76ers

Joel Embiid's new mindset rubbing off on Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris

Joel Embiid's new mindset rubbing off on Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris

It seems safe to say that Joel Embiid’s scoreless night in Toronto was one of the lowest points of his career.

Since that game, Embiid has taken on a different mentality. Through the early part of the season, he was attempting to find his teammates more and navigate double teams. To his credit, he has improved in that regard.

But in the three games since that goose egg, Embiid has been a force. He’s averaged 30.7 points a night and is imposing his will on the opposition.

“Since the Toronto game I kind of changed my mindset,” Embiid said postgame Saturday. “The whole season I had not been as aggressive as I was last year, attempting 10 free throws a game. So the last couple games I’ve just been aggressive. Being more physical, creating contact, causing whoever’s guarding me to react to it. That’s how they fouled me.”

The free throws are a huge part of what’s helped Embiid turn things around. He puts so much pressure on opposing big men that often their only hope is to foul. In the last three games, Embiid is attempting 14.7 free throws a contest.

While the free points certainly help a team still searching for offensive consistency, it’s just as much about what Embiid’s attempts say.

“It's a mentality. That is a disposition. That is a mentality to me more than a stat,” Brett Brown said. “And you sure like them a lot more when you make them. But Joel Embiid, that is a statement. It is a mentality. None of us can underestimate the hurt he felt after the Toronto game where he felt like he let us down and we have seen him respond.”

Embiid is also hitting free throws at an elite clip, making over 90 percent in his last three.

But that’s not a huge surprise. Embiid has always down well from the charity stripe. What stood out more is Ben Simmons’ 7-for-7 performance from the line Saturday. It represented the most free throws Simmons has made without a miss in his career.

Like with Embiid, it’s just as much about what that means. It means Simmons was attacking the basket and looking to shoot. He struggled from the field (4 of 13) and finishing is something Brown talked about postgame as being part of Simmons’ evolution.

But that mindset is what’s most important. And it’s been Embiid who’s been at the center of it.

“It’s really been Jo and guys like that, making sure I’m being aggressive and getting to the rim,” Simmons said. “Once I’m doing that I’m able to make plays and find my guys in the corners, or Jo rolling.”

Simmons also had 13 assists Saturday night and is now third in the NBA in assists per game at 8.4. Generally, Simmons puts up gaudy assists numbers when he’s pushing the pace and putting pressure on defenses — looking to get to the rim first and pass second.

The finishing aspect is something Simmons knows he needs to improve upon.

“I’m happy with [the attacking style I played],” Simmons said. “I got to the rim, I just didn’t finish. I’ve just gotta get back and work on my touch.”

It’s also been a positive sign for the Sixers to see Tobias Harris display more of that “scorer’s mentality” Brown has been yearning for. Since Harris’ horrendous slump in which he missed 23 straight threes, he’s shot 45.4 percent from distance and 52.9 percent overall.

More importantly, he’s taking the shots the Sixers need him to. If there’s been a fair knock on Harris, it’s that he’s been too selfless at times. On Saturday, he scored 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter. It’s a welcome sign as the Sixers look for answers outside of Embiid late in games.

Has Embiid’s mentality rubbed off on Harris as well?

“Yeah, I think we’re best when Joel is that aggressive,” Harris said. “Joel draws so much attention, double teams. He’s been a willing passer to make plays. It overall helps everybody just because he’s such a focal point. So if you’re coming off pick-and-rolls, they’re going back to him or whatnot. I mean, he’s a beast. They can’t guard him down there. Either you foul or hope he misses, and that’s about it.”

Marc Gasol and the Raptors come to the Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 8. We’ll see if Embiid’s new mindset and the mindset he’s passing along to his teammates can help him beat his boogeyman.

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Whether he knows it or not, Shake Milton is now the Sixers' starting point guard

Whether he knows it or not, Shake Milton is now the Sixers' starting point guard

If you listen to Brett Brown, Shake Milton is the Sixers’ starting point guard.

