James Ennis looks like 'ideal bench player' in Sixers' win over Knicks

James Ennis looks like 'ideal bench player' in Sixers' win over Knicks

Through the first three games of the season, James Ennis was struggling. His jump shot, which was a point of emphasis for Ennis over the summer, wasn’t falling and wasn’t looking particularly good. 

It seemed to be leaking into the other parts of Ennis’ game. That led to him playing a season-low eight minutes in Atlanta on Oct. 28. Ennis wasn’t happy about that and was determined to not let that happen again.

Fast forward to Friday night and Ennis’ recent stretch of strong play culminated in a 20-point performance in the shorthanded Sixers’ 101-95 comeback win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden (see observations).

The hard work he’d put in during the offseason appears to be paying off.

“It's a relief,” Ennis said to reporters postgame when asked how it felt. “It's worth it. But yeah, I'm just happy to have good teammates who found me tonight. Without them, those shots would've never happened.”

Ennis is as selfless as they come. 

It seems like a distant memory, but it wasn’t that long ago that Ennis was in a fight for minutes with Jonathon Simmons after both players came over at the trade deadline last season. Ennis, shrewdly acquired in a second-round pick swap with Houston, won that “tournament” and was a productive part of the Sixers’ rotation into the postseason.

When he hit the open market this summer, he had other suitors who offered more money. The well-traveled veteran liked his opportunity to play alongside the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and compete for a title better. He signed a two-year deal for the veteran minimum with a player option in Year 2 to be back here.

And the team brought him back to be a key cog off their bench. After a slow start, he’s been just that. Since the aforementioned game against the Hawks, Ennis is shooting 41.4 percent from three. In his last nine games, he’s shot a scintillating 52 percent from distance (13 of 25). 

The 20 points Friday were the most since the 29-year-old dropped 21 as a Piston in March of 2018. He also came up clutch, going 9 of 9 — including 7 of 7 in the fourth — from the line, a career high in makes and attempts.

All of that, and he continued to play an aggressive brand of defense.

“I thought he was good on both sides of the ball,” Brett Brown said. “We struggled from the three ... in the first half. But James' ability to swing, swing and then knock stuff down in the corners, which he was the recipient of a few times, certainly helps the scoreboard. And when you have somebody as dominant as Joel Embiid, you post him. We've experienced a lot of doubles — we've been trying to work on our post spacing a lot. I think tonight we reap the benefit of a lot of that effort that the guys have put in. But James, especially at the end of stuff like that, was recognized.”

The shot has been going down lately, but Ennis is better known for bringing energy and his elite athleticism off the bench. 

For a player that stands at 6-foot-6, Ennis’ best skill is his ability to hit the offensive glass. He’s third on the team in offensive rebounding percentage, behind only centers Embiid and Kyle O’Quinn.

“He’s a hard worker,” Simmons said. “He causes a lot of havoc down low when the ball goes up, and people probably don’t notice it — people that play the game would notice it. But that’s one of the things that James is elite at.”

Add making shots to that mix and Ennis can be “the ideal bench player,” as Brown called him after the Sixers’ win over New York a little over a week ago.

With Josh Richardson and Al Horford out, the Sixers needed every bit of Ennis’ performance.

A man of few words, Ennis wasn’t worried about having to step up in the absence of his teammates. He plays the same way every time he gets on the court.

“I just do what I do,” Ennis said. “I just want to come in and play hard. I want to win. Every time I step on the floor I give it my all.”

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Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Around this time last year, Tobias Harris was leading the surprising Clippers to a strong start. Harris was averaging over 20 points a game while flirting with the 50-40-90 shooting line. He was a borderline All-Star.

Fast forward a year later and the 27-year-old resembles that player more now than he ever has during his tenure as a Sixer.

Harris added another impressive performance to his recent stretch of strong play in the Sixers’ 116-109 win over the Pelicans Friday night (see observations).

It wasn’t the cleanest performance for the Sixers, but Harris’ team-high 31 points helped the Sixers stay a perfect 14-0 at the Wells Fargo Center and become the only undefeated team at home in the NBA.

Every night is an opportunity for me to go out there and do the best I can to help our team win,” Harris said. "I’d love to be an All-Star — it’s a goal of mine as a player. I felt last year I was an All-Star in the beginning of the season. It didn’t happen that way. But I think each and every night, especially with our team, we have a nice amount of talent and I want to play at my best every single night to help us win games.

It hadn’t been the smoothest transition for Harris since he arrived in a blockbuster trade from Los Angeles.

The Sixers had just traded for Jimmy Butler a couple months prior and they were still trying to figure out how to use the mercurial star alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. With Harris, it was another mouth to feed and another piece to fit into the puzzle.

On paper, it looked like a master stroke by GM Elton Brand. Harris had become an elite three-point shooter and a go-to scorer for the Clippers. But the chemistry didn’t develop as quickly as they would’ve liked as Embiid missed a significant amount of time down the stretch with tendinitis in his left knee.

Over the last 16 games — and with Butler in Miami — Harris seems to have found his niche with the Sixers.

“Yeah, there’s definitely a comfort level, just being able to get familiar with guys on this team on and off the floor,” Harris said. “I think as a team, the comfort level from each and every one of the guys that’s on the floor is continuing to increase. I’m able to find ways to play with Ben in different pockets of the game, and Joel, also. There’s been a lot of things that I’ve liked. I’m going into games understanding more of what we need to do, where I’m at, where I’m going to get this play, that play, things like that.”

