76ers

Sixers-Heat preseason observations: Ben Simmons steals the show

Sixers-Heat preseason observations: Ben Simmons steals the show

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Joel Embiid got the biggest cheers in his return to Kansas City.

Ben Simmons deserved them.

The former No. 1 overall pick stole the spotlight from his teammate and former Kansas standout Friday night, pouring in 19 points in a 119-95 exhibition victory over the Miami Heat. Simmons also had seven rebounds and five assists without a turnover while taking care of the primary ball-handling duties without Markelle Fultz, this year’s No. 1 overall pick, who remained sidelined with soreness in his right knee.

Few have questioned whether the 6-foot-10 Simmons can distribute the ball, some even comparing him to Magic Johnson. But the question that has dogged him has been whether Simmons can shoot it effectively.

For one mostly meaningless game, he provided an answer.

Simmons made his first three shots while Embiid struggled to get into a rhythm, and mixed in some deft passes to set up JJ Redick for open threes. During one first-half stretch, Simmons sealed off on the post to get an easy dunk, then scored on the Sixers’ next two possessions, capping the scoring spurt by taking the Heat’s Justise Winslow to the hole and drawing an and-one foul.

“It catches people off guard when you say you’re going to give a 6-10 guy the ball and you’re going to call him a point guard,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said prior to the victory, “but he’s our point guard right now. You give him the ball and off you go. And he’s embraced it.”

Redick also gave the Sixers a glimpse of what $23 million is buying them this season.

The sharpshooter drained his first three three-pointers, then bounced back from his first miss by knocking down two more. He finished with 19 points on 5 for 6 shooting from beyond the arc.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot scored 17 points off the bench, going 10 of 11 from the foul line.

The biggest letdown was the biggest man on the court: Embiid followed his dominant preseason debut against Brooklyn, when he had 22 points and seven boards in just 15 minutes, by going 1 for 7 from the floor and finishing with five points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes. Embiid even caused a brief scare when he crashed to the floor on a drive to the basket and appeared to flex his left knee, though he slowly got to his feet and took his place at the foul line.

The game was supposed to be a homecoming of sorts for Embiid, who played one season down Interstate 70 at Kansas. He was certainly the most popular player in the building, with fans turning out in No. 21 jerseys and the 7-foot-2 standout getting the biggest cheers during pregame introductions.

“It feels like it’s been a while,” Embiid said of his college days. “I would have graduated last year — to me it feels like it was yesterday, because i still have memories of me starting to play basketball.”

But what was supposed to cap a memorable week, which began with Embiid signing a $146.5 million contract extension, instead left him heading into Wednesday’s regular-season opener in Washington without much rhythm.

As for the rest of the team, Brown thinks they’re ready for games to count.

“I like our preparation, I like our patience and the pace we’ve put things in, making sure we don’t skip steps,” he said. “I’d be lying if I told you everything stays the same after the last preseason game. You see things differently. You go overboard with the minutia, what you’re going to have to do.

“You tick boxes — I know we haven’t skipped steps,” he continued, “but preseason basketball is completely different than regular season, and regular season is completely different than postseason. There’s three separate phases we play in and we just ended the first phase tonight.”

• Fultz sat out his second straight preseason game because of his right knee, though he did take part in the morning shootaround. The first overall pick in June’s draft only appeared in three preseason games, but Brown said he’s not concerned by the limited work.

“It gets back to we have a long lens — our vision line is long,” the Sixers’ coach said. “This isn’t something we feel we have to solve the world’s problems on opening night, especially with him. No one is rushing, no one is panicking. We’re going to have a slow, deliberate approach with him.”

• The Sixers went with the same starting lineup that they used Wednesday night against Brooklyn. That meant Embiid was joined by Simmons, Redick, Jerryd Bayless and Robert Covington. Dario Saric and Jahlil Okafor were first off the bench, followed by T.J. McConnell and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot.

