Shake Milton is looking like more than just a feel-good story for Sixers

Shake Milton is looking like more than just a feel-good story for Sixers

At one point during the Sixers’ 125-108 win in Sacramento Thursday, a fan in the stands was caught on video looking up Shake Milton on their phone.

This seems to be the trend during the Sixers’ West Coast swing. A 39-point performance against one of the best teams in the NBA on national television will do that. As will dropping 20 points a few nights later on the Kings and their apparently unsuspecting fans.

The thing is, this seems to be more than just a hot stretch. On a team devoid of positive stories, Milton is that, but not just that. He very much looks the part of an NBA player and has the exact type of skillset the Sixers need.

The Sixers knew what the skill package was when they drafted him 54th overall in 2018, but likely didn’t see this coming.

“If you go to his history,” Brett Brown said to reporters pregame, “when you started studying what he had done at SMU and you started looking at his size — personally, I’ve always been intrigued by his physical abilities, the length of his arms, his skill with his left hand — and then you start digging into the person. He’s a smart young man, he’s good people. You start weighing that up and you thought, well, maybe. Do you know is he a one or a two? Not really. But you know the other qualities are impressive enough at a young age to invest in it and try to help cultivate it.”

Brown, who was the interim GM when the Sixers selected Milton in the second round, admitted that even the Sixers weren’t sure how good the 6-foot-5 guard was going to be. That’s part of the reason — along with a back injury Milton suffered before the draft — why he was signed to a two-way contract last season.

Over the last five games, Milton’s made current GM Elton Brand look awfully smart for converting that to a full NBA deal this summer. The 23-year-old is averaging 22 points and 4.4 assists while shooting a preposterous 67.7 percent from three on over six attempts a game during this stretch.

Yes, the current run is completely unsustainable, but Milton has a track record that hints at this being more than just a few good games. 

When he was at SMU, where former Sixers coach Larry Brown “beat Indiana and Oklahoma,” to recruit him, Milton shot 42.7 percent from three over the course of three seasons. He averaged 18 points a game his final year.

During his time in the G League, Milton had been the focal point of the Blue Coats’ offense. Over the past two seasons, he’s averaged 24.2 points and hit 38.4 percent from deep — 45.5 percent in six games this season.

Even in the glimpses we’ve gotten of him in the NBA previously, Milton has flashed. 

It was actually in Sacramento last season where it looked like he may catch a break. With veteran Wilson Chandler out, Brown rode Milton down the stretch of a tough loss to the Kings. It appeared Milton was about to get an NBA look.

Instead, Milton went back down to Delaware and broke a bone in his shooting hand the very next game. While he got a little run during the end of the year, the Sixers never appeared to seriously entertain the idea of converting his deal last season.

Even at the beginning of this season, Milton got a look as a rotational player. In two games, he hit 4 of 9 from three and looked like he could fill a role. Again injuries played their part with Milton suffering a bone bruise and mild sprain of his left knee in Atlanta. Milton’s absence coincided with Furkan Korkmaz going on a ridiculous run of his own.

Now healthy, Milton is thriving and looking the part of a contributing NBA player on a playoff team.

“Just his confidence. There’s a cocky side that’s emerging, which I love,” Brown said. “I think he’s done a better job of spacing. But I just think his attitude, his mindset is as important as anything.”

Injuries have held him back previously, but an injury to Ben Simmons gave him a starting spot, an expanded role and tons of confidence. People may be searching the name “Shake Milton,” but this isn’t just a feel-good story. His previous and continued success make it seem like this isn’t a fluke.

This kid can play — and when everyone else is back healthy, he needs to keep playing.

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How to watch Sixers vs. Magic: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

How to watch Sixers vs. Magic: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

Updated: 11:51 a.m.

We’re waiting for a timeline on how long Ben Simmons, who suffered a left patella subluxation in Wednesday’s game, will be sidelined. Meanwhile, the 41-27 Sixers will play their fourth seeding game on Friday night against the 32-37 Magic.

Here are the essentials: 

When: 6:30 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 6 
Where: HP Field House 
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

One of the impacts without Simmons 

Before sustaining his injury, Simmons attempted a corner three last game, his first legitimate long-range try since Dec. 7. The Sixers will likely miss his passing to three-point threats far more than his own three-point shooting. 

That said, the team took 35.8 threes per game and made 42.3 percent in its eight games before the hiatus, with Simmons out because of a nerve impingement in his lower back. Through three games at Disney World, the Sixers have taken 28.3 threes per contest (20th of 22nd teams) and converted 40 percent. The offense without Simmons should revolve around Embiid, but firing up more threes than they have so far will also need to be an emphasis. 

We reviewed several other potential ripple effects of Simmons’ injury, including options for the new starting lineup and the expected reliance on Joel Embiid, here

Other key injuries 

Simmons’ injury isn’t the only notable one affecting this game.  

Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac suffered a torn ACL on Sunday. Michael Carter-Williams (tendon strain in left foot) and Aaron Gordon (left hamstring strain) are also out. Center Mo Bamba has only played 11 minutes at Disney World. He told The Athletic’s Josh Robbins that’s because he had COVID-19 in June, which impacted his conditioning. 

For the Sixers, Mike Scott is questionable with right knee soreness and Glenn Robinson III is doubtful with a left hip flexor. Those two have yet to play in the Sixers’ seeding games. 

Former Sixers watch 

In addition to the aforementioned Carter-Williams, former Sixers Nikola Vucevic, James Ennis and Markelle Fultz are members of the Magic. 

