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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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To DNP-rest, or not to DNP-rest: That is the question facing Joel Embiid

To DNP-rest, or not to DNP-rest: That is the question facing Joel Embiid

It’s certainly not going out on a limb to say the Sixers’ success depends on the health and fitness level of Joel Embiid.

When he’s on the floor, he’s one of, if not the best center in the NBA. The issue for the Sixers is when he’s not on the floor — which happens more often than they’d like. The series against the Raptors was the most prime example. Embiid was a plus-89 in a series the team lost in seven games. Greg Monroe was a minus-9 in two (2!) minutes in Game 7. Yuck.

By now we all know about Embiid’s injury history. His knee tendinitis and illnesses dominated the headlines during the Sixers’ postseason run. The tendinitis could be attributed to Embiid playing 54 of the first 58 games of the season. Some have made the connection of Embiid's illnesses to a poor diet. Whatever the case, both mired Embiid's effectiveness.

There is good news: Embiid knows things need to get better. He knows he needs to be in better physical shape. He knows the Sixers will only have a long playoff run if he’s the best and healthiest version of himself. 

He also knows how he can accomplish that.

Looking at the way Toronto managed Kawhi [Leonard] all season … when you start thinking about back-to-backs and stuff like that, having a good team around you helps,” Embiid said during exit interviews. “Most of the time I kind of feel bad because I feel like I let everybody down by not playing or sitting out. If you see that and you know guys are going to take over and get the win — we have the talent to do so. I guess it’s an easy decision for me. I think as long as we got it all covered and we have an opportunity to win games without me, I’m open to it. … Just gotta keep working on my body. It’s only going to get better.

He has been looking rather svelte in his Instagram posts and shouldn’t have to feel bad about sitting out with the talent that’s been brought in.

Elton Brand was aggressive in signing veteran Al Horford. Horford will play with Embiid in the starting lineup at the four, but will also be the team’s primary backup center. There may not be a better backup five in the entire league. Horford’s abilities on both ends of the floor will soften the blow of having Embiid on the bench.

And let’s not forget about Kyle O’Quinn. The veteran big is solid defensively and would’ve served as a better option than any backup big Brett Brown went to against the Raptors. He’s a strong insurance policy as the team’s third-string center.

It also helps that the schedule makers were kind to the Sixers — and it doesn’t seem like it was an accident. The Sixers have no nationally televised games on the second half of back-to-backs, something our NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh pointed out as a guest on the Sixers Talk podcast last week. Clearly, those networks don't want to get burned if Embiid decides to rest.

Haberstroh actually wrote a piece about the very topic of the DNP-rest epidemic, discussing a company called Fansure. Fansure should appeal to Sixers fans as “an analytical start-up company that helps protect fans by offering reimbursement plans for tickets to games in which star player(s) sit out due to either rest or a last-minute injury.” (Then maybe angry fans will be less likely to be in reporter’s mentions … probably not.)

It’s also fair to wonder if medical personnel decisions will have any effect on all this with Embiid.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Philadelphia 76ers handle Embiid’s rest regimen," Haberstroh writes. "The team signed big man Al Horford to start next to him and potentially start at center in Embiid’s place if he needs a night off. Those decisions will come down to Embiid and new members of the medical staff after the team parted ways with two major voices — vice president of athlete care Dr. Danny Medina and director of performance research and development Dr. David Martin.

It’s tough to know the significance of Medina and Martin no longer being with the Sixers. The team has already begun filling in roles in the athlete care department. They’ve hired Lorena Torres-Ronda, formerly of the Spurs, as performance director. Expect more new names to be announced this week, per a team source.

While breathing new life into the athlete care department could help, it ultimately comes down to Embiid. 

Is he ready to listen to the advice of those around him and do what’s best for himself and the team? Will he feel comfortable letting his teammates try to win in back-to-back situations without him?

Guess we’ll find out starting Nov. 13, the second game of a back-to-back in Orlando.

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Sixers' Josh Richardson has a unique defensive challenge ahead

Sixers' Josh Richardson has a unique defensive challenge ahead

There are plenty of new things in store for Josh Richardson as one of the newest members of the 76ers, but there is one in particular that’s going to take some getting used to.

At 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, Richardson will be the smallest guy in the Sixers' starting lineup this upcoming season.

“I have never been that, ever in my life,” Richardson said with a laugh at the Sixers Summer Shore Tour in Wildwood, New Jersey. “It will be interesting looking up to my teammates, talking in huddles and stuff.”

On a serious note, Richardson is looking forward to the challenge on defense. Richardson guarded point guards quite a bit during his four years with the Miami Heat and has confidence he’ll be able to guard smaller guards.

“I know that I’ll be the shortest starter here and I don’t mind guarding all of the guys that like to get in the paint and use their speed a lot,” Richardson said.

One thing is for certain: Richardson is ready for the season to get started, especially after the NBA schedule release.

“I’m just excited," Richardson said. "I saw we open with Boston and I know there’s a little rivalry history there, so it’s going to be fun to be a part of that.”

And as for his former team?

“I always have Miami circled to go back there and compete against my brothers down there," Richardson said, "but I’m just ready, excited to compete every game.”

Richardson has kept in touch with Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Mike Scott throughout the offseason. He met Shake Milton for the first time, working out at the Sixers' training facility on Saturday morning.

The former Tennessee Volunteer has been getting his own work in this summer.

“Health, I think health is a big part, just being able to be out there for as many games as I can is going to be huge, and being able to make shots,” Richardson said of his offseason goals. “I think being a shot maker is going to be big for us.”

Looking back at the trade, despite there being a shock factor in the moments following, he couldn’t be more eager for this new opportunity. Richardson said his excitement occurred "almost instantly."

“After I started looking at the pictures of our lineup, it turned into straight excitement, like as soon as it happened,” Richardson said. “As long as we all gel, as long as we all have the same goal in mind, I think we’ll have a strong season.”

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