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Get to know Sixers rookie Haywood Highsmith

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Get to know Sixers rookie Haywood Highsmith

On Tuesday night, Haywood Highsmith became just the second active Division II basketball player to receive an NBA call-up. Hours before the Sixers tipped off, Highsmith had just finished playing in a game for the Delaware Blue Coats, before driving to the Sixers practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, to sign his two-way contract.

Before the game, even head coach Brett Brown said he likely wouldn’t see any time for quite a while.

But Highsmith’s story has been everything but predictable, so when Brown called his number with 5:14 left in the fourth quarter in Tuesday night’s win over the Wizards, he once again defied the odds.

From Baltimore, Maryland, to Wheeling Jesuit University, to getting cut from the Sixers' summer league roster to being signed in the G-League, to stepping up on the NBA stage for the first time in his life, it’s been quite the ride for the Sixers rookie.

We wanted to get know a little bit more about the newest addition to the Sixers' roster.

Let’s starts with basketball as a kid … who introduced you to the game, when did you first pick up a basketball and what was your relationship like with the sport growing up?

My father really introduced me to the game, because he played basketball until his college years. We’ve really bonded over it. I probably started playing around the age of two or three but started shooting on a regular hoop at like four or five.

Can you remember the first time that you beat your dad on the court?

I think I was like 13 and I went up for a dunk and almost made it. So after that, he's like, okay. I think I'm getting too old for this. This is crazy.

After playing four years at small school Wheeling Jesuit, Division II player of the year, you’re having trouble getting any NBA teams to meet with you … Are you still thinking that you'll be able to make basketball a career? Or is that when doubt starts to creep in?

Yeah. I didn't know what path I was going to take, whether I was going to go overseas or try to play in the G-League, but I talked with my family and got an agent who definitely thought that I was an NBA-caliber player, and we stuck with a good plan. There were definitely some ups and downs throughout the path, to where I am now, but this was one of the organizations that gave me an opportunity and it was really inspiring for me to just get an opportunity like that. Some doubt definitely came in every now and then, but I always felt like I could play overseas somewhere. The question to me was if I could play in the-G League or the NBA.

Take me through some of those ups and downs…

You definitely have to have mental toughness as a person to go through stuff like that. I got cut from the Sixers' summer league team, a day before they left for Las Vegas, which was kind of hard to swallow as a person, as a basketball player. But, when you have a family support system like I do, they always encouraged me and kept making me feel positive. We just stuck to a path and stayed patient and like people said, good things come to those who wait, and a good thing came with the G-League team.  

So when you got the call-up, and after your Blue Coats game that you played in earlier that day, that you’re going to be with the Sixers, what’s going through your mind?

My mind was just going a lot of places. Was this really happening? Was I dreaming?

And then, I had to go straight from my game against Raptors 905 to Camden (where the Sixers' facility is) to sign, and then straight from signing to the arena to play for the Sixers.

And then, not even a practice and probably don’t expect to get time, but you score your first NBA bucket, and it so happens to come from your Blue Coats teammate, Shake Milton.  What do you think you'll remember most from that night?

I'll probably consider that like one of the greatest days of my life right now. A lot of memories, putting that jersey on and walking out to the crowd in probably the biggest arena I've played in since I played basketball, just joyful. From where I came from, and just to be a part of something like that. It's just crazy to see how that happens and my family was there. One of the greatest days of my life definitely.

Time for some fan questions …

How did you come to get arguably the best basketball name ever?

Me and my father actually share the same name. He's a senior and I'm a junior. I've heard that a lot that I've had a great basketball name. Every time I was in school and my teacher announced my name on the first day, they would always say, ‘Wow that's a great name.' So I'm used to it.

Do you have any nicknames?

Some people call me Hay. Some people call me Wood. Some people call me Haywood. My coach one time called me H squared cause I have two HH's, double H, H squared, I don't really like that one though.

So it sounds like fans need to come up with a new nickname?

Yes, definitely.

How do you like your cheesesteak?

I'm a big cheesesteak guy but I've tried to stop eating them because they're not healthy for a guy like me. But provolone cheese, no tomatoes, no ketchup, salt and pepper on a nice roll. 

What current player you looked up to and why?

Definitely a big Kevin Durant fan, just a humble person like I am, so one of my favorite players I've ever watched. He's from the D.C. area, which is not too far from me, where I'm from, so I look up to him. I like watching Paul George as well, who does a lot of everything. A two-way player, superstar type of player. Those two I definitely watched a lot of growing up, trying to play like them. 

