Ben Simmons raves about Day 1, backup PG stands out, more from Sixers training camp

Ben Simmons raves about Day 1, backup PG stands out, more from Sixers training camp

CAMDEN, N.J. — After a summer of remembering the pain of how last season ended and a flurry of roster moves, the Sixers returned to their practice facility for Day 1 of training camp.

Several players described the intensity of Tuesday’s practice and the business-like atmosphere that permeated the gym. 

Here are a few notes from Day 1.

A New Hope

For years, the story about the Sixers hasn’t been about actual basketball heading into camp.

With such lofty goals heading into the 2019-20 season, the vibe was much different on Tuesday.

“This is the best first practice I've been a part of since I've been a Sixer. For sure,” Ben Simmons said.


“Energy. Went straight to it. We know what we want to do, we know what we're here to accomplish and everybody has that mindset, so we need to stay that way.”

Brett Brown and Joel Embiid shared that sentiment. 

“I would agree that since I have been in Philadelphia, this was the most purposeful, cutting to the chase, getting to the point, really sort of recognizing what we think we have to do to win on a regular basis,” Brown said. “I think declaring kind of who we are, what we want to be, the lofty goals that we all have — today's session was excellent.”

Brown mentioned that he was impressed with some of the early chemistry Embiid was building with Al Horford as the two bigs adjust to each other. He also talked about the two-man game between Embiid and Josh Richardson.

The dribble hand-off with JJ Redick was such a huge part of the Sixers’ offense the last two seasons. Brown is now implementing that with Richardson. Richardson is not the shooter Redick is, but he is much more athletic and dynamic with the ball in his hands.

While Embiid will miss Redick and the chemistry they developed, he’s looking forward seeing what Richardson can do.

“It’s different, but Josh brings something different,” Embiid said. “Obviously JJ with the crazy shots and off-balance threes and all that stuff, but we’ve got Josh, who’s more athletic than JJ, especially when it comes to back cutting, throwing lobs and him just turning the corner and attacking the defender. I think in that sense, he can do that better than JJ.”

‘Draw a line in the sand’

One of the more intriguing battles as camp goes on will be for the backup point guard role.

There are really two candidates in veterans Trey Burke and Raul Neto. Brown was pretty straightforward with what he’s looking for in Simmons’ backup.

“I think they got to sort of draw a line in the sand and find separation,” Brown said. “And usually that comes from defense and making shots. You know, I can do the leadership thing, and that is true, I can do the push the pace thing, and that is true. But what most stands out to me is coming in and making shots, and just guarding — really having the ability to be a difference maker with not a huge sum of minutes, not a huge opportunity to play. And that's always a difficult thing.”

Burke had not one, but two teammates bring up his play unprompted on Tuesday. What could help a guy like Burke “find separation” is the ability to create his own shot. It’s not a skill a ton of the other Sixers have. He’s also become a much-improved three-point shooter.

His ability to go get his own bucket was apparently evident Tuesday.

“I was really impressed with a guy like Trey Burke that came in with a lot of energy,” Horford said, “really scoring the ball at will, just being very active.”

“Trey Burke played amazing today,” Simmons said. “In a few of the games he was killing it. So he really stepped up.” 

Impressing two-fifths of the star-studded starting five isn’t a bad way to start camp.

The two youths

The other competition seems to be between first-rounders Matisse Thybulle and Zhaire Smith for backup wing minutes.

Both players have incredible potential defensively and have some work to do on offense. On the first day, both young guys stood out, but there’s only so many minutes to go around.

“Those kids, I tell you what, there's a bounce,” Brown said. “They know what I know. I can't play everybody. They're both coming out to put their hand up and say, 'Look at me,' and they did today. That is for sure the quickest way where you're going to get my attention is just sitting down and defending — and they really can do that. … It's not like you had to pound it down their throat. I thought those two defensively were pretty special today.”

Both players are participating in their first NBA training camp — Thybulle as a rookie and Smith after breaking his foot before camp began last season.

A big thing for a young player is self-awareness. Thybulle seems to have that in spades.

“I think my role is pretty simple, just where and when I'll be able to step into it is just kind of what's unknown right now,” Thybulle said. “But just the 3-and-D, just knowing that I'm going out there to stop guys from scoring and then also just being able to space the floor and hit threes.”

