76ers

Jacob Pullen hopes 'great journey' comes to an end with Sixers

Jacob Pullen hopes 'great journey' comes to an end with Sixers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There’s a very real likelihood that Jacob Pullen’s opportunity with the 76ers is over.

That’s the harsh reality of trying to make it in the NBA.

But if there’s anybody who understands the harsh realities of life, it’s the undersized journeyman from Kansas State, who parlayed his prodigious college scoring and prolific outside shooting into a lucrative and successful career overseas — only to feel the pull to give the NBA one more shot.

That is how Pullen found himself back in Sixers camp, five years after playing for them in the summer league, trying to force his way onto a roster packed with lottery picks.

“It’s just a great feeling, a dream come true,” Pullen said, sitting in front of a locker room inside the Sprint Center in Kansas City, where he once led the Wildcats against Kansas in the Big 12 title game.

“I just looked at this as a great opportunity,” he said. “They got a lot of great guys, a lot of great younger guys. I just felt like I had a chance to come in and help them. We’ll just see what happens when it comes down to the chopping block.”

Even if he’s chopped, Sixers coach Brett Brown acknowledged the impact Pullen has made in camp.

“When you study his background internationally, and listen to him, he’s an adult. And he has a grit about him that’s very endearing, you know?” Brown said. “He loves basketball, he’s tough, he’s had an experience that I think is very impressive. And like a lot of young guys we’ve had, he’s just trying to find a chance, to get an opportunity.”

The Sixers have plenty of backcourt weapons, though. They drafted Markelle Fultz first overall, signed arguably the league’s best three-point shooter in JJ Reddick, and are loaded with versatile perimeter players such as T.J. McConnell, James Blackmon Jr. and Jerryd Bayless.

Still, the soft-spoken Pullen has managed to at the very least raise eyebrows.

“He's been an A-plus teammate, A-plus worker, no back down,” Brown said. “I think all those things have made him a really professional addition to our roster.”

Most of those traits Pullen picked up playing overseas.

After going undrafted in 2011, he played a season in Italy, bounced through the Israeli league and back to Italy, then starred for FC Barcelona in Spain. He had a stint with the Flying Leopards in China, returned to Spain and Italy, played for a club in Croatia and spent last year with a Russian team based northwest of Moscow. Pullen even picked up Georgian citizenship along the way, allowing him to play for the country in European tournaments.

“It's been a great journey,” he said. “I saw a lot of culture, I grew up a lot. I spent a lot of time over there, embraced it, learned a lot of different languages. Now I just want to stay home, enjoy the States for a while.”

A big reason for that is his soon-to-be 3-year-old daughter, who lives with her mom in Chicago. Pullen has made enough money overseas that he’s able to fly her out to see him on the road, but living overseas would make those kinds of trips impossible.

That money stashed away is also why Pullen said he’s open to signing a two-way contract or playing in the development league. He doesn’t necessarily need an NBA paycheck to get by, at least for now, and he’d be willing to pay for pennies on the dollar if it means an opportunity to fulfill his dream.

“I had other teams that were interested,” Pullen said before he recorded three points and two assists in 10 minutes of action during Friday's preseason finale. “I just felt like Philly was the best opportunity — not to wish injuries or anything, but if something happens over the course of a season, I’ll be able to step in.”

Markelle Fultz's jumper overshadows dominant nights from Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid

Markelle Fultz's jumper overshadows dominant nights from Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid

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Ben Simmons had a triple-double. Joel Embiid scored 30 points. But Markelle Fultz took the most shots — including his first made regular-season three-pointer — and that’s what made his head coach the happiest.

“He ended up taking the most shots out of anybody on our team,” Brett Brown said Thursday night after the Sixers’ 127-108 home-opening win (see observations), “which, in itself, is to me a statement. … But I say that as a complete positive. I felt when he was shooting the ball, they kept going under middle pick-and-rolls. He shot it to mean it, he didn’t look afraid of anything.

“He missed the shots, but they looked good, and I think in general, we played him quite a bit of minutes, he took the most shots out of anybody on the team, I thought his defense was very good. It’s a big night for that young man.”

If you didn’t watch the game, you might think Brown was talking about a player who scored 20 points and knocked down a few clutch shots. Fultz shot 5 for 15 with 12 points.

Of course it’s not just as simple as the numbers with Fultz. As Brown said, the fact that Fultz was at least willing to take the jumpers the Bulls were giving him is important. He’s not the rookie whose rare attempted jumpers were broken, clunky ordeals that never had a real chance of going in.

On a human level, it’s easy to root for Fultz, to urge him to shoot and go crazy when he knocks one down from long range.