If you listen to Shake Milton, the situation isn’t so definitive.

“No, not really,” Milton said Thursday night after the Sixers’ 115-106 win over the Knicks when asked if Brown had told him he could expect to start moving forward. “When somebody goes down, especially somebody who is kind of in your position, you kind of might have an idea that your number might be called, so it's just about staying ready and being prepared to play.”

Minutes earlier, Brown had raved about Milton, the second-year guard who’s gone from second-round pick to G-League standout to fringe rotation player to, well, starting point guard with Ben Simmons sidelined by nerve impingement in his lower back. He scored 19 points (6 of 7 shooting) and had four assists and two blocks vs. the Knicks. With 9 made threes in his last 11 attempts, he’s surged to a team-best 43 percent from long range. 

What a fantastic story late,” Brown said. “It’s getting to the stage where the sort of unique performances that catch your eye have become more and more frequent. … He’s just becoming consistently reliable on a bunch of things. The statistics we’re all going to see, but defensively, watch him sit in a stance and watch him follow a game plan. He’s deceptively long and I think he’s improved tremendously defensively. … 

“At this stage you’d have to say, if everybody’s looking for a tournament, he’s winning it. He’s the starting point guard. The rest of it falls into place with some other ball handlers that are more than capable and at times really good, but Shake has been a needed surprise late.

While Milton is performing above Brown's expectations, his recent success shouldn’t be shocking. At SMU, he was an excellent three-point shooter (42.7 percent from three) and a competent facilitator. In the G League, he gained experience at both guard positions and the confidence that comes with being a star in that setting. He “keeps it cool,” emphasizes being ready for anything with a steady tone in his increasingly frequent sessions with reporters, and steps in when asked. 

His jumper is a smooth and simple tool that he seems to shoot on his own terms, rarely rushed, with all the pieces aligned. An old acronym comes to mind when you watch it — Balance, eyes, elbow, follow through. 

Milton’s defense has improved recently, too, as he sharpens his feel for how and when to best use his 7-foot wingspan and takes smarter paths working around and through screens.

“I’m still learning a lot,” he said. “Every game I feel like I'm able to take away something new and learn from it, and kind of put that on my board to get better at. Tomorrow we'll go back and watch film and see the mistakes that I made and how I'm able to change those, and put out an even better effort next time.”

Tobias Harris, who led the Sixers with 34 points, said Milton’s disposition is what impressed him the most. 

“Just his fearlessness on the floor,” he said. “Shake is a really good player, but he has the confidence in himself, in his game to go out night after night and just to play. … He puts in a lot of work, works really hard. So, I'm happy for him and every time he gets an opportunity, he takes advantage of it. Tonight, he was huge for us.”

In a Sixers’ season that has, through 60 games, failed to meet expectations, a young player excelling in an expanded role is an obvious, rare feel-good story. 

To what extent Milton can sustain this level of play remains to be seen. He’ll probably be featured on more scouting reports, and it’s very possible his shooting will slump. We can say with confidence that, though he’s a far superior outside shooter, he won’t be anywhere near Simmons’ overall level any time soon. 

Milton is indeed the Sixers’ starting point guard for now, though, whether he knows it or not. 

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Sixers Talk podcast: Joel Embiid is out, but at least we have Shake Milton

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Sixers Talk podcast: Joel Embiid is out, but at least we have Shake Milton

On this edition of Sixers Talk, Paul Hudrick and Tyrone Johnson discuss the latest on Joel Embiid's injury, Tobias Harris and Shake Milton picking up the slack without Embiid and Ben Simmons, and much more.

• Reacting to the latest on Joel Embiid's shoulder injury (1:03)

• Tobias Harris and Al Horford playing better (3:24)

• Shake Milton giving the Sixers a much-needed boost (10:37)

• Glenn Robinson III claiming to not understand his role (16:14)

• Locker room issues? (23:33)

• The brutal upcoming road trip (29:01)

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