Thybulle was the last player to leave the floor today. He was still jacking up threes as the assembled media were heading out.

Random observation: Brown said last week that he will no longer be giving medical updates. On the first day of camp, he was a man of his word — and he expressed his happiness about it. A member of the Sixers’ communication staff gave the update. Another plus for Brown is that it was just one player: Two-way big Norvel Pelle was dealing with left ankle soreness.

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With the ‘end in mind’ more than ever, will Sixers’ plans eventually come together?

With the ‘end in mind’ more than ever, will Sixers’ plans eventually come together?

Even with 58 regular-season games to go, Brett Brown has “the end in mind” for his team. As he ponders how to best prepare the Sixers for playoff basketball, he's referred to that idea time and time again.

The end of the Sixers' 110-104 win Sunday night over the Raptors at Wells Fargo Center was ugly. The Sixers turned the ball over seven times in the final 4:14 against the Raptors’ full-court pressure, with Joel Embiid giving it away three times.

“It is disappointing the way that ended because I thought for the most part, we played good basketball,” Brown said. “It's just the way that it ended, you have a little bit of a sour taste in your mouth. And then I'm reminded it was a good weekend, we just beat the NBA champs. And there's lots of good things that came out of it, just the last part wasn't one of them.”

The weekend back-to-back was indeed a fruitful one for the Sixers, who led the hapless Cavs by a franchise-record 41 points at halftime and played very well vs. the 15-7 Raptors with the exception of those final few minutes when it seemed everyone besides Toronto just wanted to hear the final buzzer. 

But, with almost anything this team does, there’s a natural instinct to consider the big picture.

Three of Simmons’ career-high 34 points Saturday came on a long range jumper, and Brown wants him taking "a three-point shot a game, minimum,” along with eight free throws a night. If Simmons gives Brown what he's looking for, what would it mean for the Sixers against opponents much better than the Cavs? 

In his last two games, Embiid has 15 turnovers, and he’s been an unfortunate combination of careless and oblivious against fourth-quarter pressure and double teams. Do the Sixers have a real chance to contend for an NBA title if he’s making similar mistakes when the games are higher stakes?

Rookie Matisse Thybulle is emerging as a three-and-D player, and his success at home has mirrored the Sixers’. He’s shot 65.4 percent from three-point range at home and has a plus-12.7 net rating at Wells Fargo Center. Those numbers plummet to 20.8 percent from long distance and a minus-14.1 net rating on the road. Can Thybulle and the Sixers — 12-0 at home, 5-7 away — eventually figure out how to win on the road?

Few of these larger questions lead to obvious answers at the moment, in part because of how often the starting lineup has been fractured.

Josh Richardson has missed six games in a row with a right hamstring injury. Al Horford is experiencing load management for the first time in his NBA career. Simmons was sidelined for consecutive games in early November with a shoulder sprain. And Embiid has sat out five games as a result of suspension, injury and load management. 

The whole season it feels like I've been going through the motions and part of it is also making sure I'm healthy for the playoffs,” Embiid told reporters Sunday. “Going into the season, the last playoffs that I've been part of I've not been healthy, so for me going into this season, my main goal was to make sure that I get to the playoffs healthy and so far I've been doing a good job of that —taking care of my body and also, on the court when I'm needed, I'm gonna bring it. But then again, I'm also lucky that we got so many guys that can make a lot of things happen. But if I'm needed, I'll be there.

Embiid’s time on the court is substantially down from where it was at this point last season, even if this path isn’t the one the Sixers would have meticulously mapped out before the year. He’s played 19 of the team’s first 24 games and 30.4 minutes per contest. In 2018-19, he played every one one of the team’s first 24 games — all of the first 26, in fact — and averaged 34.1 minutes.

The idea of a player feeling as if he’s “been going through the motions” might not be palatable for many fans. Embiid and the Sixers, though, aim to be healthy and the best versions of themselves when the games are more important.

Competing with that priority is Brown’s insistence that the Sixers are chasing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He said Saturday he hasn’t “recalibrated” that preseason goal.

The Sixers obviously want the best of both worlds. These first 24 games, however, seem to suggest that — should they be competing in the second round of the playoffs for a third straight year — they see being better equipped to advance as more important than seeding. They want to have their top players available and well-conditioned. They want to understand how to capitalize on their strengths — size, defense, rebounding — and either gloss over or eliminate weaknesses with turnovers and shot creation. 

