76ers

Haughton's 2018 Sixers mock draft 2.0: Kevin Knox now at No. 10

Haughton's 2018 Sixers mock draft 2.0: Kevin Knox now at No. 10

Now that NBA draft night is officially upon us, we take one final crack at what the Sixers might do with their selections. Here is Matt Haughton’s final Sixers mock draft.

First round (10th overall): Kevin Knox, SF/PF, 6-9/215, Kentucky
Brett Brown is new to this whole front office thing, so forgive him if the typical draft smoke screen scenario isn’t yet his forte. 

That means while reports keep circulating about the Sixers looking to move up for a top-five prospect, their actions have shown they’ve zeroed in on Knox. After all, Knox worked out in a group setting for the Sixers last Friday and was already back at their training facility for an individual session on Tuesday.

Knox made his mark during his lone season at Kentucky by averaging 15.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 32.4 minutes per game. The versatile forward proved he could contribute while at the same time just scratching the surface of his ability.

It’s that potential that I believe will make the Sixers pull the trigger on Knox. While there could certainly be more established commodities on the board at No. 10 such as Mikal Bridges or Miles Bridges, the fact that Knox is still just 18 years old and possesses a sky-high upside will be too much for the development-minded Brown to pass up.

First round (26th overall): Gary Trent Jr., SG, 6-6/209, Duke
With 11 players currently under contract and plans to chase big-name players in free agency, this pick could certainly be on its way out of town or devoted to a draft-and-stash prospect. 

If they do hang onto it, the Sixers obviously have eyes for Texas Tech high-flyer Zhaire Smith, who also worked out twice for the team. But he’s unlikely to make it to No. 26.

Instead, the Sixers opt for a Duke guard here, but perhaps not the one you were thinking (Grayson Allen). Trent has arguably the best shooting stroke in the entire 2018 class and has been trending up draft boards.

Trent, who averaged 14.5 points per game for the Blue Devils as a freshman, hit 40.2 percent of his shots from long range on a healthy 6.5 attempts per game.

With another former Duke guard potentially walking in free agency in JJ Redick, the Sixers could slip Trent in to help take on some of those dead-eye shooting duties.

Second round (38th overall): Elie Okobo, PG/SG, 6-2/180, France
The Sixers already started dealing off their stockpile of second-round picks on Wednesday when they reportedly shipped No. 39 to the Los Angeles Lakers for a 2019 second-rounder and cash.

Look for them to find a way to keep their final roster options open by selecting Okobo, who has even been getting some first-round consideration as of late. The Sixers hosted him for a workout a season ago before he removed his name from draft consideration and again during this pre-draft process.

The French combo guard increased his production virtually across for France Pro A squad Elan Bearnais Pau-Lacq-Orthez this past season as he recorded 12.9 points on 47.6 percent field goal shooting and 39.4 three-point shooting to go along with 4.7 assists and 2.7 boards a game.

Second round (56th overall): Arnoldas Kulboka, SF, 6-10/220, Lithuania
In another decision to keep roster slots fluid, the Sixers go the international route again with Kulboka.

The wing has tremendous size for the position and is just beginning to see his potential. Kulboka made his first foray into Italy’s second division league, Serie A2 Basket, this past season. He played for Orlandina Basket and posted 9.0 points on 39.0 percent field goal shooting and 37.4 percent from distance. He added 4.0 rebounds in 26.7 minutes a contest.

Kulboka definitely needs to bulk up and add some more seasoning against a higher level of competition, but if he develops, he could be a steal at this point in the draft.

Second round (60th overall): Trade
There are always teams that jump up with a trade offer at the last minute in an attempt to get a coveted player in those final few slots. Expect that to happen here and the Sixers to oblige.

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Sixers seal spot in second round of NBA playoffs with elite, record-tying defensive performance in win over Nets

Sixers seal spot in second round of NBA playoffs with elite, record-tying defensive performance in win over Nets

Before his team took the floor, Brett Brown admitted the Sixers had “dodged some bullets” in their first four games against the Nets. He was especially wary of Joe Harris, the NBA leader in three-point percentage during the regular season, noting the open looks he’d missed.

The Sixers’ defense made sure Brooklyn didn’t have any more bullets in the chamber Tuesday night in a 122-100 win that sealed a spot in the second round (see observations).

Though aided by Brooklyn’s abysmal effort, the Sixers’ first-half defensive performance couldn’t have been much better.

Ben Simmons smothered D’Angelo Russell, who shot 1 for 9 in the half. Jimmy Butler hunted the ball, recording three steals and causing chaos. The rotations were sharp, the communication crisp, and the intensity only escalated as the Nets’ shoulders collectively slumped. 

