How much will Sixers develop in offseason? — Part 2

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How much will Sixers develop in offseason? — Part 2

For Sixers coach Brett Brown, we know it’s all about “star hunting" or "star developing.” But the members of the Sixers’ young core who don’t fit that star category have pretty important roles to fill next season as well.

Monday, we analyzed what kind of offseason development is realistic to expect from Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (see story).

Today, we’ll look at which areas Robert Covington, Dario Saric and T.J. McConnell could improve in this offseason.

Robert Covington 

Covington is valuable for the Sixers in many ways. That said, he’s a somewhat limited player who, to his credit, seems to know his weaknesses.

“This summer, I’m focused a lot on ball-handling, explosion, quickness at the rim, a lot of different things,” Covington said at his end-of-season press conference May 10. “My trainers already have a game plan, they came to me after [Game 5 against the Celtics], like, ‘We already know what our breakdown is going to be. But just take some time off, get your mind right, get your body right. And then once we’re ready, we’re getting at it.'"

Ball-handling is certainly not a strength for Covington, and he doesn’t do very much of it. When he gets the ball, he usually either shoots it or quickly dishes it off to a teammate. He averaged 1.44 seconds per touch last season, the lowest of any non-big on the Sixers.

That stat isn’t a bad thing, just an indication of the way Covington plays. Because Covington generally stays within himself, he avoids unnecessary turnovers and keeps the offense flowing. Still, if he could improve his ability to shot-fake and drive to the basket, it would be a significant boost for the Sixers.

Another weak spot for Covington is his finishing around the basket. He made just 53.1 percent of his layups last season, and his layup efficiency has (slightly) decreased every year over the past four seasons. Unfortunately, that may be a difficult area to target, since so much of finishing comes down to innate feel. But Covington can still try to address it by expanding his variety around the rim and working on layups at different angles.

Finally, Covington’s midrange game leaves a lot to be desired. Though he’s an efficient player in the sense that most of his shots are either behind the three-point line or at the rim, he’s not an efficient player when he shoots from midrange. On Covington’s attempts between three feet out and the edge of the arc last season, he shot 29.9 percent. 

Covington has a first-team All-Defense honor on his résumé, so that end of the floor shouldn’t be the focus this offseason. However, once the season starts, it would help the Sixers if Covington can better hone his sense for the right gambles to take — Covington finished last season seventh in the league in fouls. Though he’s going to pick up his fair share of fouls given the tough defensive assignments he draws and the risks he needs to take to pick up deflections (308, the most in the NBA) and steals (137, sixth in the league), cutting down a little on his fouls would be a reasonable expectation for Covington. 

Dario Saric 

Saric’s improvement as a shooter from Year 1 to Year 2 was very encouraging — he went from a 31.1 percent three-point shooter as a rookie to 39.3 percent last season.

Heading into Year 3, Saric said he wants to improve his perimeter defense.

“Footwork, how to guard smaller guards,” Saric said May 10. “In some situations, there is the switching, so how to defend a quicker guy.”

Defending quicker guys was probably at the forefront of Saric’s mind when he made those comments because of the Sixers’ postseason loss to the Celtics. Against Boston, the Sixers’ lack of athleticism was certainly exposed, and it sounds like Saric wants to be a step quicker when he’s switched onto someone like Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown.

Based on Saric’s all-consuming grittiness, it’s certainly fair to expect he’ll be working as hard as he can to come into next season better equipped to handle those sort of defensive matchups. Whether or not he can improve in that area is another question.

While Saric should be able to gain small edges by studying individual tendencies, funneling his man into help defense and trying to maintain his balance on the perimeter, he can only do so much to change his athletic ability. But there’s no doubt Saric will be putting in the work to improve his agility as much as possible. 

Offensively, Saric’s post game still has room to grow. On post-ups last season, Saric averaged 0.87 points per possession, 48th percentile in the league. If Saric can add a few counter moves into his arsenal, that number should improve. 

And when he’s operating inside, Saric could try to get to the foul line more often. Despite his physicality, Saric averaged only 2.7 free-throw attempts per game. Though part of that can be attributed to him just not getting a lot of calls even when he was hammered by defenders, a more concerted effort to draw fouls is one way he could post a few more points next season.

T.J McConnell 

It sure feels like McConnell already gets as much as he can out of his talent. But are there any ways he could improve this offseason?

He addressed one of his weaknesses in a big way last offseason, going from a 20 percent three-point shooter in 2016-17 to a 43.5 percent shooter from long distance last season. 

You can’t ask much more from one of your second-unit guards than 43.5 percent shooting from three-point range, although it’s important to keep in mind that McConnell attempted only 62 three-point shots. McConnell could still improve his jumper by making his release quicker so that he’s able to hit the occasional shot in traffic and not have to limit himself to almost exclusively open looks. 

If McConnell could add another element to his game, that would obviously be great for the Sixers. But realistically, the key for his offseason development will be working on doing the things he already does well (attacking the paint, finding his teammates for open shots, hounding opposing point guards, providing the proverbial “spark” off the bench) just a little better.

And hey, you never know — maybe McConnell will suddenly start posterizing defenders, as he apparently did at practice last season.


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Ben Simmons film review: Making the most of Sixers point guard's game in half-court offense

Ben Simmons film review: Making the most of Sixers point guard's game in half-court offense

It is the third healthy season of Ben Simmons’ NBA career and he has made two three-point shots in the regular season. That fact is difficult to ignore and unfortunately tends to distort any evaluation of Simmons.

The 23-year-old is also, of course, a gifted player who leads the league in steals, is fifth in assists and, to put it simply, is very good at many parts of basketball besides shooting.

