76ers

Haywood Highsmith and Shake Milton pull double duty for Sixers, Blue Coats

Haywood Highsmith and Shake Milton pull double duty for Sixers, Blue Coats

Shake Milton is an unlikely source of advice on playing in the NBA.

Yet, as the 22-year-old rookie headed to the Wells Fargo Center Tuesday afternoon for his second game of the day, he found himself offering a few words of wisdom to another 22-year-old rookie.

He was riding with Haywood Highsmith, who’d just signed a two-way contract at the Sixers’ facility in Camden, New Jersey (see story). A few hours earlier, Highsmith (seven points, eight rebounds) and Milton (33 points, eight assists) had played in the Delaware Blue Coats’ 119-108 win over Raptors 905. 

“Just told him to be ready,” Milton said. “At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. It’s not that hard once you get on the floor and get those jitters out. So I just told him to stay ready, and he was.”

Milton and Highsmith became the 25th and 26th players to ever play in a G-League game and an NBA game on the same day, as both saw action in the Sixers’ 132-115 win over the Wizards (see observations).

Even after talking with Milton, Highsmith, a product of Division II Wheeling Jesuit, was still processing the fact that he was in the NBA.

A crowd of approximately a dozen reporters hovered around his locker before the game, and he shook the hand of every one. Then he tried his best to answer their questions.

“This is crazy,” he said. “I don’t even think it’s hit me yet. I don’t know what to feel or think. The feeling is excitement, but it’s just a lot of feeling and a lot of thoughts.”

When head coach Brett Brown talked before the game, it sounded as if Highsmith would get to soak in the game from the bench, while Milton would see significant minutes with JJ Redick sidelined by lower-back tightness.

Yet, with the game in hand, Highsmith saw the floor.

On Nov. 30, Milton had nailed his first NBA shot, a three-pointer from the right wing in a blowout win over Washington.

Tuesday, Highsmith curled around a pin-down screen from Jonah Bolden, received a pass from Milton on the left wing and let it fly on his first NBA touch. He drained a three-pointer. 

“It was the reaction you dream about your whole life, that you think about as a kid,” Highsmith said. “It’s something I’ll always definitely remember.”

It was the culmination of an improbable rise to the highest level. 

Before the game, Highsmith explained that he’d had Division I interest from a few schools out of Archbishop Curley in Baltimore, Maryland, including Long Island and Richmond, but they wanted him to spend a year at prep school to develop.

He decided to go to Wheeling Jesuit in West Virginia, where he played for four years. The Sixers invited him to summer league minicamp, then cut him before departing for Las Vegas. 

Highsmith eventually made the Blue Coats, and he’s impressed in 21 G-League games, averaging 13.8 points on 39.4 percent three-point shooting, 6.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists.

He thinks he has what it takes to stick in the NBA.

“My game has always been translatable to the NBA game, I think I just had to develop more in a few areas,” he said. “Just develop more, just keep working. I’m versatile, 6-7, can switch onto people, shoot the three — that’s a pretty good game for an NBA player. I knew it was there, just needed to take a couple more steps.”

As for Milton, he played a career-high 20 minutes vs. the Wizards, with four points, four rebounds and three assists. 

While he did commit his first NBA turnover, he’s only coughed the ball up once in 75 NBA minutes. 

In stoic fashion, he downplayed the physical toll of playing 58 minutes in a day.

“I feel good,” he said. “Just between seeing the massage therapist and doing the cold tub, my body feels good.”

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Joel Embiid wants to be 'the best to ever do it,' and he knows what it will take to be part of the conversation

Joel Embiid wants to be 'the best to ever do it,' and he knows what it will take to be part of the conversation

CAMDEN, N.J. — Many of us are shy about sharing our ambitions, worried we’ll look foolish if we don’t reach them. Joel Embiid is most definitely not one of those people. 

