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Give and Go: What are expectations for Markelle Fultz's sophomore season?

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Give and Go: What are expectations for Markelle Fultz's sophomore season?

Each day leading up to Sept. 21, the official start of Sixers training camp, we'll dissect the biggest storylines facing the team ahead of the 2018-19 season.

In today’s Give and Go, Matt Haughton and Noah Levick provide their expectations for Markelle Fultz’s sophomore season.

Haughton
Maybe I’m doing too much projection or maybe I’m just drinking the Drew Hanlen shot-fixing Kool-Aid. Either way, I see a big season — perhaps even award-winning — on the horizon for Fultz.

Crazy. Maybe. What’s even crazier? It won’t take that much of a leap for it to happen.

Whether it was a legitimate shoulder injury or a case of the yips, we all know Fultz’s rookie season didn’t go a planned. Still, he showed flashes of the potential the Sixers saw in him when his name was called No. 1 overall in the 2017 draft.

The ball-handling, neck-breaking quickness and ability to get to the rim. Plus, the use of his long arms to be a disruptive force on defense. It was all there. Even if the results were only 7.1 points (40.5 percent field goal shooting), 3.8 assists and 3.1 rebounds a game.

At the very least, a full summer of working on his body and jump shot with Hanlen should result in Fultz being even more aggressive going to the basket and connecting on his free throws (47.6 percent a season ago). Assuming Brett Brown doesn’t tinker with his starting rotation, a boost in those areas could put 20-year-old Fultz in the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year.

And if Hanlen’s words from this summer are true and he actually did turn Fultz back into the long-range threat he was at Washington, there is no reason the guard shouldn’t be in the mix for Most Improved Player.

Levick
If we’re being honest with ourselves, there are probably a handful of people who actually know what to expect from Fultz this season. Since trainer Hanlen has kept Fultz’s revamped jumper away from the cameras, training camp should be our first glimpse at his shot. Just like last season, there should be plenty of shaky video from reporters’ cell phones for fans to scrutinize.

Fultz’s stats last year are almost irrelevant when projecting how he’ll play this season. Sure, there were encouraging signs in the 14 regular-season games he played. His 3.17 assist-to-turnover ratio was impressive. He showed glimpses of his shifty, herky-jerky game. And he became the youngest player ever to record a triple-double in the NBA, highlighting his immense potential.

We know Fultz is talented enough to contribute for an NBA team with a broken shot. The question is what he brings to the table with a repaired shot.

It seems unlikely that Hanlen would have hyped up Fultz’s jumper as much as he has if Fultz wasn’t making dramatic improvements. Do I expect him to suddenly be a three-point marksman? No. But I’d be surprised if Fultz’s free throws or midrange jumpers are anywhere near as unsightly or hesitant as they were last season.

Fultz would likely have to be playing at a very high level to force his way into the Sixers’ starting lineup, since that unit was the highest-rated five-man group in the league last season. That said, he’s skilled enough to be a valuable, playmaking sixth or seven man this season, even if he isn’t quite at the stage where he can provide the requisite long-range shooting to regularly play together with Ben Simmons.

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Brett Brown makes it clear what he wants from Ben Simmons

Brett Brown makes it clear what he wants from Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons had arguably the finest game of his young NBA career. He set a career high in points (34) and made his second NBA three. He also made 9 of 12 from the free throw line.

Yes, it was against a bad team in disarray in the Cavaliers who the Sixers crushed in a 141-94 win at the Wells Fargo Center Saturday night (see observations).

But it showed us the blueprint of what Brett Brown is looking for out of his All-Star point guard.

This is what I want, OK — you can pass this along to his agent, his family and his friends and to him — I want a three-point shot a game, minimum. The pull-up twos, I'm fine with whenever he's open but I'm interested in the three-point shot. And the mentality that he has where he's turning corners and taking that long step, that gather step and bringing his shoulders to the rim and trying to dunk or finish tight, will equal higher efficiency or getting fouled. That's the world that interests me the most — those two things. And when you say, 'OK, what's the number?' I immediately throw out eight [free throws]. For whatever reason, I'm not sure, but that's a number that I think is attainable.

After an abysmal performance Thursday night where he was indecisive and turned the ball over seven times, Simmons was the complete opposite against Cleveland.

Missing Joel Embiid and Josh Richardson, the Sixers needed this version of Simmons. He attacked the rim, got to the line, hit midrange jumpers and, of course, made another three.

But what happens if/when Embiid returns to the lineup in a juicy matchup against the Raptors Sunday night? The pair have always been an imperfect fit with Simmons’ ability to push the basketball and Embiid’s dominance on the block.

If the evolution of Simmons’ game is what we saw Saturday, it could go a long in way in the duo figuring things out.

“Just learning with Jo,” Simmons said. “It’s great to have somebody like that that’s so dominant and helping him with the double teams, and just putting him in the best position to help us win games. So, having him back tomorrow is going to be great.”

For the record, there’s been no official update on Embiid, who missed the game against the Cavs with a left hip contusion.

But one the biggest things that could help Embiid navigate double teams and aid him against his boogeyman Marc Gasol is Simmons consistently attempting outside shots.

Much like the first three of his NBA career, Simmons reacted as if he’d hit 1,000 before it.

“What do you want me to do? Jump up and celebrate?”

