but he’s gotten plenty of opportunities to hone other skills in Delaware, including his ball handling and playmaking.
Drawing more fouls has been a point of emphasis as well, Johnson said, and Milton seems to be catching on quickly. He drew the fifth and sixth fouls on Process-era Sixer Thomas Robinson on Saturday, removing a player who’d given the Blue Coats trouble all night with 34 points.
“Just watching film and talking with coaches,” Milton told NBC Sports Philadelphia, “trying to get little tidbits of information and then trying to apply it on the court. Most of all, just being aggressive.”
Johnson said he hasn’t been given a sense of whether Milton or Smith might play a role for the Sixers, though he sounds like a believer in Milton’s ability.
I don’t know. That remains to be seen and out of my hands, but I do think they’ve shown, especially Shake, has shown that he can come in and kind of command a game, and I think that definitely translates. And just continuing to build on Z’s ability to sit down and defend. They’ve got a whole development staff that we’ve worked with really closely that are excited to get those guys back up there.
Milton said he has not heard from the Sixers about what to expect when he returns, and that it’s been helpful to focus solely on his play in the G League.
Still, when discussing how he hopes to develop his game in the offseason, Milton seemed to have a pretty clear idea of what the Sixers might want out of him.
“Continuing to develop everything,” he said. “I feel like in my time with the Sixers, I’m going to have a real focus on guarding multiple positions and knocking down shots, but then also continuing to work on playmaking and all parts of my game.”
Whereas Milton’s athleticism might catch some by surprise, Smith’s often leaps right at you. He converted two lobs for the Blue Coats’ first four points of the game and, with his head near the rim, narrowly missed on a reverse alley-oop dunk attempt early in the third quarter. Smith finished with 12 points and five rebounds, and he knocked down 2 of 3 threes. After missing the first 13 long range attempts of his pro career using his new form, Smith made 5 of his last 11. The rapid rate of his progress and his potential to be a quality perimeter defender at the NBA level continue to make him an alluring prospect.
It would be surprising to see Smith immediately seize a role with the Sixers, although of course much stranger things have happened with the team. Highsmith, a wing who’s typically been asked to guard one of the opposition’s top scorers and hit three-point shots, had 13 points and nine rebounds vs. Maine. He’s another player whose development has been encouraging but likely won’t receive any significant playing time this season.
Milton might be different. While there’s risk inherent in trusting a rookie with 13 games of NBA experience, Milton’s best traits are all things the Sixers could use off the bench — three-point shooting, scoring and serviceable defense on point guards and shooting guards.
Brown loves T.J. McConnell, and you can understand why. His effort is exemplary, he’s an excellent mid-range shooter, and he takes the assignment of harassing an opposing point guard very, very seriously. In all likelihood, Milton won’t supplant McConnell in the home stretch. But there’s little doubt Milton deserves NBA minutes in some way, shape or form.
Though he won’t be a star in the NBA, at least not this season, the experience of leading the Blue Coats has served Milton well. You can’t just automatically dismiss the thought of him seeing legitimate time in a playoff series.
“Knowing my coaches and teammates have confidence in me has really given myself the confidence to go out there and just be sure of myself in whatever I do with the ball,” Milton said, “whether I’m shooting, scoring, playmaking, getting other guys involved — they’ve all just given me confidence.”
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