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A star with the Blue Coats, could Shake Milton help Sixers? And what about Zhaire Smith?

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A star with the Blue Coats, could Shake Milton help Sixers? And what about Zhaire Smith?

Updated: 2:29 p.m.

WILMINGTON, Del. — When we talked with Shake Milton back in December, he was focused on “being a star in the role I have right now” with the Sixers.

With the Delaware Blue Coats, he’s just been a star — no qualifiers needed.

The rookie scored 25 points to lead Delaware to a 124-117 win over the Maine Red Claws on Saturday night in the Blue Coats’ season finale. Since returning from a broken finger on March 5, he scored 23 or more points in nine of 10 games.

Head coach Connor Johnson said before the game that Milton, fellow two-way player Haywood Highsmith, Zhaire Smith and Jonah Bolden will all join the Sixers for the remainder of their season.

You’d expect Bolden will remain a backup big man option for Brett Brown, with his athleticism, three-point shooting and ability to hang with more agile centers. Bolden posted 17 points (6 for 11 from the floor, 2 for 6 from three-point range) and 12 rebounds Saturday.

As far as the other three players are concerned, Milton appears the most likely candidate to play meaningful minutes for the Sixers in the team’s final nine regular-season games, and perhaps even the playoffs. 

Though Milton would not currently be eligible for the playoffs as a two-way player, the Sixers could convert his contract any time up until the regular-season finale.

The SMU product plays at a pace that is comfortable for him, running the offense with exceptional poise and balance. Johnson aptly called him a “sneaky-good athlete.” His smooth jumper (36.9 percent from three-point range in the G League, 42.7 percent in college) might be his calling card in the NBA, but he’s gotten plenty of opportunities to hone other skills in Delaware, including his ball handling and playmaking.

Drawing more fouls has been a point of emphasis as well, Johnson said, and Milton seems to be catching on quickly. He drew the fifth and sixth fouls on Process-era Sixer Thomas Robinson on Saturday, removing a player who’d given the Blue Coats trouble all night with 34 points.

“Just watching film and talking with coaches,” Milton told NBC Sports Philadelphia, “trying to get little tidbits of information and then trying to apply it on the court. Most of all, just being aggressive.”

Johnson said he hasn’t been given a sense of whether Milton or Smith might play a role for the Sixers, though he sounds like a believer in Milton’s ability.

I don’t know. That remains to be seen and out of my hands, but I do think they’ve shown, especially Shake, has shown that he can come in and kind of command a game, and I think that definitely translates. And just continuing to build on Z’s ability to sit down and defend. They’ve got a whole development staff that we’ve worked with really closely that are excited to get those guys back up there. 

Milton said he has not heard from the Sixers about what to expect when he returns, and that it’s been helpful to focus solely on his play in the G League. 

Still, when discussing how he hopes to develop his game in the offseason, Milton seemed to have a pretty clear idea of what the Sixers might want out of him. 

“Continuing to develop everything,” he said. “I feel like in my time with the Sixers, I’m going to have a real focus on guarding multiple positions and knocking down shots, but then also continuing to work on playmaking and all parts of my game.”

Whereas Milton’s athleticism might catch some by surprise, Smith’s often leaps right at you. He converted two lobs for the Blue Coats’ first four points of the game and, with his head near the rim, narrowly missed on a reverse alley-oop dunk attempt early in the third quarter. Smith finished with 12 points and five rebounds, and he knocked down 2 of 3 threes. After missing the first 13 long-range attempts of his pro career using his new form, Smith made 5 of his last 11. The rapid rate of his progress and his potential to be a quality perimeter defender at the NBA level continue to make him an alluring prospect. 

It would be surprising to see Smith immediately seize a role with the Sixers, although of course much stranger things have happened with the team. Highsmith, a wing who’s typically been asked to guard one of the opposition’s top scorers and hit three-point shots, had 13 points and nine rebounds vs. Maine. He’s another player whose development has been encouraging but likely won’t receive any significant playing time this season.

Milton might be different. While there’s risk inherent in trusting a rookie with 13 games of NBA experience, Milton’s best traits are all things the Sixers could use off the bench — three-point shooting, scoring and serviceable defense on point guards and shooting guards.

Brown loves T.J. McConnell, and you can understand why. His effort is exemplary, he’s an excellent mid-range shooter, and he takes the assignment of harassing an opposing point guard very, very seriously. In all likelihood, Milton won’t supplant McConnell in the home stretch. But there’s little doubt Milton deserves NBA minutes in some way, shape or form.

Though he won’t be a star in the NBA, at least not this season, the experience of leading the Blue Coats has served Milton well. You can’t just automatically dismiss the thought of him seeing legitimate time in a playoff series.

“Knowing my coaches and teammates have confidence in me has really given myself the confidence to go out there and just be sure of myself in whatever I do with the ball,” Milton said, “whether I’m shooting, scoring, playmaking, getting other guys involved — they’ve all just given me confidence.”

