How much will Sixers develop in offseason? — Part 1

How much will Sixers develop in offseason? — Part 1

If the Sixers are going to improve upon last season’s 52 regular-season wins and exit in the Eastern Conference semifinals, it will be because of internal development. Without any major offseason splashes to speak of, their immediate future hinges on what sort of strides their young core can make.

Understandably, most of the focus has been on Markelle Fultz’s offseason work with trainer Drew Hanlen, and the buzz around his retooled shot. But what sort of development is realistic to expect from Fultz? Can Ben Simmons build upon a special rookie season and add a serviceable jumper to his versatile skillset? Is Joel Embiid capable of an MVP-caliber season? Those are all questions worth taking a deeper look at.

Markelle Fultz

There’s plenty of optimism surrounding Fultz and his work with Hanlen. 

Yahoo Sports’ Jordan Schultz reported that, according to a league source, “Fultz's jumper is rebuilt and that [as] a result, the 20-year-old guard is a completely different, vastly improved player.”

On his podcast, JJ Redick said he also had reason to feel good about Fultz’s progress.

"By all accounts that I've heard both externally and internally from the Sixers, he has progressed and he's in a good place, mentally and physically,” Redick said. “I think he's going to have a fantastic season." 

That’s obviously not surprising to hear from one of Fultz’s teammates, but there’s no question the overall vibe around Fultz’s progress is positive. Since Hanlen has decided it’s best not to showcase videos of Fultz shooting, however, we have no concrete evidence yet of Fultz’s new and improved jumper. We also don’t know yet whether he’ll be able to translate the work he’s done with Hanlen into game situations.

“What I can tell you is that he’s doing very well,” Hanlen said on Alex Kennedy’s HoopsHype podcast. “I think that a lot of people think that we’re hiding him and we’re not hiding him. We’re just being very strategic in what we share because obviously, you don’t want to ever add pressure to a player when you don’t have to.”

While Fultz is clearly a unique case, there’s an encouraging track record for young, talented players who either struggled or didn’t contribute much as rookies.

Gordon Hayward (5.4 points per game), Paul George (7.9 ppg.), Dirk Nowitzki (8.2 ppg.) and James Harden (9.9 ppg.) all had underwhelming rookie seasons at 20 years old. Fultz averaged 7.1 points, 3.8 assists and 3.1 rebounds in 14 regular-season games. He also became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double, with 13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists on April 12 against the Bucks, at 19 years and 317 days old. He’s far from a lost cause.

It’s absolutely realistic to think Fultz will significantly improve upon his bizarre rookie season. But it’s probably not reasonable to believe he’ll become a star overnight.

Even if Fultz plays well at the start of the season, it seems unlikely he’d force his way into the starting lineup. In 600 regular-season minutes together, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Embiid, Redick and Simmons outscored opponents by 269 points. That’s 100 points better than the next-best five-man lineup. You’d think Brett Brown would be inclined to keep that group intact. 

An X-factor to consider when projecting Fultz’s development is that he essentially had a redshirt year, outside of those 14 regular-season games and three playoff contests. After what amounted to two redshirt seasons, Embiid entered the NBA with skills we’d never seen him show at Kansas. Simmons was so impressive after his “redshirt” season that some argued he’d gained such a big advantage that classifying him as a rookie was unfair. 

Though it remains to be seen whether Fultz’s unusual quasi-redshirt year will be beneficial, Fultz said at his end-of-season press conference on May 10 that he picked up a lot just by watching from the bench.

“[I learned] a lot,” Fultz said. “Even being in practice with these guys and then when I was sitting out, I was able to see stuff from a different perspective, see the guys that were open when we ran plays, see the defensive spots that we needed to be in, so it helped me a lot, more than I think somehow if I was on the court, so I’m very happy with what I learned over this period of time.”

Ben Simmons

Matt Haughton already broke down many of the reasons why Simmons should be able to reach an even higher level in his second season here.

It’s worth noting that, of the 68 players to win Rookie of the Year honors prior to Simmons, 53 went on to make at least one All-Star game after their rookie season. It’s rare that a young player as talented as Simmons doesn’t keep getting better, especially given how little he relies on his shot. Unlike some players who depend on their jumpers, there’s nothing streaky or fluky about Simmons’ all-around game.

