76ers

Shake Milton, Markelle Fultz and a significant change for the Sixers’ offense

76ers

Though he’s played in only 52 NBA games, Shake Milton’s jump shot merits respect. 

He was a 42.7 percent three-point shooter in three seasons at SMU. His 45.3 percent mark this year is boosted by a torrid nine-game stretch before the NBA season paused because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s not an aberration. 

Milton's emergence is one reason Brett Brown believes the Sixers will run more pick-and-rolls than they previously have when the season resumes in Orlando.

“It feels like it’s pointing in that direction,” Brown said Thursday in a video conference call with reporters. “I think ball handlers that people are forced to go over and there is punishment if it’s switched — like sometimes Tobias (Harris) and Ben (Simmons), it’s just an easy switch and at times it’s not easily exploited. I think when you’ve got a legitimate guard like Shake and people chase, I hope to be able to do that more, really, than we have in the past.”

The Sixers have developed a reputation under Brown for having an offense sparse in pick-and-rolls. During The Process era, Brown encouraged his teams to play fast and fire up threes. He emphasized ball and player movement when JJ Redick, Robert Covington and Dario Saric were in his starting lineup. Joel Embiid leads the league in post-ups this year and was in the top-three the two seasons prior. 

 

The overriding concept has been Brown’s desire to accentuate his team’s strengths, which of course is among a coach’s primary responsibilities. His team has never had a plethora of excellent pick-and-roll ball handlers, and Embiid is very much a work in progress as a roller. Defenders have played well off Simmons because he typically hasn't been looking to shoot, rendering conventional pick-and-rolls impossible. That’s why the pick-and-roll has never featured heavily in Brown’s offenses. 

If Markelle Fultz had been the player the Sixers thought they drafted, we’d be analyzing a much different team. A version of Fultz who retained his jump shooting abilities could’ve forced defenders to go over on the pick-and-roll and perhaps formed a partnership with Simmons. We never saw that player in Philadelphia, and so Simmons’ screening and rolling potential remained stagnant, for the most part. 

It’s simple in that we haven’t had a ton of guards over my time that defenders are forced to go over,” Brown said. “When you have a … point guard that the defense is told and the player is scouted, ‘We prefer you chasing over pick-and-rolls more than shooting gaps and going under, because Shake can punish that with his skill shooting,’ then the world makes even more sense. It opens up Ben even more so on those honey spot half-rolls especially.

Josh Richardson has been Simmons’ main pick-and-roll partner this season, certainly an upgrade over Fultz in terms of being a perimeter shooting threat. Alec Burks is a decent pick-and-roll ball handler, as well. The play below is a glimpse of the possibilities when Simmons screens for a guard and the defense switches. He can survey the floor from that region around the foul line and pick out passes.

Fultz was 1 for 2 on pull-up threes in his stint as a Sixer. Milton is already 11 for 23. The disparity between the two as shooters is gaping in many ways — statistics probably aren’t needed to illustrate that. As a result, there are clearly more options stemming from the pick-and-roll. 

“I think the fact that I’m willing to shoot the shot if they go under is going to make people chase,” Milton said. “Once people start having to chase, then it opens everything up for the pocket pass or over the top to some of the bigs — Jo and Al (Horford), and Ben’s shooting, too. It’s going to be a lot to deal with for the defense.”

 

Another category in which there’s a juxtaposition between Fultz and Milton is off-ball movement. While Fultz sometimes looked unnatural and unaware off the ball, Milton is an intuitive cutter with experience at both guard spots. He’s 44.2 percent in 2019-20 on catch-and-shoot threes, too, so he’s much less wise to help off compared to a player like Fultz.

None of the above is intended to unnecessarily take shots at Fultz, who had a difficult and perplexing saga here. The contrast between Fultz and Milton, however, helps explain why Brown is aiming to incorporate more pick-and-rolls. 

The 23-year-old Milton likely isn’t a panacea, but his presence has at least pushed Brown and the Sixers to shift their offensive approach.

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