When asked about his free throw shooting after Friday’s practice — he made 20 of 21 in the Sixers’ win over the Celtics on Wednesday — Embiid said he wasn’t satisfied.

“I think I should be a 90 percent free throw shooter,” he said. “Obviously I gotta work on that, spend more time and get better at it. [81.6 percent] is not good enough.”

That’s a lofty goal; Dirk Nowitzki is the only 7-footer to make at least 90 percent of his free throws in a season, per Basketball Reference. But Embiid has much, much bigger things in mind.

Obviously I want to be the best Sixer to ever play here. To do that, I gotta win championships. Obviously, I’m sure the stats are going to come with it because of the opportunity these guys give me every single night. But it’s all about winning. When you win, of course your name is going to be mentioned with the best, and I want to be the best. Not just [best] Sixers player ever, but I want to be the best to ever do it. And it’s going to take a lot. It’s going to take my teammates’ help, the coaches, the whole organization and the fans.

Embiid isn’t just casually throwing the idea out there that he wants to be the greatest of all time. He’s studied the history of the game and understands how difficult it will be to even break into that discussion. In a piece by Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck in January, Embiid said, “To me, the GOAT has always been Wilt Chamberlain.” Embiid knows it won’t be easy to overtake a man who once averaged over 50 points and over 25 rebounds in a season.

He told Beck in January, "I don't like shooting threes. I just do it because, you know, spacing. I gotta space the floor and make sure that my man never helps off of me.”

His perspective on the subject sounds like it may have shifted. A 29 percent three-point shooter this season, Embiid thinks he’s capable of being a much more efficient player from behind the arc.

“Obviously my three-point shot is still a work in progress," he said. "I’m sure I’m going to get to a point in my career where I’m shooting 40 percent. Whenever I get to that point, that’s really the last thing. Last summer was really the first time I got to work on my game. My handle got better, but there’s still so much work I still have to do … I've got a long way to go.”

Watching Embiid night after night, it’s easy to become numb to how dominant he already is. In his last two games, against two of the Eastern Conference’s elites in the Bucks and Celtics, he’s posted a combined 77 points and 39 rebounds. He’s not near Chamberlain’s status yet, but he very well may be — if he can stay healthy — on a trajectory that one day makes him a valid part of the GOAT conversation.

After being around Embiid for just six weeks, Tobias Harris is already amazed by his ability, and maybe even a little jealous.

“Joel, he’s really, really good at basketball,” Harris said. “Against Boston, he was doing some moves where I had to ask myself, ‘Can you do that move?’ And I said, ‘Probably not.’ His skill level is through the roof for somebody with his size. He’s just going to continue to get better, too. He still has a lot of things that he can grow with his game and I think that’s the scary thing about him.”

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NBA Eastern Conference power rankings: As Bucks limp to finish line, Sixers starting to look dangerous

NBA Eastern Conference power rankings: As Bucks limp to finish line, Sixers starting to look dangerous

In this edition of our Eastern Conference power rankings, things are getting interesting at the top as we inch closer to the playoffs.

1. Bucks (53-19) Last ranking: 1
Milwaukee had one of its toughest weeks of the season. After the Bucks lost to the Sixers at home, they beat the Lakers before losing to the lowly Cavs. The biggest culprit is the injury bug which has ravaged their deep roster. Giannis Antetokounmpo missed two games with an ankle injury. Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic are both out for an extended period. George Hill and Sterling Brown are also out. Milwaukee is limping to the finish line.

2. Raptors (51-21) Last ranking: 2 
There’s a chance Toronto could catch Milwaukee, though the Raptors are dealing with injury issues of their own. Kyle Lowry missed their win over the Thunder and will miss the rematch Friday night. Kawhi Leonard is still on his back-to-back restriction. The other thing I’m still curious about is Marc Gasol. He’s been OK. Meanwhile, Jonas Valanciunas has been really good for Memphis. He had a monster 33-point performance against the Rockets and has averaged 19.4 points over his last 11 games.