• Backup power forward Amir Johnson, who sprained his right ankle in practice on Oct. 3, also sat out the preseason finale. Fellow big man Richaun Holmes was still out with a fractured left wrist.

• Several members of the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs were seated courtside, including cornerback Marcus Peters, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, linebacker Derrick Johnson and running back Charcandrick West. The Chiefs play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.

• Brown has likened the competition for minutes among backup wings Justin Anderson, Nik Stauskus and Furkan Korkmaz to a “fistfight.” Anderson must have delivered the biggest haymakers, because he was first off the bench. Stauskus checked in midway through the third quarter and Korkmaz in the fourth.

• Next to Embiid, the most popular guy in the building was Jacob Pullen, a longshot to earn a guard spot on the Sixers’ roster. Pullen starred a couple hours’ drive west at Kansas State, and played some of his best games in the Sprint Center, including the Big 12 title game against Kansas. He’s spent the bulk of his professional career playing overseas, but has made an impression on Brown and the Sixers (see story). 

“I just look at it like a great opportunity,” Pullen said. “They got a lot of great guys, a lot of great younger guys. I feel like I have a chance to help them. We’ll just see what happens.”

Sixers' NBA draft decisions should serve as a warning for Markelle Fultz

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Sixers' NBA draft decisions should serve as a warning for Markelle Fultz

The Friday after any NBA draft is a crowning moment for all of the league’s franchises. They trot out the previous night’s selections and hold introductory press conferences with smiles all around.

The Sixers were no different as they showed off first-round picks Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet at their training complex Friday morning.

However, make no mistake that this one was a little bit different. 

While the event was all about the new faces joining the organization, it also served as a direct warning shot to Markelle Fultz.

Brett Brown sat at the podium sandwiched between the two players he selected in the first round of his initial foray as Sixers interim general manager. Both guys happen to be bigger guards and each possess a particular top skill (athleticism for Smith and shooting for Shamet) that the Sixers thought they were getting right from the start in Fultz.

“The real reason they’re here is their talent,” Brown said. “Their ability to grow into NBA players, to play a modern style of basketball. The ability we felt that their base foundation had so much more room to grow. 

“The notion of how we play here in Philadelphia. The values that we have on defense, how we want to play offense. How we all look into a crystal ball and suspect the sport is going to be played in 2025. When you added those up, it made perfect sense and aggressively targeting these two players that sit on my right and sit on my left.”

It was just a year ago that the Sixers made an aggressive move to the top of the 2017 draft for Fultz. And while the franchise isn’t ready to give up on him after a rocky rookie season, it certainly sounds more and more like the team has settled on him becoming just a piece and not a cornerstone.

“When we started looking at the players available and I especially start looking at how we want to play and who can be sandwiched in between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, we’re looking for that modern-day type of player,” Brown said when asked whether taking two guards in the first round meant something about Fultz’s status. “To say position-less basketball, it’s really not that. To me, it might give you better vision of what I’m trying to say. I just think that the skill and things that we require, these two have, especially as you look sandwiched in between. And whether that’s Markelle, T.J. (McConnell) or Cov (Robert Covington), I would tell you the same thing. 

“When you look at the league, the league switches defensively a lot. When you look at the league, the league drives, dishes, needs three-point shot-makers and playmakers a lot. So whether it’s apples for apples is fine by me, but probably what you should hear the loudest is I don’t think there’s overlap. I think that they can play together.”

Playing together is completely different than playing around. It’s pretty clear the Sixers now reserve that status for Embiid, Simmons and whatever stars they plan to chase in free agency or via trade.

That doesn’t mean Fultz can’t reclaim the standing within the organization he was seemingly destined for when the Sixers called his name at No. 1 last year. After all, he just turned 20 years old last month (he’s actually 14 months younger than Shamet).

It all starts during this crucial summer for Fultz, which apparently is already going well (see story). But Smith and Shamet will have the chance to make impacts of their own coming up in the next few months as well.

