James Ennis thinks Sixers' bench will be 'bulldogs'

James Ennis thinks Sixers' bench will be 'bulldogs'

CAMDEN, N.J. — With a scrimmage to play tomorrow, the fourth and final day of training camp for the Sixers wasn’t a physical one. Friday’s practice was mostly about “polishing up what we’ve put in,” Brett Brown said. There will be plenty of chances down the line for his team to fully impose their “smash mouth offense and bully ball defense" mentality.

Here are a few notes ahead of Saturday’s Blue X White Scrimmage at 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware:

Building an environment

In the final few minutes of practice, five-man teams on three separate courts ran through baseline and sideline out of bounds plays and drills for specific situations. Brown also had his team do some 5-on-0 work to develop greater comfort with the Sixers’ “A to B” offense

He instructed his starters at one point to play off “B deny,” which is how the offense begins when the point guard, “A,” keeps the ball instead of passing to the trailing big man, “B.”

We’re already familiar with the “organic” style of offense Brown wants his team to have. But what factors into how he approaches baseline and sideline out of bounds plays, after-timeout sets and other special situations?

With the creativity of coaches nowadays where you can come out and they could be sitting in a zone, they could switch one through four, keep five at home, sag the inbounder, pressure the inbounder, there’s just so many things that you’re seeing. And to feel like you’re going to come out with all the answers is really not smart. 

“And so for me, I like to just put them in an environment — and that’s the word, an environment. Then they’ve got to choose different options out of it. That’s the mentality when you’re talking about “need” plays, ATOs, catch shot down three, catch shot down two, need two with time, all that stuff. 

Bulldogs off the bench 

James Ennis had an answer ready to go when asked how he’d characterize the personality of the Sixers’ bench.

“Bulldogs,” he said. “Mike Scott leading us, myself, Furkan [Korkmaz], Kyle [O’Quinn] and whoever is on the second team will be bulldogs ready to get stops.”

Ennis and Scott will be key members of that second unit, but the full composition of the bench is still up in the air. The backup point guard competition will be one to watch at Saturday’s scrimmage and likely throughout the preseason, and there are a ton of names in the mix on the wing. 

Brown said Wednesday he expects the rotation will comprise 10 or 11 players in the beginning of the regular season, so Zhaire Smith, Matisse Thybulle, Korkmaz and Shake Milton all might see opportunities to earn minutes.

While Smith and Thybulle are both renowned for their defense, they’re not identical players. If the rotation is indeed a large one at first, the idea of playing them together and showcasing their different defensive strengths in tandem is intriguing.

They both are very, very good defensive players,” Brown said. “Matisse’s ability off the ball, where he can cover ground and shoot gaps and get in lanes and pick stuff out of the sky with his length stands out. I think Zhaire’s gravity, his center of gravity when he’s just dogging somebody and lower sort of balance levels — he reminds me a little bit of Avery Bradley at times. … They both are tremendous athletes and for sure elite defensive players for their ages. That carryover into an NBA game will be part of their learning curve. But that is sure how they see the world — they play defense.

A different perspective on Simmons' shot 

Brown began his availability with the media Friday with a joke.

“As long as nobody asks me about Ben Simmons’ jump shot or Joel’s health or things like that, I’m happy,” he said.

That subject had come up often the day before, with Brown pushing back against the notion that it should be “the thing” everyone fixates on with Simmons (see story).

Though Brown didn’t address it Friday, Joel Embiid, unprompted, had something to say about Simmons’ jumper when asked about his extended after-practice three-point shooting session.

“Like I’ve always said before, I don’t like shooting threes,” Embiid said. “But this year since we’re going to have Ben willing to take those threes, maybe it’s going to put my game more inside. I’m hoping that he will shoot them, so I do my job, what I do inside.”

Random observation: Embiid was pretty subdued Friday, but he did throw in a jab at new player development specialist Roy Hibbert, a two-time All-Star with the Indiana Pacers.

“Well, I’ve been busting his a--,” Embiid said, “but it’s been good. Another guy with size. He helps a lot. Another guy who’s strong. He’s in the training room every day after we work out because I’m always hitting him. But he’s a great guy.”

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Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Around this time last year, Tobias Harris was leading the surprising Clippers to a strong start. Harris was averaging over 20 points a game while flirting with the 50-40-90 shooting line. He was a borderline All-Star.

Fast forward a year later and the 27-year-old resembles that player more now than he ever has during his tenure as a Sixer.

Harris added another impressive performance to his recent stretch of strong play in the Sixers’ 116-109 win over the Pelicans Friday night (see observations).

It wasn’t the cleanest performance for the Sixers, but Harris’ team-high 31 points helped the Sixers stay a perfect 14-0 at the Wells Fargo Center and become the only undefeated team at home in the NBA.

Every night is an opportunity for me to go out there and do the best I can to help our team win,” Harris said. "I’d love to be an All-Star — it’s a goal of mine as a player. I felt last year I was an All-Star in the beginning of the season. It didn’t happen that way. But I think each and every night, especially with our team, we have a nice amount of talent and I want to play at my best every single night to help us win games.

It hadn’t been the smoothest transition for Harris since he arrived in a blockbuster trade from Los Angeles.

The Sixers had just traded for Jimmy Butler a couple months prior and they were still trying to figure out how to use the mercurial star alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. With Harris, it was another mouth to feed and another piece to fit into the puzzle.

On paper, it looked like a master stroke by GM Elton Brand. Harris had become an elite three-point shooter and a go-to scorer for the Clippers. But the chemistry didn’t develop as quickly as they would’ve liked as Embiid missed a significant amount of time down the stretch with tendinitis in his left knee.