What current Sixer has the capability to help out your development the most?

A lot of them. But Jimmy Butler, someone who has been in the league for awhile and been in big games, and just been a great player in the league, and another guy that came from a later pick (30th), and an All-Star type of player. His toughness, his grittiness, I can definitely learn a lot from him

What's something you've learned about Philly that you didn't know before?

They call this city the City of Brotherly Love, but you don't actually know that until you get in the city and see how it is, see the vibe of the city. The city of Philly is amazing. I've even gained like 3,000 followers since I've been here!

Do you have a favorite quote/saying?

Good things come to those who wait. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. 

Interests outside of basketball?

I definitely love food. My aunt makes tremendous salmon cake. I like seafood, being from Maryland. I'm a big animal guy too. I like tigers and lions. I used to watch Animal Planet back in the day, they had something called Big Cat Diary that I used to watch with my father, it was a show on big cats, lions, leopards, stuff like that. And I play Madden and 2K.

What advice would you give to other non-D-I athletes?

At the end of the day, if you are talented you are going to get your shot somewhere. Just because you don't go D-I, doesn't mean your opportunity with the NBA or G-League is over. I am living proof that if you have a goal, and you stick to a path, and you have support around you that you can get there. It might take time, but you just have to be patient. A lot of people don't understand that patience is a good trait to have as a person because a lot of people aren't patient, can't wait and just want to get there without putting all the hard work in. It takes a lot of hard work to get here, but once you get here, it feels amazing, and my message would be, keep grinding. You can get here from anywhere.

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This is the version of Wilson Chandler the Sixers need

This is the version of Wilson Chandler the Sixers need

When the Sixers acquired Wilson Chandler for “cash considerations” this offseason, it seemed like a great move.

The Nuggets, flush with young talent on the perimeter, were looking to get free of Chandler’s $12,800,562 cap hit. The Sixers, looking for a useful veteran, were happy to oblige.

Unfortunately, the Sixers hadn’t quite gotten the same player that they saw in New York and Denver through 29 games. 

There have been flashes — like the Christmas Day game against Boston — but no consistency. 

It’s been a tough transition for Chandler. Being traded from an organization you spent nearly a decade with isn’t easy. 

Nor is adjusting from being primarily used as a small forward for your career and now being asked to play more stretch four. Nor is getting used to playing alongside three All-Star caliber players.

“It’s been a tough process for me but I think I’m starting to figure it out,” Chandler said postgame Tuesday while sharing the podium with Joel Embiid. “Just playing off Jo and Ben [Simmons]. Knowing when to be aggressive and where to find my shots.”

There haven’t been many moments for postgame talks with the media for Chandler this season and Embiid made sure to bust his chops.

“You’re f------ trash,” you could hear Embiid jokingly whisper to Chandler while he attempted to answer a question about his fit. Chandler laughed before telling Embiid to “chill out.”

But all in all, it’s been a rough go for Chandler, who has missed 15 of the team’s 45 games. Every time it seems like Chandler might be able to start rolling, another health issue creeps up.

First, it was the hamstring strain that cost him the first nine games of the season. As he was recovering from that, he suffered a bruised quad that lingered. That was followed by the upper-respiratory infection that’s passed through the team.

He appeared to turn a corner in Boston, but in the seven games he played in following the overtime loss to the Celtics, Chandler averaged just 4.7 points and shot 31 percent from the field (23 percent from three).

In Tuesday night’s blowout win over the Timberwolves, the 31-year-old combo forward gave yet another glimpse of what he can provide this team. 

He scored 14 points, tied for his second-highest point total of the season. He shot 5 of 7 from the field and 4 of 6 from three. He also added five rebounds and four assists in 25 minutes, showing off the all-around game he can provide.

Even with Chandler struggling, the Sixers’ starting lineup was lethal. If he makes shots like Tuesday? Good luck.

A new wrinkle Brett Brown spoke about postgame was pairing Embiid and Jimmy Butler on the court more. An offshoot of that is that Chandler got to spend more time on the wing — something the 12th year veteran admitted he felt more comfortable with.

A healthy and comfortable Chandler could spell trouble for Sixers opponents. With a brutal stretch coming up, the Sixers will need this version of Wilson Chandler.

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What's wrong with Sixers' defense and how they can improve it

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What's wrong with Sixers' defense and how they can improve it

The Sixers’ offense has been a popular topic of late, and that’s understandable as Brett Brown adjusts his offense to try to get the best out of three very different stars.

