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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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Whether he knows it or not, Shake Milton is now the Sixers' starting point guard

Whether he knows it or not, Shake Milton is now the Sixers' starting point guard

If you listen to Brett Brown, Shake Milton is the Sixers’ starting point guard.

If you listen to Shake Milton, the situation isn’t so definitive.

“No, not really,” Milton said Thursday night after the Sixers’ 115-106 win over the Knicks when asked if Brown had told him he could expect to start moving forward. “When somebody goes down, especially somebody who is kind of in your position, you kind of might have an idea that your number might be called, so it's just about staying ready and being prepared to play.”

Minutes earlier, Brown had raved about Milton, the second-year guard who’s gone from second-round pick to G-League standout to fringe rotation player to, well, starting point guard with Ben Simmons sidelined by nerve impingement in his lower back. He scored 19 points (6 of 7 shooting) and had four assists and two blocks vs. the Knicks. With 9 made threes in his last 11 attempts, he’s surged to a team-best 43 percent from long range. 

What a fantastic story late,” Brown said. “It’s getting to the stage where the sort of unique performances that catch your eye have become more and more frequent. … He’s just becoming consistently reliable on a bunch of things. The statistics we’re all going to see, but defensively, watch him sit in a stance and watch him follow a game plan. He’s deceptively long and I think he’s improved tremendously defensively. … 

“At this stage you’d have to say, if everybody’s looking for a tournament, he’s winning it. He’s the starting point guard. The rest of it falls into place with some other ball handlers that are more than capable and at times really good, but Shake has been a needed surprise late.

While Milton is performing above Brown's expectations, his recent success shouldn’t be shocking. At SMU, he was an excellent three-point shooter (42.7 percent from three) and a competent facilitator. In the G League, he gained experience at both guard positions and the confidence that comes with being a star in that setting. He “keeps it cool,” emphasizes being ready for anything with a steady tone in his increasingly frequent sessions with reporters, and steps in when asked. 

His jumper is a smooth and simple tool that he seems to shoot on his own terms, rarely rushed, with all the pieces aligned. An old acronym comes to mind when you watch it — Balance, eyes, elbow, follow through. 

Milton’s defense has improved recently, too, as he sharpens his feel for how and when to best use his 7-foot wingspan and takes smarter paths working around and through screens.

“I’m still learning a lot,” he said. “Every game I feel like I'm able to take away something new and learn from it, and kind of put that on my board to get better at. Tomorrow we'll go back and watch film and see the mistakes that I made and how I'm able to change those, and put out an even better effort next time.”

Tobias Harris, who led the Sixers with 34 points, said Milton’s disposition is what impressed him the most. 

“Just his fearlessness on the floor,” he said. “Shake is a really good player, but he has the confidence in himself, in his game to go out night after night and just to play. … He puts in a lot of work, works really hard. So, I'm happy for him and every time he gets an opportunity, he takes advantage of it. Tonight, he was huge for us.”

In a Sixers’ season that has, through 60 games, failed to meet expectations, a young player excelling in an expanded role is an obvious, rare feel-good story. 

To what extent Milton can sustain this level of play remains to be seen. He’ll probably be featured on more scouting reports, and it’s very possible his shooting will slump. We can say with confidence that, though he’s a far superior outside shooter, he won’t be anywhere near Simmons’ overall level any time soon. 

Milton is indeed the Sixers’ starting point guard for now, though, whether he knows it or not. 

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Sixers Talk podcast: Joel Embiid is out, but at least we have Shake Milton

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Sixers Talk podcast: Joel Embiid is out, but at least we have Shake Milton

On this edition of Sixers Talk, Paul Hudrick and Tyrone Johnson discuss the latest on Joel Embiid's injury, Tobias Harris and Shake Milton picking up the slack without Embiid and Ben Simmons, and much more.

• Reacting to the latest on Joel Embiid's shoulder injury (1:03)

• Tobias Harris and Al Horford playing better (3:24)

• Shake Milton giving the Sixers a much-needed boost (10:37)

• Glenn Robinson III claiming to not understand his role (16:14)

• Locker room issues? (23:33)

• The brutal upcoming road trip (29:01)

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