Over the last 16 games — and with Butler in Miami — Harris seems to have found his niche with the Sixers.

“Yeah, there’s definitely a comfort level, just being able to get familiar with guys on this team on and off the floor,” Harris said. “I think as a team, the comfort level from each and every one of the guys that’s on the floor is continuing to increase. I’m able to find ways to play with Ben in different pockets of the game, and Joel, also. There’s been a lot of things that I’ve liked. I’m going into games understanding more of what we need to do, where I’m at, where I’m going to get this play, that play, things like that.”

While the All-Star game doesn’t generally account for defense, that is likely where Harris has seen his most improvement.

In Friday night’s game, he was tasked with guarding former Sixer JJ Redick. As we saw during Redick’s time in Philly, that’s not an easy ask. Redick runs a marathon every game, navigating around screens and running dribble handoffs. Harris did a decent enough job, as Redick went 6 of 15 on the night.

Improving on the defensive end was Harris’ biggest point of emphasis this offseason. He went to Brett Brown before the season began and let him know that he wouldn’t be the weak link amongst a starting five that had elite-level defenders.

The notion of putting Harris on someone like Redick wouldn’t even have crossed his head coach’s mind last season.

“Could Tobias have done something like that last year? I didn't see him like that,” Brown said. “Maybe he could have, but I never saw him or played him like that and this year I do. And I think that it's part of your question about, 'Oh, he's having a great year,' and you go right to offense. I think he's having a hell of a year defensively.”

Harris is 13th in the conference in scoring and fourth among forwards. His 2.6 win shares are second-most among any forward in the East.

Throw in the last 16 games, where Harris has averaged 22.1 points and shot over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from three, and the case is making itself.

You don't need much more ammunition," Brown said. "I mean, he's been so steady and just responsible, reliable, go-to guy. I put him kind of in a bunch of different spots — middle pick-and-roll, iso, three balls, making his free throws, plays that back down pound, pound game and can jump over people, smaller people. He's having a hell of a year.

A good enough year to be in Chicago on Feb. 16 for the All-Star game?

There’s a strong case to be made.

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After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

Norvel Pelle is not the typical NBA player.

A native of Antigua and Barbuda, Pelle was a top recruit out of high school — that part was normal. Then his path went sideways.

The wiry center never played college basketball because of eligibility issues. He traveled to Delaware, Italy, Taiwan and Lebanon before signing a one-year, two-way contract with the Sixers this summer and reaching Friday night, where Brett Brown turned to Pelle, in his third NBA regular-season game, as Joel Embiid’s main backup. 

“It’s just knowing that this opportunity is once in a lifetime,” Pelle told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I worked hard to get here and I can’t mess up. So, just getting the jitters out — obviously there are going to be jitters regardless, but just meditating and staying positive throughout the whole thing.”

In 12 minutes, Pelle was exceptionally active. He had six points, five rebounds, three blocks and a handful of altered shots. Every time Pelle has stepped on an NBA floor, it seems he has been immediately challenged by players on a mission to embarrass him. It hasn’t always gone his way. Julius Randle slammed one in over Pelle in his NBA debut in New York and Kevin Porter Jr. dunked on Pelle last Saturday and then flexed in his face despite the Cavs trailing by more than 40 points. 

A member of the G League’s All-Defensive First Team last season, Pelle sees no shame in taking the occasional ferocious dunk to the face. He’s a showman who enjoys playing to the crowd and feeds off its energy, and he never likes to show any fear. 

“Next play,” he said of his mentality. “Next play, next play, next play. At the end of the day, I’m a shot blocker, so if I get dunked on, I get dunked on — that’s my mentality. Next play.” 

After picking up two early fouls, Pelle waited out a series of pump fakes from former Sixer Jahlil Okafor to record his first block of the night, leading to a Ben Simmons dunk. He then denied a slam attempt by Brandon Ingram, creating a fast break that concluded with a James Ennis three. 

“You know every game he's going to bring you energy,” Simmons said following the Sixers' 116-109 win over the Pelicans (see observations). “He loves blocking shots, just risking his body for those blocks and protecting the rim. I love having him as a part of this team.”

Both Simmons and Brown said Pelle reminded them of Nerlens Noel. Like Noel, Pelle’s offensive game is not too extensive — it’s mostly screening and rolling, lob catching and energy. The defensive package, though, is intriguing.

“Just wanted to see what we have in him,” Brown said. “We had a little taste in New York. I wanted to see more. And I thought he was really good. I thought he was really good. He is sort of Nerlens like to me — rim protector, shot blocker, quick off the floor. I thought he was good.”

It’s uncertain whether Pelle could eventually have a consistent role with the Sixers. The man whose job he temporarily took Friday, Kyle O’Quinn, was signed this offseason to be insurance for Embiid. Al Horford should assume the primary backup center position once he returns from the left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness that’s sidelined him the past two games. 

Pelle’s two-way contract also means he can’t be with the Sixers for more than 45 days between the start of Blue Coats training camp and the end of the G League regular season, and he’s not eligible for the NBA playoffs.

Brown didn’t attribute Pelle’s five fouls vs. the Pelicans to being “undisciplined,” but the big man would likely need to refine his game a bit if he was tasked with a regular role.

Embiid wasn’t worried about any of that. 

“I told him if he got the minutes, he would probably lead the league in blocks,” he said. “He has a chance to become a fan favorite, so he should just keep doing whatever he’s doing.”

After all the empathic dunks and dramatic poses and swatted shots in foreign gyms, Pelle had time to reflect Friday night. 

“This was more than what I expected,” he said. “I’m appreciative of everything and everybody. I’m taking it day by day, moment by moment, opportunity by opportunity and just go out there and do what I have to do.”

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