Brooklyn at one stage had as many made field goals as turnovers (seven). It finished the half with 31 points, tied for the fewest the Sixers have ever allowed in a playoff game, per Basketball-Reference. 

“Maybe the best we’ve defended all season, given the problems they present for our team,” JJ Redick said. “The first half was as good as you can guard.”

Defense was a concern for the Sixers entering the playoffs. Third in defensive rating in 2017-18, they finished this year tied for 13th. Pick-and-roll defense was a familiar problem. The big-picture question Brown posed at the start of training camp about how to cope when teams went small and tried to pull Joel Embiid away from the rim remained open throughout the season. 

They seem to have hit on some solutions, though simply having superior individual perimeter defenders compared to last season’s team might be the most important one. 

“I’m not going to say anything about last year's guys,” Embiid said, “but it doesn't make a difference. We got to stick to the game plan and usually the game plan is to drive all these guys to me and let me do my job as the best defensive player in the league.”

An excellent fourth quarter in Game 4 and a record-tying half in Game 5 doesn’t indicate that the Sixers’ defense is flawless. They’ve yet to show they can defend this well on a consistent basis, and potential liabilities like Redick and Boban Marjanovic will likely be challenged more in the second round against the Raptors. 

The Sixers have demonstrated, however, that all the platitudes about defense fueling offense and being a priority in the playoffs are more than just words.

“I think [losing Game 1] immediately forced us into recognizing that we are vulnerable if we don't play like we got to play defense,” Brown said. “If I were to go to one specific thing, the first game was a reminder that we better guard the way that we said we wanted to defend them or it's going to be a long series and one that we could lose.”

Regardless of whether Redick is making shots or Simmons is effective in the half court or Embiid can dominate Marc Gasol and company, this level of defense should keep the Sixers in every game. 

If Butler is to be believed, the Sixers are capable.

He didn’t agree with Redick that this was the best the Sixers have defended all season.

“Nah,” he said, unmoved. “We’ve been locking up at practice.”

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Sixers embracing championship expectations after beating Nets in first round

Sixers embracing championship expectations after beating Nets in first round

The expectations were high for the Sixers coming into the season.

Two blockbuster trades later and those expectations have only grown.

After taking care of the Brooklyn Nets with a 122-100 beating in Game 5 Tuesday night (see observations), they’ve made it into the Eastern Conference’s final four where they’ll face a stiff test in the Toronto Raptors. 

Even Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, whose team was eliminated after being thoroughly dominated in Game 5, said the Sixers “can compete for a championship.”

“That’s what we think,” Joel Embiid said. “We think we can win it all. Obviously, it is going to take a lot. You’ve got some great teams in the league. We’re about to play one of them and I don’t know who the next one is going to be, either Milwaukee or Boston, and then you’ve got the West, which is pretty tough. We just got to take one game at a time, but we understand that we’ve got all the talent that we need, especially to win it all.”

The Sixers haven’t shied away from expectations since general manager Elton Brand pulled off deals for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. After losing Game 1, it put a bit of a damper to the start of a postseason filled with so much hope.

The uneasiness wasn’t cured after having a narrow halftime lead in Game 2, but a tongue lashing by Brett Brown led to a record-setting third quarter. They faced even more misfortune when they found out Embiid was going to miss Game 3, but Ben Simmons’ strong performance carried them to a win. They found themselves down for most of Game 4, but executed down the stretch to win a thriller.

Then, with a chance to end the series at home, they jumped all over the Nets on their way to a fourth straight win. It was an impressive response from a team that’s still working out the kinks of a sometimes-dominant starting five.

Sometimes a little adversity is good for a group still trying to come together.

“I think if you’re going through a very intense, pressure-filled series, it can bring you together, make you better and stronger as a team, or it can break you,” JJ Redick said. “This series brought us together and obviously from here it just gets tougher.”

It really does.

The Sixers’ struggles against the Raptors are well-documented. Toronto is not Brooklyn. It's playoff tested and features arguably the best two-way player in basketball in Kawhi Leonard.

But for the Sixers to get to where they want to go, they need to figure out a way to accelerate the development of their chemistry and beat one of the league’s best.

“We have a team that is slowly coming together,” Brown said. “They don’t have the luxury of lots of games and lots of context to share upon … this is good. Beating Brooklyn and advancing to the second round … this is good. It can’t be discredited as, ‘Oh, you should.’ On paper, we should, but you’re still playing against a team that was a team … 

“I will answer it like that and conclude with we still have more to do — a lot more to do.”

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