An All-Star for the first time last season, Vucevic should have a challenging matchup against Embiid. Ennis, who was traded in February, starts for the Magic and has averaged 7.3 points and 4.2 rebounds for the team in 16 games. Fultz has only missed one game this season, posting 11.9 points, 5.1 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game, and is 4 for 5 from three-point range after the hiatus.

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Trying to answer initial questions with Ben Simmons' knee injury

Trying to answer initial questions with Ben Simmons' knee injury

Updated: 8:42 p.m.

Ben Simmons is out for the Sixers’ seeding game Friday against the Orlando Magic with a left patella subluxation and there's not currently a timeline for his return as he considers treatment options. That news is clearly significant in the Sixers’ world, and it raises a range of questions. 

Let’s run through some of the bigger ones: 

What exactly is the injury? 

A simpler way to classify the injury is as a partial dislocation of the kneecap. 

How long will Simmons be out?

This is the largest question and still murky. Brett Brown on Thursday said “stuff is still being evaluated” and that he wasn’t in a position to offer a timeline. Presumably, factors such as the state of the ligaments around the knee could play a key role in determining how long Simmons is out. 

Outside of Simmons’ physical status, the team’s approach will be important. There’s no reason to put Simmons back on the court before he’s healthy. 

Shake Milton is hoping for a speedy return.

“It’s tough for us,” he said Thursday. “Ben is an incredible player, an incredible athlete. I don’t know, he’s like a freaking superhuman, so hopefully he’s able to heal super fast and get back on the court, because we definitely need him.”

How will the starting lineup change?

On March 11, the Sixers’ final pre-hiatus game, the team started Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. That’s one possibility. The Horford-Embiid pairing is still the Sixers’ worst regular duo in terms of net rating despite having a plus-15.6 net rating in 40 minutes together at Disney World.

If Brown wants to prepare for a scenario in which Simmons is available and in the postseason starting five, he could keep Horford as the sixth man. He could instead turn to a wing such as Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III, all of whom have started games for the Sixers this year. Robinson, who has missed the Sixers' first three seeding games with a left hip pointer, is doubtful for Friday's game. 

What about the rotation?

Robinson’s health is a relevant issue with the rotation, which Brown shrunk to nine players when the Sixers played the Wizards. Raul Neto didn’t play against Washington after seeing time in the first two seeding games.

It’s interesting to note that Neto started in Simmons’ place on Nov. 8 and Nov. 10 when the Australian was out with a shoulder injury. The circumstances were very different, however, as Milton was sidelined by a bone bruise and left knee sprain, leaving Neto and Trey Burke as the two main ball handlers on the roster. Trade deadline acquisition Alec Burks now appears ahead of Neto in the backup point guard pecking order, and Simmons’ injury should increase Burks' value a touch. 

As of Wednesday, Brown said his plan was still to have a nine-player rotation for the playoffs. 

What’s the intangible impact? 

When Simmons suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back on Feb. 22, Brown recalled him vomiting because of pain. He’s lauded Simmons often for the diligent rehabilitation he did to recover from that injury and be ready to go when play resumed amid a pandemic.

Injuries aren’t anything new to Brown, but he admitted it hurt some to learn about this one after witnessing the process of Simmons’ back rehabilitation. 

“It’s the life that we've lived since I have been in Philadelphia,” he said. “I’m sure every coach has some level of a similar story. This one stings, for sure. We all felt with the pandemic and are we going to play again, it obviously bought time for Ben — had the season kept going, it’s anybody’s best guess. In relation to being incredibly down about it, I’m not. When I think too long about it, probably I can go there.

“But I feel numb to it. I feel conditioned, that we’ve gone through this type of thing before. There is a level of faith that I have in the rest of the team that we can hold the fort until we hopefully get him back. But snakebitten, woe is me, I don’t go there.”

In addition to dealing with the disappointment of a star going down, the Sixers will have to tinker with ingredients like leadership that aren’t necessarily evident to an outsider.

“It’s going to be kind of everyone has to step up by committee,” Richardson said. “I think we have a few guys that can step up as leaders, who can step up and have big games for us. We don’t really like to put too much pressure on one or a few guys. Everybody’s going to step up in his absence.”

Can the Sixers manage without Simmons? 

Again, the lack of a timeline looms large here. We can say without question that the Sixers are 6-5 this season without Simmons and don’t have direct replacements for his elite defense, transition talents, creative passing and more.

It’s also logical that the Sixers will rely on Embiid defensively and feed him frequently in the post. His 34.4 percent usage rate so far in Florida may very well rise. 

“Offensively, he needs to get as many touches as we can get him,” Brown said. “And I think that one of the areas of most noticeable growth … is what he’s been doing passing out of the post. It’s maybe the single thing that stands out most to me offensively when you look at whether it’s Jo, or just us as a team — I like our post spacing.

“I like Jo’s unselfishness quarterbacking the gym. His ability to read where the double teams are coming from I think has been shown.”

Thybulle, Richardson, and perhaps Robinson when healthy could assume challenging defensive assignments that otherwise would have been Simmons’. Players like Harris and Korkmaz will miss Simmons’ ability to drive and set up three-pointers. 

Initially, the Sixers are coming to terms with the situation and hoping the injury doesn’t dent their playoff hopes.

“There’s a lot of moving parts right now and really we're all coming to grips with the news that we’ve received,” Brown said. 

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