KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There will be a time in the near future, perhaps even in the Sixers’ regular-season opener Wednesday night in Washington, when Markelle Fultz will fit seamlessly into the offense.
Until then, the Sixers showcased Friday night just how efficiently the trio of 7-foot-2 center Joel Embiid, veteran sharp-shooter JJ Redick and point-forward Ben Simmons can work together.
Start with Embiid, who followed up his dominant preseason debut with a clunker on paper. He scored just five points on 1 for 7 shooting, picked up a couple of silly fouls on defense and looked more like a prospect with 31 career games under his belt than the guy who was given a five-year, $146.5 million contract extension.
But his mere presence in the Sixers’ 119-93 exhibition win over Miami opened up driving lanes for Simmons, who was 9 of 11 from the floor and had 19 points, and carved out space on the perimeter for Redick, who buried five threes and also had 19 points in the Sixers’ most cohesive game of the preseason.
“When you look at the stats, you're going to say, you know, ‘Joel didn't appear to be that dominant,’ but it's so far from the truth,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “The stuff he does that you just feel as his coach, and his teammates feel, is hard to quantify because it doesn't say he had 12 rebounds or 20 points or whatever. But he still has that presence and mentality and cocky aggression that we love.”
He also drew three early fouls on the Heat’s Hassan Whiteside, sending him to the bench just three minutes into the game. That showed once more how difficult it is for another big man to guard Embiid one-on-one.
“I thought I was bad today but it’s going to take time,” said Embiid, who admitted to pressing after the news of his contract extension this week, and with a building full of his college fans from Kansas.
“I was trying to force it too much. Some days I’m going to force it.One thing I’m trying to change is my turnovers. Unfortunately last game I had one and today I don’t think I had any.”
Neither did Simmons, who had seven boards and five assists for a near-flawless stat line.
Simmons took over most of the ball-handling duties while Fultz rested his sore knee, and his unique ability at 6-10 to slash to the basket was on full display. But rather than just throwing dazzling no-look passes to set up his teammates, something that folks already knew he was capable of doing, the former No. 1 overall pick showcased a rapidly improving ability to finish at the rim.
That could add another dynamic to the Sixers’ entire offense.
“I took the sleeve off. Maybe that had something to do with it,” Simmons said with a wry smile. “I just felt comfortable. My mind was right. I came in and tried to let it come to me. Tried to be a slasher. You need someone to cut and cut hard. I try to do that for the team. It gives guys opportunities when I do that.”
Guys like Redick, who seemed to turn every pass from Simmons into an assist.
“Everybody is going to see him make threes,” Brown said of his veteran shooting guard, “but what I see is an incredible leader in the locker room. I see him being amazingly professional in the locker room. He’s an incredibly prideful pro, and we sort of see the end result that he makes shots. But it’s the ripple effect, the stuff that goes on behind the scenes.”
Indeed, Redick has been a guiding influence for both Embiid and Simmons, and the way the trio worked in concert in the Sixers’ final tune-up before the regular season was an encouraging sign.
“Ben was excellent moving off the ball, I think he's a very underrated off-ball cutter,” Brown said. “We've always taken tremendous pride on passing. The pass is king. The pass is everything. And when you talk about growing a true team offensively, and amongst that belief is how do you get Joel posted, how do you get JJ some shots, it all has to fit. And tonight it all fit.”