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.
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.
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.
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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