76ers

Sixers know actions will speak louder than words in crucial offseason

Sixers know actions will speak louder than words in crucial offseason

It’s something you hear practically every NBA player say after the season.

“I’m going to work on my game this summer and get better.”

Sounds simple enough, but the process of professionals recognizing their flaws is much deeper than it seems.

“We all go through experiences in our lives that words don’t have the impact that they should have. You wish they did,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said last week during his end-of-season press conference. “Actions, most times, speak louder than words. 

“And as I said after we lost the series, I told the guys — and it was memories that we had from my old life — you’re going to learn more about yourselves in the next few weeks or while we’re playing in the playoffs maybe than you’ve ever learned in your career about your game and the psyche, the human side of it all.”

What the Sixers learned as a whole is that as presently constructed, the team doesn’t have enough to climb that championship mountain. 

So how do they get there? Without the benefit of projecting the roster for next season, it starts with every player returning after recognizing their biggest flaw and attacking it this offseason. That mindset has to start with the stars.

“What inevitably sort of rules most successful people that I’ve been around is there’s an immense competitor in all of them,” Brown said. “Like there is a prideful competitor in the great players that I have coached.”

If the Sixers’ young studs, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, hope to reach that level of greatness, it’s a must that they identify how to fix their weaknesses. For Simmons, the one major blemish in his game jumps out at you.

“It’s difficult for Ben to play in the environment the Celtics guarded him and find ways to impact the game as much as he can without the thing that we’re talking about,” Brown said. “And so whether it’s a jump shot, whether it’s a free throw, the inspiration to work is real in his head given the situation that we just left. So to carry over with his sort of personal desire to improve along with the memory of what just happened, how teams were guarding him, it’s an easy sell for the summer. And I think Ben’s going to knock it out of the park.”

The primary summer work for Embiid would appear to be less complex but just as equally vital to the center taking his game up another level.

“His whole future is his body, and that’s not going to surprise anybody,” Brown said. “How does he master his diet? How does he master his strength and conditioning? How does he master rehab, prehab, all the things that you know equal health?"

Not that the All-Star’s actual skill set can’t use some refinement.

“I think that with Joel, now that we have a starting point, his health is going to let him take his post game, I think, to a different level,” Brown added. “When you zoom in on development in the summer, his ability to navigate post play, turn and face, back down, pass out, that world he’s got to own. He really has to own that and I believe that he will.”

The Sixers know if their two leaders take the offseason work suggested by the franchise seriously, it will only trickle down to the rest of the roster. 

“They’re fantastic because we talk freely about you have to let me coach you. You have to let me coach you because if we can coach our two best players, we got this thing,” Brown said. “Dario (Saric) can take a hit, Cov (Robert Covington) can take a hit, T.J. (McConnell) can take a hit. They are all coachable.”

NBA draft profile: Miami G Bruce Brown Jr.

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USA Today Images

NBA draft profile: Miami G Bruce Brown Jr.

Bruce Brown Jr.

Position: Guard

Height: 6-5

Weight: 195

School: Miami

After his freshman year, Bruce Brown Jr. would have been a no-brainer first-round pick and most likely a lottery selection. Now, it would be a big surprise to see him go in the lottery, and even the first round is far from a sure thing.

There are two main reasons for Brown’s stock falling, the first of which is the regression in his play as a sophomore, especially his shooting. Brown’s three-point percentage dropped from 34.7 percent to 26.7 percent and his free-throw shooting went from 74.4 percent to 62.9 percent. The second reason is the left foot injury Brown suffered in late January, which caused him to miss the second half of the season.

There don’t appear to be any serious concerns about the injury for Brown, who worked out with the Sixers Wednesday. But questions about his shot and why he couldn’t build upon an impressive freshman year are certainly lingering.

Strengths
Brown is an outstanding athlete and competitor. He bench pressed 225 pounds 17 times at the combine, the most by any guard, and that's not at all surprising given the strength with which way he plays. He’s an intense, physical defender with a knack for turning defense into offense. For a guard, he’s an exceptional rebounder, posting 7.1 boards per contest in 2017-18. Offensively, Brown is a solid passer who’s comfortable in pick-and-rolls, which he ran a lot at Miami. He looks capable of being a secondary NBA ball-handler.

Weaknesses
His sophomore shooting dip is obviously a major worry. That 62.9 percent free throw percentage and the fact Brown made only 7 of 46 attempts from NBA three-point range last season are ominous signs. Like his teammate Lonnie Walker IV, Brown was inconsistent on offense. In 19 games last season, he shot 50 percent or better from the floor nine times and 25 percent or worse seven times. Brown has a variety of dribble moves, but his handle isn’t the most tight or fluid. His pull-up game, in terms of shot selection, rhythm and balance, has a lot of room for improvement.  Given how talented an athlete he is, Brown isn’t a great finisher (he shot 58.5 percent at the rim last season) and he doesn’t seem to like using his left hand.

NBA comparison
Brown has said he models his game after Russell Westbrook. He definitely has a little bit of Westbrook in him, especially with his intensity and explosiveness. He also seems to have some Westbrook-like confidence – he thinks he’s the best guard in the draft. And like Westbrook, Brown left college after his sophomore season without a great offensive résumé.

All that said, it’s not fair (or at all realistic) to compare Brown to a player who has averaged a triple-double in back-to-back seasons. Lance Stephenson is a much better comparison. Like Brown, Stephenson is a strong defender, excellent guard rebounder and subpar shooter. It’s important to note, however, that Brown won’t come with any of Stephenson’s notorious, ear-blowing antics.

How he’d fit with Sixers
On the defensive end, Brown will help any NBA team immediately. With his ability to guard one through three at a high level, he’ll have a role off the bench. There’s no doubt Brown’s defense and rebounding would make the Sixers better in two areas where they’re already strong. His athleticism would also be a boost for a second unit lacking in that department last season. 

Draft projection
Because of his injury history and disappointing sophomore campaign, Brown has a slightly wider range than most prospects. He’s expected to be taken in the late first or early second round. He could be an option at No. 26 for the Sixers, or he could be a potential steal at No. 38 or No. 39.  

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Playoff loss to Celtics appears to be helping shape Sixers' draft plan

Playoff loss to Celtics appears to be helping shape Sixers' draft plan

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.

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