Though Brown and his team have their ideas at this stage about how to reach those broad objectives, there’s no preset path to follow. One of the Sixers’ best players has a history of injury and conditioning problems, another is being asked to play point guard and doesn’t have a history of taking and making jump shots, and the three other starters are relatively new additions.

None of that prohibits everything from working out in the end.

The Sixers are 17-7, have won 10 of 12 games and have 58 to go before the fun starts. 

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'Big brother' Tobias Harris leading, rookie Matisse Thybulle following

'Big brother' Tobias Harris leading, rookie Matisse Thybulle following

So much of the focus ahead of the Sixers’ game against the Raptors Sunday was on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

And for good reason.

Embiid put up a goose egg the last time the teams faced off and has historically struggled with Marc Gasol. Simmons was coming off a career-high 34 points and made his second NBA three Saturday night.

While both players had roles in a 110-104 win Sunday night (see observations), it was Tobias Harris leading and rookie Matisse Thybulle following that kept the Sixers unblemished at the Wells Fargo Center.

Harris poured in a game-high 26 points, taking on the scoring load with Toronto head coach Nick Nurse’s game plan focused on stopping the Sixers’ young All-Stars.

“Yeah, 100 percent,” Harris said when asked if this is the most comfortable he’s felt here. “I think I’m in a really good rhythm of just going out and embracing and feeding off my teammates, and getting into a flow.”

Since a slump that saw him miss 23 straight threes, Harris has been pretty darn consistent. Over his last 12 games, Harris is shooting 41.3 percent from three and 50.6 percent overall.

If there’d been a knock on Harris outside of that tough stretch, it’s that he hasn’t looked as aggressive as a Sixer as he did during his stint with the Clippers. That hasn’t been the case recently. He’s averaged 16.3 field goal attempts per game over the last 12 games and has taken at least 22 shots in three of the last four.

Even during Harris’ up and down play, he’s remained a leader — a role he’s taken seriously since he signed the biggest deal in franchise history this summer.

And his teammates have responded.

“Aside from being an amazing example, he’s just been like a big brother,” Thybulle said. “We sit next to each other on every flight and he’s constantly giving me advice. I seek him for all my questions — whether it’s financially, on the court, off the court, I go to him. He’s done it at a very high level for a while now, and I really look up to him in that sense. He’s been able to be a huge role model for me.”

Whatever Harris has been telling Thybulle, it’s been working. When GM Elton Brand traded up in the draft to get Thybulle, nights like this are presumably what Brand had in mind.

Thybulle was his usual self on defense — annoying veteran Kyle Lowry, coming up with steals and contesting shots. On the other end, he continues to shoot the basketball at a high level. He hit a rookie career-high five threes and reached the 20-point mark for the first time. He’s now at 44 percent from beyond the arc, the highest percentage among rookies with at least 50 attempts.

In a contest that felt like it had a lot more juice than a regular-season game in December, Thybulle didn’t shy away from the moment — despite a couple late-game turnovers. The Sixers as a team had a brutal last few minutes as the Raptors went to a full-court press in desperation.

The thing Harris wants Thybulle to remember is that he was one of the main contributors in helping the Sixers build a huge lead. 

“Matisse is great,” Harris said. “I was telling him in there, ‘Don’t let the last minute and 30 seconds kill your vibe of the game, because you helped us secure that win tonight.’ He came in and his energy was amazing. He was able to knock down big shots, big threes that really pushed our lead each and every time they tried to make a run. He was amazing out there, man. He’s an amazing player, amazing person, amazing rookie. Every night I’m on him, each and every game, to continue to progress, continue to stay ready and locked in. He’s really catching his stride now.”

There is a refreshing vibe about Thybulle. He knows he has a job to do and he takes it seriously, but he also allows himself to enjoy it. He’s also not taking any of it for granted.

“That’s something I find myself thinking about a lot,” Thybulle said. “Even just six months ago, if you had told me I’d be in the position that I am today, it would have been really hard for me to believe you. I think I’m incredibly blessed. I’m so grateful. To have the guys that we have on this team and to have the opportunity that I have has been nothing short of a blessing.”

That’s a level of humility his “big brother” would approve of.

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