The Sixers didn’t have regular starters Joel Embiid or Josh Richardson available Saturday night, turned the ball over 23 times and beat the Lakers by 17 points.
Through three quarters, their leading rebounder was second-year guard Shake Milton, who was making his first start of the season.
The juicy story Saturday night was the matchup between LeBron James and his mentee Ben Simmons (see story). Milton slid into a supporting role without much trouble and looked like he belonged. Outside of an early bobble when Simmons found him on a backdoor cut, his pregame nerves weren’t evident.
“Big primetime game, everything like that,” Milton said. “But once the ball is tipped, you get up and down the floor one time, you’re good — it’s just basketball.”
In 25 minutes, he finished with seven points (3 of 5 shooting), three assists, a steal and nine rebounds — more than James, Anthony Davis or any Laker. What was more striking than the stats was Milton’s disposition. It was what we’ve seen when he’s had huge scoring games in the G League and when he’s been stuck on the Sixers’ bench. He stays composed and keeps things simple.
“There is sort of like a poise, an inner peace — he plays at a non-rattled level,” Brett Brown said. “He really doesn't, to me, get rattled. He doesn't get [shaken] up.”
Milton said he’s always been like this — polished, poised, under control.
“I think just growing up and playing through AAU and all my basketball experience, I’ve kind of always kept it cool," he said. "When you’re around guys like Ben, Tobias [Harris], Al [Horford], it gives you a lot of confidence to go out there and do what you have to do.”
The SMU product has said, fairly enough, that he thinks he has “one of the coolest names,” so that might help explain the origin story, or at least spice it up a bit.
Regardless, he was effective Saturday night both on and off the ball, running dribble handoff actions with Simmons, getting the Australian the ball at the elbows, and setting up shop in the corners. He didn't do anything exceptional — perhaps outside of trying to stand his ground on a few occasions when James barreled toward the rim, including on the basket that put the Lakers’ star over Kobe Bryant on the all-time scoring list. He did a little bit of everything, though.
With Richardson scheduled to be reevaluated in approximately two weeks, Harris thinks Milton is capable of showing more of what he can do now that he’s back in Brown’s rotation.
“He’s a kid who comes in and works every single day and now he’s getting presented with an opportunity, and he did a great job at that,” Harris said. “There’s a lot more that he can do, too, that he’ll continue to build his confidence and go forward with that.”
The early stages of Milton’s NBA career have been marred by injuries. He missed summer league his rookie season because of a stress fracture in his back, broke his finger last February, sprained his ankle in summer league this year and suffered a left knee injury on Oct. 28.
It remains to be seen whether he’ll have a spot when Richardson returns, but it’s encouraging for Milton to see his work behind the scenes being rewarded. Milton’s time with the Delaware Blue Coats, his rehab and his individual workouts with player development coach Tyler Lashbrook all contributed to Brown being able to throw someone into his starting lineup who was far from overwhelmed or embarrassed in front of a national audience.
“It’s definitely hard,” Milton said. “Everybody wants to play. You gotta take it as an opportunity to just lock in and make sure you’re on top of your stuff so that when your number is called you’re able to perform.”
He probably won’t outrebound one of the best players in NBA history again, but it seems safe to bank on Milton’s steadiness.
On a night that sometimes felt like an evening at the circus — with swarms of media members waiting around every corner, eager to chronicle James’ every move, and a loud, passionate Wells Fargo Center crowd urging on Simmons’ aggression — a 23-year-old kept a level head.
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