“If you just base it on math and you look at percentages of what does a 10th player do and what’s a 26th player do, rarely do you see people immediately come in and claim a large role in rotations and heavy minutes. That historically isn’t the trend,” Brown said. “I say that from a factual base more than something that might be challenged. I expect these guys to challenge that. 

“Where this ends up, the expectations in relations to role and minutes and all of that, they’re going to tell me. We’ve got a summer league coming up. They will have ample opportunities to draw their own line in the sand.”

Fultz better be focused on drawing his too.

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Brett Brown embracing a difficult job as Sixers' interim GM

Brett Brown embracing a difficult job as Sixers' interim GM

Heading into the NBA draft, there was some uncertainty about how the Sixers would make decisions. Nobody seemed willing to say whether interim GM Brett Brown would have the final say, or whether it would be a truly collaborative process.

Thursday night, Brown confirmed he’s the man in charge.

“I was the one that approved the final decision,” Brown said after the Sixers’ first-round trade for Zhaire Smith and a 2021 unprotected first-round pick. “We have many people in that room that are aggressively speaking to people. We have information, we put it on a board and we discuss it. At the end of the day, (managing partner) Josh (Harris) looked at me and I did what I did. I approved the deal.”

Brown made sure to credit the people around him who made a difficult job easier. As Brown put it, “This has been a really different June” for him. There’s no way he could have expected he’d be pulling the trigger on draft night when the season ended, but he’s taken leadership of another team, this one in the front office.

“There is an incredible amount of teamwork that is required in that room,” Brown said. “You’re on the clock. I thought (vice president of basketball operations and chief of staff) Ned Cohen did a fantastic job helping organize this. The analytics side with Alex Rucker and Sergi Oliva, those guys were awesome. And then I think (vice president of basketball operations) Marc Eversley, delivering the group, you know, ‘These are the players with our scouts,’ it was a very collaborative process. It was a systematic process where you felt like you were a part of a team.”

Separating the head coaching part of his job from the GM duties he’s been thrown into hasn’t been painless for Brown. He acknowledged he felt the “human side” of trading away a high-character local kid whose mom works for the organization in Mikal Bridges (see story).

“The torment of trying to do my job in the very limited role I have for a moment as the general manager versus the role that I have as the head coach of this program, it’s a toggle,” Brown said. “And this is where we arrived.”

It’s obviously not a job Brown wants to do long term. At some point, he’ll be able to return his full focus to coaching. For now, though, he says he’s enjoying his new role. He’s always loved preaching about his program and cultivating a positive culture. Persistently optimistic, Brown looks at the aftermath of the Bryan Colangelo saga as an opportunity to fully embrace those passions.

“I said right when I accepted the responsibility that I have no intent of doing this,” Brown said. “I’m a basketball coach. When this came up, I felt a responsibility to do the best that I could under the circumstances to help move us forward. ... Down deep, I love it, because you just bleed for the program. You’ll do whatever you can to bring a championship to this city. That’s the bottom line. As we corral the analytics people, the scouts, my coaching staff and the people that work in the building and try to hold us together and move us forward and show daylight, that’s my job.”

There’s still no official timeline from the Sixers on when Brown’s tenure as interim GM will end. But free agency starts on July 1, and Brown is ready to recruit. He also sounded prepared to go all-out in pursuit of possible trades for stars (see story), including a hypothetical example that seemed to very closely resemble Kawhi Leonard, who wants out of San Antonio and has expressed his desire to return to his hometown of Los Angeles.

“When you talk about what are you going to do to show the program the way we want it to be seen, sometimes it’s in-house, sometimes you have to travel,” Brown said. “Whether we have to go mobile and, as an example, go to Los Angeles and deal with a family, an agent, the player. Whether we can attract him to come here to the city of Philadelphia.

“The whole strategy of how we do that, the presentation of information, we’ve been talking about that for a while. I feel completely that we will not miss a beat now that the draft is done, that we can focus in when free agency kicks in on July 1.”

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