It was just over a month ago that the Sixers were getting sliced apart by the Boston Celtics over the course of their five-game Eastern Conference semifinals series.
Sure, the Sixers allowed 106.4 points per game in the series (only up from 105.3 during the regular season). But it was how the Celtics scored those points that made the difference.
Boston’s perimeter players completely dominated the Sixers. Terry Rozier was able to dance with the ball in his hands before splashing one jump shot after another. Marcus Smart found a way to continually cut through the lane for baskets at the rim. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were stellar at all three levels to deliver the knockout punches.
It was certainly skill that allowed Tatum (23.6), Rozier (19.0), Brown (15.3) and Smart (10.8) to average double-digit points in the series. However, athleticism played a huge role in the production.
Now, the Sixers appear ready to combat some of that supreme ability in this week’s NBA draft. They’ve already taken close looks in workouts at athletic freaks Miles Bridges, Lonnie Walker and Mikal Bridges. Now high-fliers Kevin Knox and Zhaire Smith are both scheduled for follow-up workouts on Tuesday.
You have to think the Sixers are giving Knox (see draft profile) strong consideration with one of their two first-round picks (Nos. 10 and 26). The forward just displayed his skills for the team in a group setting on Friday and now he gets a solo workout on Tuesday afternoon.
“They’re really interested in me,” Knox said (see story). “They love my game, they love the way I can shoot the ball. That’s something they really like to do is shoot a lot of threes. My versatility, being able to take guys off the dribble is something that would complement really well with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. So that’s kind of the message they have for me, being able to come in with tenacity, play with fight, play with energy.”
The 18-year-old Knox also admitted the Sixers view him as a small forward. You think a 6-9, 215-pound body out on the wing would help slowing down the likes of the Celtics’ Brown and Tatum while giving them something to seriously worry about on the other end of the floor. Yeah, apparently so do the Sixers.
“I want to play the three,” Knox said. “That’s something that a lot of guys have me projected playing the three. Coach really liked that. He really wants me to play the three if I come here. So that’s kind of the mentality he wants me to have — be able to come in and be able to guard threes, be able to take guys off the dribble, pick-and-roll and be able to shoot threes. That’s kind of the message he had for me.”
Meanwhile, Smith (see draft profile) didn’t mince words when asked what his No. 1 asset is coming into the league.
“Athleticism,” he said following his June 12 workout for the Sixers. “Using it very well, rebounding, blocking shots, defending, et cetera.”
Smith isn’t lying. He’s arguably the most athletic player in the entire 2018 NBA draft as the 19-year-old tied for second among everyone at the combine with a vertical leap of 41.5 inches.
Still, Smith wants to make sure the Sixers and other teams know he brings much more to the table than being an elite leaper.
“I wanted to show my ability to shoot the ball, play-make, bring the ball up, coming off screens and making the right decisions.”
Whether the Sixers end up with either of these two prospects or not, it’s clear the organization has placed a premium on athleticism heading into Thursday night’s draft. And they can thank the rival Celtics for the not-so-subtle nudge in that direction.