As for that shot, Simmons is probably not going to start regularly stroking threes in games anytime soon, even though he sometimes does so after practice. We’re talking about a player who shot 25 percent from 10 feet and out.

But Simmons is a smart player. He’s not oblivious to the fact that having some sort of midrange jumper in his arsenal would make him “scary” to guard, and he should be working hard to implement that into his game.

Historically, there’s some precedent for players who came into the league as non-shooters and ultimately became average or even above-average from long range. For instance, Jason Kidd shot 27.2 percent from three-point territory as a rookie, raised that to 33.6 percent in his second year, and finished his career at 34.9 percent from deep.

That said, for players who manage to develop a decent shot, it often takes time. John Stockton shot an abysmal 16.7 percent from three-point range over the first three years of his career and ended his career as a 38.4 shooter from long distance. 

Al Horford made just 21 of 65 three-point attempts over the first eight years of his career. Like Simmons, he didn't make a single three-point shot as a rookie (or in his second year, for that matter). In the last three seasons, Horford is 271 of 724 (37.4 percent) from three-point range. He shot 42.9 percent from behind the arc last season. It took a while, but Horford eventually transformed his game. He thinks Simmons can make similar, gradual progress.

“He’s already difficult to guard,” Horford told NBC Sports Philadelphia during the Sixers’ postseason series against the Celtics. “Like all players, we all make progressions. When I came in the league, I wasn’t shooting much outside the paint. And over the years, I’ve expanded my game — you can say that about a lot of guys. And I feel like with him, it’ll just be another weapon in his arsenal, that he will continue to develop that [jumper].”

Simmons doesn’t need to extend his range to the three-point line to significantly elevate his game. He may start shooting threes one day, but for the time being, he should have improved confidence and proficiency with his midrange jumper. 

Joel Embiid

Just in case you forgot, Embiid thinks he could have an MVP-level season in 2018-19. 

“This season, this is my first year going into a summer healthy and I’m excited about it. I feel like next year is definitely going to be a type of MVP season for me,” Embiid said at his end-of-season press conference. “But it starts with my body. I love being in the gym and I don’t feel like taking any time off, so we’re going to see how the summer goes.”

Embiid was honest that day about not being in ideal physical condition last season, noting that, because he had to spend the offseason rehabbing, he came in “overweight” and struggled to get into peak game shape.

Outside of conditioning, Embiid has a few areas he’s focused on. According to Hanlen, low-post dominance, three-point shooting and “playing on the perimeter slash taking care of the ball” are their three priorities this summer. 

Embiid’s three-point shooting regressed last season, as he shot 30.8 percent from behind the arc after making 36.7 percent of his three-point attempts as a rookie. Embiid feels “it’s kind of disrespectful to leave me.” But given the threat he poses in the low post, and his subpar three-point shooting numbers last season, Embiid is probably going to get a decent number of open looks. 

With the opportunity he has to refine his stroke with Hanlen, you’d expect him to be an improved three-point shooter next season, even if he doesn’t shoot quite as well as he did his rookie year, when his numbers were somewhat skewed by a hot start and the fact he only played in 31 games. 

Though he committed 3.7 turnovers last season, Embiid’s turnover ratio actually went down from 16.3 as a rookie to 13.8 in his second year. As he continues to get more comfortable being the focal point of the Sixers’ offense and improves his face-up game, his turnovers should continue to decrease. 

NBA players typically peak around age 26, so an MVP-level season would be a little ahead of schedule for Embiid. But with a full summer to hone his skills and his conditioning, it’s not so crazy to think that, health permitting, Embiid will be a more dominant player next season.

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Elton Brand should help Sixers fuse new school with old school

Elton Brand should help Sixers fuse new school with old school

CAMDEN, N.J. — Elton Brand was a phenomenal basketball player.

The 1999 No. 1 overall pick played 17 seasons and made two All-Star appearances. He was on the court for the Sixers a little over two years ago. 

When the team named Brand their GM, it seemed like an odd fit. On the court, former NBA player and Philly native Malik Rose referred to Brand as an “old school Chevy.”

Now, Brand is charged with leading an NBA team in 2018. And not just any NBA team, but one that’s had a heavy focus on analytics, starting with former GM Sam Hinkie and “the process.” 