“Anytime you work really, really hard for something, it just makes the reward that much better,” Fultz said. “When you finally get the results you’ve been working hard for, it’s just that much better. So for me, it’s just more fire to work even harder and keep on improving.”

On a basketball level, the questions about Fultz and his jumper didn’t disappear the instant he hit that three-pointer. He made 3 of 11 jumpers (one a half-court heave at the end of the third period) against a bad defensive team who dared him to shoot, again and again. Seven of his 12 points came in the fourth quarter, after the Sixers had already sealed a win. This is nothing close to the player the Sixers thought they took with the No. 1 pick.

It will take a lot more than one made three-pointer for defenses to stop sagging off Fultz. But the Sixers believe that, over time, he’ll knock down enough jumpers that giving him space is no longer the obvious scouting report. 

“I want him to be confident,” Brown said. “I want him finding some level of swagger. I’ll try to get him the ball and put him in middle pick-and-rolls and try to find a way to help him. Tonight I thought he helped himself, he took what the game gave him. Given the incredible sort of groundswell after one game, good for him.”

Embiid, the man whose 30 points and 12 rebounds were rendered a footnote, has faith in Fultz’s growth.

“It’s like what I’ve always said, he’s going to be really good,” Embiid said. “I know it. Everybody always gets excited when he shoots a three. He’s going to make those, he’s worked on his shot the whole summer, so that’s nothing to worry about. I think the way he can help us is just being a playmaker. When I’m on the floor with him I really feel comfortable. He really knows how to find guys and understands when someone needs the ball, that’s where he’s going to help us a lot.”

At some point, maybe the fans at the Wells Fargo Center won’t go wild every time Fultz takes a three. That day doesn't seem like it will come anytime soon.

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Sixers 127, Bulls 108: Markelle Fultz's 1st regular-season 3-pointer and Ben Simmons' triple-double headline win

Sixers 127, Bulls 108: Markelle Fultz's 1st regular-season 3-pointer and Ben Simmons' triple-double headline win

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When Markelle Fultz got the ball, it felt a little bit like the Flyers were on the power play — there was a chorus of “shoot!” from the Wells Fargo Center crowd. Two minutes into the game, despite the Bulls' Cameron Payne playing well off him, Fultz turned down a generous invitation at a wide-open three-pointer from the left corner and dribbled into traffic instead.

It wasn't what the crowd came to see, and it wasn't an encouraging sign for Fultz or the Sixers. To Fultz's credit, however, he didn't stop shooting.

The fans went wild when he made his first regular-season three-pointer early in the fourth quarter.

He finished with 12 points on 5 for 15 shooting after an extended fourth-quarter stint with the game out of Chicago's reach.

Fultz was the man in the spotlight Thursday night, but the Sixers' two dependable stars led the team to a home-opening win, 127-108. Here are some observations from the first victory of the season:

• Ben Simmons recorded his first of what will be many triple-doubles this season, posting 13 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists, and it almost doesn't feel worthy of more than a cursory note — that's how easy he makes it look. Outside of his reliable stat-sheet stuffing, Simmons' defense has been incredibly impressive. Brett Brown's preseason goal of Simmons making an All-Defensive team seems very attainable.

• Joel Embiid attempted only five free throws in the opener against the Celtics. That’s not going to happen very often this season. Embiid was his usual dominant self in the low post against the Bulls and rookie Wendell Carter Jr., posting 30 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. He made 12 of his 14 free throws. 

• The Sixers' best five is still clearly last season's starting lineup. The 18-0 run that group went on early in the third quarter turned a surprisingly close game into the blowout most expected.

• Bobby Portis and Zach LaVine were on fire early for the Bulls. The two combined for 28 points on 11 for 12 shooting in the first quarter, as the Bulls posted 41 points in the period. The Sixers didn’t allow 40 or more points in a first quarter all of last season. 

• Brown’s usage of Fultz against the Bulls was much closer to the plan he outlined at the beginning of the season, with the emphasis on getting Fultz as many minutes as possible at the point. Brown mostly either played Fultz when Simmons sat or put Simmons at the four when Fultz was in the game. Fultz ran the point late in the first and early in the second quarter for an intriguing lineup with shooters JJ Redick and Landry Shamet on the wings. 

• Brown told reporters pregame he expects to be without new acquisitions Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala “for a while.” Chandler is out with a hamstring strain suffered in the Sixers’ first preseason game, while Muscala is sidelined with an ankle sprain. 

Those absences have opened up a spot for the rookie Shamet, who played well against the Bulls after scoring just one point in 12 minutes in his NBA debut. Shamet had 12 points on 4 of 7 shooting from three-point range on Thursday.

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