3. Sixers (47-25) Last ranking: 3 
Don’t look now, but the Sixers are the hottest team in the NBA. They’ve won six straight — including wins over Milwaukee and boogeyman Boston — and are now 7-1 when all five members of their new starting five are in the lineup. The Sixers have one of the easiest remaining schedules, but it seems unlikely that they’ll catch the Bucks. They appear to be a near-lock for the three seed.

I’m keeping them at three here only because of the body of work this season. With that said, the Sixers have to be looked at as a team nobody wants to face in the postseason. We’re just eight games into “Sixers 3.0.” This new starting unit may just be scratching the surface. Scary.

4. Celtics (43-29) Last ranking: 4
Boston continues to be one of the most confounding teams in the NBA. On some nights, they look unbeatable. On other nights … not so much. There still appears to be a struggle to mesh Kyrie Irving’s abilities as an iso player with Brad Stevens’ offensive system. It’s also evident that the Sixers picked on Irving defensively with great success Wednesday night. We won’t truly learn about the Celtics until the playoffs begin.

5. Pacers (44-29) Last ranking: 5
Indiana has dropped four in a row and that’s to be expected while missing All-Star Victor Oladipo and having one of the toughest schedules in the league to close out the season. The Pacers are clinging to the four seed but will likely drop and face off against Boston in the first round.

6. Pistons (37-34) Last ranking: 8
Detroit came back down to earth after its ridiculous run, but this is a team that’s figured some things out. The Pistons will go as far as Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond will take them, but it’s the recent resurgence of their perimeter players like Reggie Jackson, Wayne Ellington and Langston Galloway that’s fueled their recent success.

7. Nets (37-36) Last ranking: 6
I did struggle to drop Brooklyn because they did have a brutal road trip that took them to Oklahoma City, Utah, Los Angeles (to play the good L.A. team), and Sacramento. As their monster comeback against the Kings — in which D’Angelo Russell dropped 44 — shows, they can be wildly entertaining when playing well.

8. Heat (35-36) Last ranking: 7 
Miami is doing its best to hang on to that eighth seed with three impressive wins this week over the Hornets, Thunder and Spurs. Goran Dragic is rounding into form since returning to the lineup and has given Miami a huge boost off the bench. He averaged 22.3 points in the three wins and shot a sizzling 64 percent from three.

9. Magic (34-38) Last ranking: 9 
Orlando kept pace with Miami, winning three in a row as well. All three wins occurred after the arrival of Michael Carter-Williams. Coincidence? Yes, definitely.

10. Hornets (32-39) Last ranking: 10 
Charlotte gave the Sixers quite the scare, but it’s looking like the Hornets will come up short in their quest for the playoffs. It’s not surprising. All season in this space we referenced the need to get Kemba Walker help. That help never came.

11. Wizards (30-43) Last ranking: 11
Thomas Bryant looks like he might be a legitimate prospect. Other than that … #FreeBradleyBeal

12. Hawks (25-48) Last ranking: 12 
You have to respect what Lloyd Pierce is doing in Atlanta. The Hawks are coming off a nice win against Utah and Trae Young is making a late push to overtake Luka Doncic as Rookie of the Year. They won’t be a pushover for the Sixers Saturday.

13. Bulls (21-52) Last ranking: 13 
Same deal with the Bulls, who look like they might have something with the quartet of Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. Though they’re playing to win, it would be something if they got the No. 2 pick and wound up with Murray State’s Ja Morant.

14. Cavs (19-53) Last ranking: 14 
Speaking of Morant, he’s looking like one hell of a consolation prize if Cleveland can’t get the No. 1 pick (again). A backcourt duo of Collin Sexton and Morant could run a few teams out of the building.

15. Knicks (14-58) Last ranking: 15 
They’re watching the NCAA Tournament with bated breath, hoping Zion Williamson gets delivered to them healthy.

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