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons out for Hawks game with back injury, will have additional evaluation Monday

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons out for Hawks game with back injury, will have additional evaluation Monday

Ben Simmons went through an initial evaluation on his back Sunday in Philadelphia, will have an additional evaluation Monday and is out for the Sixers’ game tomorrow night vs. the Atlanta Hawks, a team source confirmed to NBC Sports Philadelphia. 

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski first reported the news.

Simmons missed Thursday’s game vs. the Nets with lower back soreness and irritated the injury in the first quarter Saturday night against the Bucks. 

Head coach Brett Brown said Thursday that Simmons was injured at the team’s practice Wednesday.

“It was a play where he went up for a rebound and I looked over and he left the court, and went and got treatment,” Brown said. “And it has played out as it has played out. We don’t believe it’s anything too significant.”

After drawing a foul on Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez with 7:21 left in the first on a running hook shot, Simmons put his hands on his knees and appeared in discomfort. He stayed in to make 1 of 2 free throws, and the Sixers then had Matisse Thybulle commit a foul to stop the game and allow Simmons to return to the locker room.

Before Saturday, Simmons had been averaging 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.9 assists this season in a team-high 36.3 minutes per game. The two-time All-Star has an NBA-best 115 steals. 

Simmons had entered the All-Star break strong, with a 26-point triple-double in the Sixers’ Feb. 11 win over the Clippers. 

He’d posted 20.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game in the final 18 contests before the All-Star Game, shooting 68.9 percent from the foul line during that stretch. When Joel Embiid was out with a torn ligament in his left ring finger, Simmons had carried the Sixers to a 6-3 record. 

With 25 regular-season games remaining, the Sixers are 35-22 and fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. They have a 26-2 home record, best in the NBA, and a 9-20 away mark that’s the worst of any team currently in a playoff position. The team’s remaining schedule is the easiest in the league.

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If Ben Simmons is sidelined for an extended period, how will Sixers adapt?

If Ben Simmons is sidelined for an extended period, how will Sixers adapt?

We don’t need to spend much time explaining how and why Ben Simmons is very valuable for the Sixers. 

The two-time All-Star leads the NBA in steals and, before irritating a lower back injury Saturday night in Milwaukee, was averaging 16.9 points, 8.3 assists and 7.9 rebounds.

Of course, the Sixers will hope the injury doesn’t keep Simmons out for long. The question of how the Sixers will manage if Simmons’ injury does sideline him for an extended period of time, however, deserves attention.

Who’d be in the starting lineup? 

Though Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place Thursday against the Nets, he didn’t play against the Bucks until the game was well out of hand.

Shake Milton handled much of the point guard duties after Simmons left and was solid, making 5 of 7 three-point shots and scoring 17 points.

Josh Richardson and Alec Burks are other ball handling options, with Brett Brown seeming to prefer Burks’ “scoring punch” off the bench.

In his second NBA season, Milton has posted 6.7 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game, shooting 36.9 percent from three. The 23-year-old was on a two-way contract with the Sixers as a rookie and starred with the Delaware Blue Coats, scoring 24.9 points per game in the G League.

Who else would be impacted? 

Between Jan. 25 and Feb. 9, Milton started eight straight games for the Sixers because of Richardson’s hamstring injury. Brown didn’t play him as much as a typical starter during that stretch, giving him 25.4 minutes per game. He only exceeded 30 minutes once, when he scored a career-high 27 points on Jan. 30 in Atlanta.

Milton again would not likely be assuming full-on starters minutes. Perhaps Richardson and Burks would combine for a greater sum of backup point guard minutes than usual. If Richardson were to handle backup point guard duties, that would presumably mean Glenn Robinson III, Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle would have more minutes to take on the wing. 

Simmons was averaging a team-high 36.3 minutes entering Saturday’s game, so there is simply a lot of playing time that would need to be allocated among multiple players. 

Where would the Sixers suffer the most? 

The defense would take a big hit. The on-off stats mysteriously indicate that the Sixers have been a better defensive team with Simmons not on the floor, but they’d clearly be losing one of the best defenders in the game. 

Along with being first in steals, Simmons has the most total deflections and the most defensive loose balls recovered. He can defend opposing stars and, in general, most point guards, wings and power forwards. The Sixers would not be able to replace that defensive versatility or overall quality.

They’d obviously gain something in terms of outside shooting but would lose a lot in other offensive areas. Simmons has assisted on more threes than any player this season.

How much would it hurt overall? 

Because Simmons has played in 214 of a possible 221 regular-season games over the last three seasons, we don’t have any meaningful track record of how the Sixers tend to fare without him.

Joel Embiid would be the focus of a Simmons-less team, and it would make sense for the offense to involve more Embiid post-ups than ever.

The most basic formula for success without Simmons would be an elite Embiid on both ends of the floor, Milton and other guards succeeding in expanded roles, and Tobias Harris and Al Horford being better across the board, especially as three-point shooters. It’s not impossible that all those pieces would come together, but it would be a lot to ask. 

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