Simmons has taken two legitimate threes this season and buried both, so the confidence isn't totally irrational. If it gets to the point where it truly isn’t newsworthy that Simmons hits a three, look out.

While Brown has been careful not to make too big a fuss over it and chosen his words carefully when talking about Simmons shooting, he couldn’t help but ponder what it would mean for Simmons — and for his basketball team as a whole.

I think the drama of it is overblown,” Brown said. “The reality that he can shoot and it ultimately, it's going to need to come into his game in a more pronounced way just from an attempt standpoint, that's not overblown. I think the drama surrounding it is completely overblown. When I just put on my coaching hat and I'm looking at a 23-year-old young man trying to grow his game, it's completely — first in his wheelhouse and secondly, he will be liberated. His world will open up. And I think, in many ways, so will ours.

His coach gave him the blueprint. Now it’s up to Simmons to implement it.

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Ben Simmons sets career high — AND makes another 3 — on record-setting night for Sixers

Ben Simmons sets career high — AND makes another 3 — on record-setting night for Sixers

BOX SCORE 

When talking with reporters after games, one of Ben Simmons’ go-to phrases is “locked in." He certainly fit that description Saturday night, requiring only 26 minutes to grab the game by the scruff of its neck.

Simmons recorded a career-high 34 points on 12 of 14 shooting (9 of 12 from the foul line) in a 141-94 Sixers win over the 5-17 Cavs that included the Australian's second regular-season NBA three-pointer.

The Sixers are now 16-7 and 11-0 at home. A much more challenging matchup awaits them Sunday when the defending champion Raptors come to town (6 p.m./NBCSP).

Josh Richardson (right hamstring tightness) and Joel Embiid (left hip contusion) were out, but the Sixers still ran into minimal resistance in dismantling the Cavs. Richardson will miss Sunday’s game as well, which will be his sixth straight absence, though a team spokesperson said before the game that the guard participated in a full-court workout Saturday. 

Here are observations from the Sixers’ blowout win: 

It happened … again 

The reaction to Simmons’ three approached the ecstasy over his long range jumper from the right corner on Nov. 20 vs. the Knicks.

It’s clear that the sight of Simmons knocking down a three is still nowhere close to normal. 

With the Sixers well on their way to an easy victory against an inferior opponent, Simmons had nothing to lose. Of course, he hasn’t previously had the same attitude in similar situations. 

Simmons spearheads historic first half 

Before the fervor inside the Wells Fargo Center on his three, Simmons was determined to put his imprint on the game early. He scored eight of the Sixers’ first 10 points, with a righty hook shot sandwiched in between two dunks and a layup.

He had 26 first-half points on 11 of 12 shooting.

One would have to look awfully hard to find anything wrong or troubling with the first half for the Sixers as they led by more points at the break than the Cavs had scored, holding a 77-36 advantage. Simmons defended second-year guard Collin Sexton well, Kevin Love missed a few open looks, Cleveland misfired on its first 11 field goal attempts and things never got much better for them. 

The Sixers’ point guard towered over Cleveland’s undersized backcourt and at times didn’t look like he belonged in the same league. He increased his NBA lead in steals with two, and he also added two blocks.

As a team, the Sixers shot 32 for 45 (71.1 percent) in the opening half and only turned it over four times. Their 25 assists were the most by any NBA team in a half this season. It was the ideal response to Thursday’s sloppy loss in Washington, D.C, in which they turned it over 21 times. 

Before Saturday night, the Sixers had never outscored an opponent in a half by more than 36 points in franchise history. They led Cleveland by 41 at the half. The 47-point win is tied for the Sixers' third-largest ever. 

Scott starts and rediscovers his shot 

Mike Scott started for the first time this season, his 12th NBA start in 459 regular-season appearances. He came in shooting an ice-cold 20.6 percent from the floor and 18.5 percent from three-point range over the Sixers’ last eight games, but an opportunity against the lowly Cavs allowed him to rediscover his offensive game. 

Scott’s first points came on a post-up against 19-year-old rookie guard Darius Garland, a mismatch which Al Horford encouraged him to exploit with a pass to Scott down low followed by a few deliberate nods of the head.

From there, Scott was looking to score, even after picking up two fouls within the first four minutes. He finished with 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting (3 for 5 from three).

Though Scott’s toughness and authenticity are part of why the Sixers like having him on their bench, one of the most important aspects of his value is simply the ability to hit open shots.

Thybulle leaves early

Matisse Thybulle, who went scoreless in nine first-half minutes, was ruled out in the third quarter after rolling his right ankle.

We’ll provide more information on Thybulle’s status as it becomes available, but the decision to hold him out of a game that was long past the point of being competitive does not seem too concerning on its surface. 

Taking care of business 

This loss was the Cavs’ 12th in 13 games. Players are “bristling” about John Belein’s coaching style, according to a report from The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Joe Vardon, and the team is ready to listen to trade offers for Love, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Love abstained from one third-quarter huddle during a timeout, choosing to stand near the basket with an exasperated expression instead of join his teammates. 

In short, the Sixers will face far more unified and talented opponents this season. The Cavs did not play with much apparent effort or skill Saturday night, on the second night of a back-to-back. 

The Sixers were supposed to blow out the Cavs, and they did. It would be stunning if they did not face a greater challenge Sunday. 

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