Instead of fixating on his shot or praising all his skills, let’s evaluate Simmons in half-court offense and examine, outside of the obvious, where he can get better. 

Making the most of all that room 

Normal NBA actions, like this 1-5 pick-and-roll at the end of the first half on Dec. 27, are sometimes less normal when Simmons is involved.

Going under a ball screen is a common scheme, but the way Aaron Gordon slid under Joel Embiid at the foul line before Simmons had even gone inside the arc is not. This defensive approach against Simmons can make it difficult to run conventional offense.

Since he hasn’t yet done it, we don’t know whether Simmons taking these near-omnipresent opportunities to shoot would change how teams defend him. The similar way opponents guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, now a very willing outside shooter (32.4 percent from three on 5.1 attempts per game), indicates it might not. 

One action the Sixers like as a means of exploiting the open space teams give Simmons is called “12,” and it begins with a wing rising up from the baseline to set a ball screen for Simmons, accept a handoff or slide out behind the arc, as Furkan Korkmaz did early in the fourth quarter Wednesday night.

It got Josh Richardson a good look in the second quarter on Christmas. This is an odd way to produce a three in the modern NBA, but the Sixers managed an open one for Richardson because Donte DiVincenzo got caught under the sagging Antetokounmpo.

Simmons can chew up space well, and not just by sprinting at top speed. He countered the defense’s expectations and changed pace effectively on the play below, acting as if he was going to hand it off to James Ennis before accelerating.

A focus on spacing 

For the current version of Simmons, off-ball spacing is vital. When Al Horford posts up, Tobias Harris drives or two teammates run a pick-and-roll, it’s important that Simmons is in the proper floor spot.

Brett Brown said on Dec. 17 it’s something he often reviews with Simmons.

I spend so much time with Ben talking about spacing. … He uses the space to play downhill and so somewhere, the bottom line is we need to grow his perimeter game. And it starts with space. Out of a post, where is he? Out of a pick-and-roll, where is he? Not when he's in the post, not when he's in the pick-and-roll — when he's out of the action. Those are the areas that we've been talking a little bit about.

“He's been great. He sees it and he shares things with me, too, that I give him credit for. And so this is a partnership. I'm here to help him, help us, help himself. And that I'll continue to try to do. 

The Sixers are working to deprogram Simmons’ default mode of wanting to be as close to the basket as possible. On the play below, he stood in a no man’s land between the left block and left elbow instead of relocating behind the arc, didn’t look at the rim when Harris dropped the ball off to him and ultimately helped derail the trip. 

A positive possession for Simmons in terms of spacing is usually quite basic. Here, he recognized Embiid was in the “dunker spot,” walked back to the three-point line and stayed there as Harris drove.

The team just needs Simmons to be attentive, aware of both where his teammates are and where he should be once he gives up the ball. It didn’t have an impact on this particular play, but notice how Harris had to motion to Simmons as he stared at Horford posting up — “Move over to the corner.”


Pick-and-roll progress 

The pick-and-roll pairing of Richardson and Simmons has picked up steam over the past few weeks.

As Brown noted on Jan. 5, Simmons has many qualities that should make him a good screener and roller.

“I think Ben is a really good screen setter,” he said. “He’s physical — he embraces that side of it. And he’s a dynamic roller — he’s a lob guy, he’s a catch-go guy and he can facilitate picking off corners as a passer.”

The lob part of that equation is unique for a "point guard."

Richardson obviously made the right read to throw it up to Simmons when he noticed James Harden hadn’t fully recovered, but Simmons’ size and athleticism are why that pass was an option.

When Brown talks about “quarterbacking” a gym, he usually is referring to Embiid picking out passes from the low block. Simmons, though, can do something similar from the top of the key, like on this after-timeout play from Dec. 28. 

That’s an easy pass for Simmons to throw once he sees Kelly Olynyk front the post like the Sixers hoped he would.

Simmons can often gain that position against smaller players. The Sixers got Simmons a switch against the 6-foot Chris Paul on Jan. 6, essentially leaving him free to throw any pass he wanted. He picked out an excellent one, rifling it to Horford in the corner when he saw Danilo Gallinari briefly fall asleep. 

This season, Simmons is 7 of 30 from 10 feet and out (23.3 percent). He was 25 for 105 last season (23.8 percent).

His major weakness is unavoidable and an obstacle the Sixers must continue to confront in their half-court offense. Simmons has strengths in the half court, too — his downhill driving ability, the attention he draws, his passing, his screening and rolling. 

One aspect of the current formula for success is maximizing those positives. The others are being fastidious about spacing, and intelligent in countering opponents knowing Simmons’ jump shot is not a threat and playing him as such. 

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NBA All-Star voting 2020: Where Sixers' Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons stand as fan voting nears end

NBA All-Star voting 2020: Where Sixers' Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons stand as fan voting nears end

With fan voting set to end on Monday for the 2020 NBA All-Star Game, the Sixers' Joel Embiid sits third among Eastern Conference frontcourt players and Ben Simmons is eight among guards.

Below are returns from the Western Conference.

Pascal Siakam passed Embiid over the last week. Of course, Embiid suffered a torn ligament in his left ring finger on Jan. 6. He had surgery Friday and did non-contact drills following practice on Thursday.

If Embiid is selected for the All-Star Game and not able to play, Commissioner Adam Silver will name an injury replacement.

Embiid is a two-time All-Star starter, while Simmons is hoping for a second straight selection.

Fan voting has a 50 percent weight in deciding All-Star starters, with the votes of a panel of media members and players each accounting for 25 percent. All-Star reserves are decided by coaches' voting.

Starters will be named next Thursday, and reserves will be named a week later. The All-Star Game will be on Feb. 16 in Chicago.

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