The defense shouldn’t fly under the radar, however, and it certainly hasn’t with the players and coaches. 

After the Sixers’ loss to the Hawks on Friday night, Brown said it was “disturbing watching our bench guard.”

Ben Simmons said, “I think we were just too soft. We’re not taking it personal enough when guys score on us.”

After finishing last season third in the NBA in defensive rating (103.8), the Sixers are 11th in that category this season with a 108.1 rating. 

The concern about the defense is warranted, likely more than the relative nitpicking about offensive fit (see story).

Let’s look at what’s wrong with the Sixers’ defense and some possible ways to improve it. 

Subpar personnel

In an earlier film review on the team’s pick-and-roll defense, we highlighted that, outside of Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers are lacking above-average defensive players.

That hasn’t changed.

Derrick Rose blew by Landry Shamet on this play from Tuesday night.

Jeremy Lin toasted Furkan Korkmaz, easily driving to the middle for an and-one.

It’s worth mentioning (since it’s fundamental to many of the Sixers’ defensive issues), but there’s no use harping on this fact — the Sixers are a team of mostly below-average defenders. 

Miscommunication 

Besides screens involving Embiid, the Sixers switched on almost every pick at the beginning of the season. As a result, opponents could more easily target mismatches against players like Shamet, Korkmaz or T.J. McConnell.

The Sixers have become more selective about switching, leading to fewer of the blatant mismatches opponents desire, but perhaps more miscommunication now that there isn’t a near-automatic switch on screens involving non-centers.

Atlanta has Kevin Huerter set a ball screen for Trae Young on this play from Friday. Huerter’s man, JJ Redick, switches onto Young, but Korkmaz doesn’t realize Huerter is now his responsibility until it’s far too late, after Dewayne Dedmon sets a back screen to free Huerter for a lob.

Young got the easiest basket of his NBA career a little over a minute later. It’s unclear what McConnell and Wilson Chandler had in mind on their coverage of the pick-and-roll between Young and John Collins, but it wasn’t this. 

Our best guess, based on McConnell’s animated reaction, is that McConnell was expecting some sort of help from Chandler — perhaps he thought Chandler was going to hedge the screen, given the way the veteran initially slid up to Young’s right.

On a separate note, Simmons’ feint as if he was going to protect the rim and ultimate decision to hover in between the driving Young and Dedmon in the corner is perplexing.

The play is a strong contender for the Sixers’ worst defensive sequence of the season, and a good illustration of the team’s issues with communication in a scheme that no longer switches by near-default. 

Effort 

It’s unrealistic to expect perfect effort in the middle of the regular season. Still, a team with the Sixers’ deficiencies in terms of defensive personnel is likely going to struggle without consistent effort.

Simmons’ defensive effort was questionable on a few plays vs. Atlanta.

In the example below, his teammates recover well to pick up a man in transition. Simmons is late to identify Huerter as the player he should guard and he doesn’t bother to put a hand up on a half-hearted closeout. 

Jeff Teague beat Simmons down the floor after a dead-ball turnover by the Sixers and, despite Simmons’ request for help, nobody provided it, giving Teague a wide-open lane.

A new rotation? 

In the Sixers’ 42-point demolition of the Timberwolves on Tuesday, Brown might have found a way to get more out of the personnel he currently has.

Brown used rookie Jonah Bolden as a backup center, and he was encouraged by what he saw from Bolden anchoring the defense when Embiid was off the floor.

He’s got a bounce. … And he can do some things at the rim — he’s not afraid of making tough plays, and he’s able to make tough plays. Using him as a backup five and letting [Mike] Muscala play more of a four and then sliding Wilson [Chandler] down to a three, I think it’s a good look.

You can pencil Bolden in for a bad, overzealous foul or two just about every game, but his defensive tools jump out on tape. 

He can hang with players on the perimeter incredibly well for somebody who is 6-foot-10, and he has good instincts as a shot blocker.

His length and athleticism allow him to recover when he’s caught leaning in the wrong direction, like on the play below vs. Dario Saric.

And he protects the rim well even when he’s not blocking shots. Here, Bolden cleans up Shamet’s mistake, sliding with DeAndre’ Bembry and forcing him into a difficult attempt.

With Bolden, the stats — albeit in a small, 257-minute sample size — back up the eye test. His 99.1 defensive rating is the best on the Sixers. 

The Sixers’ defensive issues are deeper than their backup center, but tweaking the rotation to have Bolden at the five behind Embiid could alleviate some of the problems with the team’s defense when Embiid sits. 

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