While the All-Star game doesn’t generally account for defense, that is likely where Harris has seen his most improvement.

In Friday night’s game, he was tasked with guarding former Sixer JJ Redick. As we saw during Redick’s time in Philly, that’s not an easy ask. Redick runs a marathon every game, navigating around screens and running dribble handoffs. Harris did a decent enough job, as Redick went 6 of 15 on the night.

Improving on the defensive end was Harris’ biggest point of emphasis this offseason. He went to Brett Brown before the season began and let him know that he wouldn’t be the weak link amongst a starting five that had elite-level defenders.

The notion of putting Harris on someone like Redick wouldn’t even have crossed his head coach’s mind last season.

“Could Tobias have done something like that last year? I didn't see him like that,” Brown said. “Maybe he could have, but I never saw him or played him like that and this year I do. And I think that it's part of your question about, 'Oh, he's having a great year,' and you go right to offense. I think he's having a hell of a year defensively.”

Harris is 13th in the conference in scoring and fourth among forwards. His 2.6 win shares are second-most among any forward in the East.

Throw in the last 16 games, where Harris has averaged 22.1 points and shot over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from three, and the case is making itself.

You don't need much more ammunition," Brown said. "I mean, he's been so steady and just responsible, reliable, go-to guy. I put him kind of in a bunch of different spots — middle pick-and-roll, iso, three balls, making his free throws, plays that back down pound, pound game and can jump over people, smaller people. He's having a hell of a year.

A good enough year to be in Chicago on Feb. 16 for the All-Star game?

There’s a strong case to be made.

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After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

Norvel Pelle is not the typical NBA player.

A native of Antigua and Barbuda, Pelle was a top recruit out of high school — that part was normal. Then his path went sideways.

The wiry center never played college basketball because of eligibility issues. He traveled to Delaware, Italy, Taiwan and Lebanon before signing a one-year, two-way contract with the Sixers this summer and reaching Friday night, where Brett Brown turned to Pelle, in his third NBA regular-season game, as Joel Embiid’s main backup. 

“It’s just knowing that this opportunity is once in a lifetime,” Pelle told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I worked hard to get here and I can’t mess up. So, just getting the jitters out — obviously there are going to be jitters regardless, but just meditating and staying positive throughout the whole thing.”

In 12 minutes, Pelle was exceptionally active. He had six points, five rebounds, three blocks and a handful of altered shots. Every time Pelle has stepped on an NBA floor, it seems he has been immediately challenged by players on a mission to embarrass him. It hasn’t always gone his way. Julius Randle slammed one in over Pelle in his NBA debut in New York and Kevin Porter Jr. dunked on Pelle last Saturday and then flexed in his face despite the Cavs trailing by more than 40 points. 

A member of the G League’s All-Defensive First Team last season, Pelle sees no shame in taking the occasional ferocious dunk to the face. He’s a showman who enjoys playing to the crowd and feeds off its energy, and he never likes to show any fear. 

“Next play,” he said of his mentality. “Next play, next play, next play. At the end of the day, I’m a shot blocker, so if I get dunked on, I get dunked on — that’s my mentality. Next play.” 

After picking up two early fouls, Pelle waited out a series of pump fakes from former Sixer Jahlil Okafor to record his first block of the night, leading to a Ben Simmons dunk. He then denied a slam attempt by Brandon Ingram, creating a fast break that concluded with a James Ennis three. 

“You know every game he's going to bring you energy,” Simmons said following the Sixers' 116-109 win over the Pelicans (see observations). “He loves blocking shots, just risking his body for those blocks and protecting the rim. I love having him as a part of this team.”

Both Simmons and Brown said Pelle reminded them of Nerlens Noel. Like Noel, Pelle’s offensive game is not too extensive — it’s mostly screening and rolling, lob catching and energy. The defensive package, though, is intriguing.

“Just wanted to see what we have in him,” Brown said. “We had a little taste in New York. I wanted to see more. And I thought he was really good. I thought he was really good. He is sort of Nerlens like to me — rim protector, shot blocker, quick off the floor. I thought he was good.”

It’s uncertain whether Pelle could eventually have a consistent role with the Sixers. The man whose job he temporarily took Friday, Kyle O’Quinn, was signed this offseason to be insurance for Embiid. Al Horford should assume the primary backup center position once he returns from the left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness that’s sidelined him the past two games. 

Pelle’s two-way contract also means he can’t be with the Sixers for more than 45 days between the start of Blue Coats training camp and the end of the G League regular season, and he’s not eligible for the NBA playoffs.

Brown didn’t attribute Pelle’s five fouls vs. the Pelicans to being “undisciplined,” but the big man would likely need to refine his game a bit if he was tasked with a regular role.

Embiid wasn’t worried about any of that. 

“I told him if he got the minutes, he would probably lead the league in blocks,” he said. “He has a chance to become a fan favorite, so he should just keep doing whatever he’s doing.”

After all the empathic dunks and dramatic poses and swatted shots in foreign gyms, Pelle had time to reflect Friday night. 

“This was more than what I expected,” he said. “I’m appreciative of everything and everybody. I’m taking it day by day, moment by moment, opportunity by opportunity and just go out there and do what I have to do.”

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