Furkan Korkmaz’s biggest weakness as a player is no great secret.
He is an improved defender but not a good one and so, with the Sixers set to face the Celtics in the first round of the postseason, it’s natural to wonder if the 23-year-old will be playable against skilled wings like All-Star Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward.
I do (have confidence). I think he’s made great progress this year,” Brett Brown said. “He understood well and truly that it was going to influence, clearly, how much he was going to play. Because we experienced some different things this year with lots of injuries, it opened up a door for him to take advantage of.
"He’s a great story, as we all know. This route from where he was to where he is needs to be told — I suspect that it will. And I think that his defense has improved enough to where you feel confident he can come in and play in an NBA rotation.
That’s certainly an endorsement of Korkmaz’s defense.
It’s not, however, as if Brown called Korkmaz a shutdown defender. “Play in an NBA rotation” isn't the same as “be on the floor in crunch time of a playoff game” or “take on the opposition’s top scorers,” or anything close to it. And, given Brown’s tendency to focus on the positive, it’s not stunning that he gave an affirmative response to a question about whether he had confidence in one of his players.
The formula for Korkmaz making the Sixers a better team has typically been high-efficiency shotmaking and passable defense. As Brown said, Korkmaz’s path — from having his third-year option declined last season, to signing with the Sixers on a minimum contract last July, to honing his conditioning and focusing on his defense, to leading the team in made three-pointers — is remarkable. Still, it’s rare for Korkmaz, who scored 21 points in Wednesday’s 125-121 loss to the Raptors, to be a positive-value player when he’s not hitting jumpers.
Other Sixers on the bench are more well-rounded. If he’s not limited by a nagging left hip pointer injury, Glenn Robinson offers an attractive two-way skill set, a playoff-ready mixture of perimeter defense, outside shooting and cutting. Alec Burks is far from an elite defender, but he’s generally looked capable of stopping some dribble penetration and can single-handedly generate offense in a way few of his teammates can.
Though Matisse Thybulle provides little offensively besides spot-up shooting and athleticism, he has special talent on the other side of the ball that the Sixers will need with Ben Simmons out after undergoing surgery on his left knee.
It’s possible all of the players mentioned above will be in the Sixers’ playoff rotation, which Brown has said he expects will include nine players. Mike Scott is a name seemingly on the edge, and perhaps he’s the kind of perpetually unfazed veteran who could step in if Korkmaz or Thybulle are having trouble in a particular game or matchup.
Korkmaz combines a supreme faith in his abilities with an earnest, humble personality that’s endeared him to his teammates. He understands that opponents will try to target him defensively.
“I was just trying to be solid on defense,” he said on July 21, “because the first (two) years, everybody was talking about my weaknesses on defense, but I think this year I made a big jump on defense. Also, I was talking to the coaching staff, talking to players, to improve myself. Still I am trying to improve myself, every part of the game — not just only defense or offense. But I think defense is key for me to stay on the court longer, I know that.”
Against Boston this season, Korkmaz played, in chronological order, 19, 8, 14 and 25 minutes. He actually held Celtics players to 1 of 6 shooting on field goals he defended on opening night, while Boston shot 4 of 5 on shots Korkmaz guarded on Jan. 9. Assuming he’s in Brown’s initial rotation, there will likely be fluctuations in both Korkmaz's performances and his playing time. The idea of giving him a few stints per game alongside Al Horford, a player he’s thrived alongside this year, might work if he’s shooting well and holding his own in a manageable matchup against Marcus Smart or Semi Ojeleye.
Consistency and reliability are not traits usually associated with Korkmaz, but it’s a logical area of focus at this stage.
“Defensively, offensively, I’m just trying to stay consistent,” Korkmaz said Wednesday. “I know my role. It’s good to be playing good basketball. I’m feeling good. I wish we just won this game. … Just getting ready for the playoffs.”
Brown seems to believe the Turkish wing’s defensive deficiencies aren’t enough to eliminate the possibility of him helping in the postseason. We'll see soon if that's the case.
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