Less than a week ago, Raul Neto gave a brief preview at the Sixers’ media day about the upcoming competition for minutes between himself and Trey Burke, the second such tussle between the two in their NBA careers. Neto won the starting point guard job over Burke to begin the 2015-16 season with the Utah Jazz.
He was great for me,” Neto said Monday. “Coming in my first time in the league and having him as a competitor at the point guard position, it was great. We competed every day. Trey’s a great guy, he’s a great player — everybody knows that. I don’t think it’s about me against him or anything like that. … We all have the same goals.
“I want him to play well, I want him to do well, and I want to do well, too. I think we’re going to compete every day in practice and it’s going to be good for him and good for me, just like the old times in Utah. But I don’t think my mentality is to get this spot from him or from anybody else.
Saturday afternoon at the Sixers’ Blue x White Scrimmage, Neto’s eyes widened as he felt Burke’s arm hit his ribs. As he ran down the floor next to his former teammate, he threw a sly elbow back.
It wasn’t anything that would rise to the level of a technical foul in a competitive game, but it certainly was, somewhat contrary to the Brazilian guard’s characterization earlier in the week, an intense, individual battle between Neto and Burke.
“I think the competition is obvious,” Brett Brown said after the scrimmage.
Some of Burke's and Neto’s strengths and weaknesses intersect. Both had strong assist-to-turnover ratios last season (2.6 assists/1.0 turnovers for Burke, 2.5/0.9 for Neto), are capable but unexceptional three-point shooters, and among the smaller players in the NBA. Each officially measured in at under 6-foot-1 without shoes.
Here are the official (without shoes) heights of the Sixers: pic.twitter.com/XnotfXZ8u1— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) October 5, 2019
The two are, however, different in a fundamental sense. While Burke fits the protoype of the explosive, shifty guard — Brown called him a "waterbug" after Day 1 of training camp — and is excellent at creating his own shot and in the pick-and-roll, Neto is a traditional point guard keen on making the right play and making his teammates happy. He also seems to surprise opponents on occasion with his burst and changes of pace.
Nice drive baseline by Raul Neto: pic.twitter.com/tmTj0tuGsq— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) October 2, 2019
“Both very good,” Shake Milton, who has matched up against both players in practice, said Friday. “Trey's quick, Raul is a little more crafty. So, you kind of pick your poison, but they both bring something to the table. … They're both looking to create for other guys and when it opens up, they take it for themselves.”
Milton himself is part of the backup point guard conversation heading into the Sixers’ preseason opener Tuesday at Wells Fargo Center against the Guangzhou Loong Lions, a Chinese opponent. The 23-year-old played well Saturday at 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware, a gym he scored plenty of points in last season in the G League. His pump fake on Joel Embiid, drive baseline and swooping reverse layup was a highlight.
With Brown having said he expects his rotation to be at 10 or 11 players in the beginning of the regular season, you’d figure Milton could get some early-season opportunities.
As for Neto and Burke, Brown will have a close eye on their “tournament.” With Burke, the most important question might be whether he can defend at an acceptable level. Put another way, Brown’s calculus could be whether Burke's deficiencies on that end of the floor are outweighed by his abilities to score in flurries and conduct the pick-and-roll.
(Photo courtesy of Sixers.com)
Burke, who grew up admiring Allen Iverson and won the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year award in 2012-13 for an electric sophomore season at Michigan, is determined that defensive intensity won't be an issue.
“[Brown] challenged me from Day 1," Burke said Wednesday. "He challenged me on the defensive end, said that he was going to be on me all year about having that edge on defense. He says that I show it at times, but he wants it to be a consistent thing, something I'm conscious and aware of every time I'm on the court. It's something that I've accepted and I'm trying to get it done every time I'm out there. Kind of be that head of the snake on the defensive end."
Neto has a mature understanding of his game. He identifies as a “team-first player,” he said Saturday, and he has an advantage over Burke as a defender. Burke scored a couple of times on Neto in the scrimmage, but Neto picked him up full court, stayed with him on drives to the rim and forced difficult shots. If he wins the job, Neto will do it because of his knack for solid, rarely spectacular play.
For now, everything is on the table.
Those two, at the moment, you know, have the opportunity to one of them put their hand up,” Brown said. “I'm also not reluctant to look at just, you know, our best players. 'How can you play your best players?' Because maybe, you know, as I've said, maybe Shake can come in there and do that. I don't really want to play Josh [Richardson] as a backup point guard or our point guard, initially. I want to try to give Trey and Raul especially a chance, and a chance they will have.
However much Neto and Burke want to stress mutual respect and friendship — genuine words, no doubt — this is a competition, and both players will have more shots to throw before it’s decided.
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