“Analytics is a great tool,” Brand said Thursday at his introductory press conference at the team’s practice facility. “We’ve built one of the strongest analytical departments in the league in my opinion. But I’ll bring the human side. I’ll bring the 17 years of evaluating talent and being on the court to add to the analytics.”

This makes a ton of sense. With Brand’s promotion to GM, Alex Rucker took his former position as executive VP of basketball operations. Rucker’s most recent position was senior VP of analytics and strategy. 

With Brand embracing the analytical side of things, the Sixers appear to have an ideal front office situation. Everyone surrounding Brand will be able to provide him all of the data that is out there when it comes to personnel decisions. Brand will then be able to couple that research with years of basketball experience.

“I’m not old school and trying to fight that and say, ‘let me pick with my gut,’” Brand said. “I think those little nuances, with the way the game is trending, I’m on top of that. I think I have the pulse of that.”

Brand was named the GM of the Delaware Blue Coats, the team’s G-League affiliate, just this past season. So it’s a quite a leap to go from that position to running an NBA franchise. 

He’ll rely heavily on the experience of people like assistant GM Ned Cohen and senior VP of player personnel Marc Eversley. After all, that group has led the way since Bryan Colangeo was relieved of his duties and head coach Brett Brown was given the interim GM title. 

But don’t expect Brand to simply just be the face of the franchise. Sure, that is part of his appeal after the unceremonious departures of Hinkie and Colangelo, but make no mistake, Brand will have the “loudest voice off the court,” according to managing partner Josh Harris.

Brand will bring his wealth of experience on the court into the front office. That’s another reason the Sixers hired him: his ability to relate to players as a former player himself. Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington and T.J. McConnel were among the players in attendance during his introductory press conference. 

But expect Brand to mix his old school approach with today’s way of thinking.

“In the parlance of basketball ops,” Harris said, “he’s a new school Tesla.”

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We finally have footage of Markelle Fultz's rebuilt jump shot

The Players Triune/Facebook Watch

We finally have footage of Markelle Fultz's rebuilt jump shot

No more cryptic Instagram posts. No more Zapruder-type videos.

On Thursday, Markelle Fultz gave us a glimpse of his much-anticipated jumper via an interview with the Denver Nuggets’ Isaiah Thomas for The Player’s Tribune.

The biggest takeaway? What a huge improvement from anything we saw last season.

It’s certainly encouraging, but there are still things we need to see. All of those shots were set shots off the catch. We still need to see him shooting off the dribble, at the free throw line and in game situations.

During an almost 20-minutes conversation with I.T., Fultz talked about the injury that affected his shot. He dealt with a scapular muscle imbalance, which was finally diagnosed in late October after a weird start to the season.

The biggest question involving Fultz is whether the shot change caused the injury or the change occurred because of the injury. Fultz gave a clear answer.

“There was a lot of things going about changing shots and all this, but there was an injury there,” Fultz said. “For me, I’m a hooper so I was like ‘this ain’t going to stop me.’ Once I realized I really couldn’t do stuff to my full capacity, I was like ‘it really is something’ so I had to find out what it was and we did that throughout the season.

“It took a long time, which people really didn’t understand. They thought I was just being soft but it was really an injury. And now I got a chance to just sit down and pick apart all these doctors – we figured it out and I’ve been back to work this summer and everything’s even better than what it was.”

Fultz was the No. 1 overall pick in 2017 and for good reason. He had a stellar one-and-done season with Washington. The Sixers traded up to acquire the rights to select Fultz, primarily because of his fit with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Part of that fit centered around Fultz’s jumper.

When Fultz got hurt, all of that changed. He played in just 14 games and struggled in his limited playoff action. The team won 52 games and a playoff series with him mostly as a spectator.

Now fully healthy, Fultz has spent the summer in L.A. working with training guru Drew Hanlen, who’s worked with Embiid and Jayson Tatum, among others. The work appears to be paying off.

“Sixers fans are gonna get somebody that’s going to come in and play hard,” Fultz said. “I think I’m going to be that guy that’s going to be able to create shots for himself and his teammates. That guy at the end of the game when you need a bucket – you don’t really have to call a play. I’m going to get out there on defense. Most people don’t know I like to block shots so I’m going to be a big point guard out there.”

You can check out the full video here.

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