Before his team played its preseason finale Friday night, Brett Brown labeled the game as something approximating a dress rehearsal. But, unless a flurry of unexpected misfortune hits the Sixers before their regular-season opener Wednesday night vs. the Celtics, Furkan Korkmaz will not start, as he did against the Wizards in place of Ben Simmons (out with back tightness).
It does appear, however, that the Turkish wing will play legitimate minutes early this season. Brown seemed to confirm as much before the Sixers' 112-93 loss, talking about Korkmaz’s progress and resilience in glowing terms.
The Sixers declined Korkmaz’s third-year option last season, then ultimately re-signed the 22-year-old in late July.
I am [looking for him to contribute]. And I don’t want to be harsh about it — that’s what he’s gotta do," Brown said of where Korkmaz finds himself now after his struggles last year. "That’s part of life in the NBA. It’s not like he’s an established player. … This is not the league for the weak.
“He should go to Europe if that was going to dismember his spirit. He’s great people, and he’s fighting to stay in the league, he’s fighting to get minutes — he’s fighting. … That’s the phase and the stage that the young man is at, and I give him credit for not blinking. He just didn’t go away. Now, here he is.
Brown’s answer was impassioned, and his words weren't bogus. But Korkmaz’s character and attitude alone don’t warrant a spot in the Sixers’ rotation. He started Friday for one primary reason — the notion that he is an outside shooter.
Though Brown praised Korkmaz’s defense and his maturation, the Sixers’ head coach also said this:
“We’re always just trying to mine shooters. You’re trying to find and mine and help cultivate shooters. If he is anything, he is that.”
Korkmaz has, in fact, not been a good shooter at the NBA level. He’s shot 38.8 percent from the field in 62 NBA regular-season games, 32.3 percent from three-point range. After a 2-for-9 performance Friday, he finished 10 for 25 overall during the preseason, 4 for 13 from behind the arc.
The concept of Korkmaz filling a three-point shooting void after JJ Redick’s move to the Pelicans is, on its face, appealing to the Sixers. Korkmaz has a pretty shot; he’s done well in international play; he had an incredible July night last year in Las Vegas, scoring 40 points in a summer-league game.
Perhaps those hints of promise will translate to the NBA. However, if there’s an assumption that Korkmaz’s identity as a shooter makes him worthy of a rotation spot, it would be misguided.
There are alternatives in that mix for bench wing minutes, though they’re also young and unproven in the NBA.
Shake Milton, a two-way player last year, has played both at point guard and on the wing during the preseason. The SMU product, who averaged 24.9 points in 27 G-League games as a rookie, is a more advanced playmaker and a superior defender to Korkmaz.
The 23-year-old told NBC Sports Philadelphia he hasn’t been given an indication yet of his regular-season role.
“No,” he said. “My job is just to come in and do whatever the team needs me to do. I’ve kind of been flip-flopping during practice. I’ve just got to do whatever the team needs me to do, bottom line. Guard and either make plays for others or be ready to knock down shots and score.”
This time last year, Milton was returning to competitive basketball after missing summer league because of a stress fracture in his back. He acknowledged Friday night he feels more explosive, and he’s looked it, showing off a burst on the fast break that wasn’t present early last season.
“I feel like it’s been a huge jump, personally,” he said. “For one, the confidence that I have out there, my body feels good, feel physically ready. I go out there with confidence, my teammates have confidence in me, the coaches have confidence in me. Just going out there and being fearless.”
Zhaire Smith, meanwhile, has been seen exclusively in garbage time this preseason. Just as Korkmaz’s shooting or Milton’s versatility might be attractive to Brown, one would think Smith’s “pogo stick” athleticism and penchant for on-ball defense could boost his stock.
That hasn’t been the case, with Smith’s novel of a rookie year — one that included a broken foot, a severe allergic reaction and jumpers with tubes in his stomach — putting him behind Milton and Korkmaz at the moment, in Brown’s eyes.
“He’s expecting me to develop all around,” Smith said Friday of Brown’s expectations. “Last year we tried to develop, but then obviously I had the setback. He feels like this is my rookie year, like this is [about] development.”
The perspective that this season should be centered on learning and personal growth for Smith is fair enough. So is the idea that Korkmaz might have unique value for the Sixers.
He hasn’t delivered it yet, though. The Sixers would, in this writer’s view, be wise not to let their vision of his potential block out other options.
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