Trey Burke, Raul Neto already throwing shots in Sixers' backup point guard tussle

Trey Burke, Raul Neto already throwing shots in Sixers' backup point guard tussle

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.

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.

“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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Sixers vs. Spurs: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers vs. Spurs: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Updated: 5:47 p.m. 

Before Saturday night’s game against the 10-3 Miami Heat and Jimmy Butler, the Sixers (9-5) have a good chance Friday to extend their winning streak to three games.

Here the essentials for tonight’s game against the 5-10 San Antonio Spurs:

When: 8 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

Game 1 of Embiid’s first back-to-back 

Joel Embiid is expected to play both tonight and Saturday vs. Miami, his first back-to-back of the season. According to Brett Brown, keeping Embiid in a rhythm was a key factor in the decision.

“I think that has a lot to do with it,” Brown said. “This whole thing is very, very scrutinized, discussed, studied with a handful of people. Really, I’m not saying led by Joel, but with a significant voice in all of it — an opinion. It had been discussed a while ago that this was going to be one of the first back-to-backs that we were going to look at. We hope that’s true. We hope that’s the wise thing to do. I’m looking forward to getting as much of Joel Embiid as I can.”

After this one, the Sixers’ next back-to-back set is a week from now, next Friday at the Knicks and Saturday vs. the Pacers. 

Richardson out again 

Josh Richardson missed the Sixers’ win Wednesday over the Knicks with right hip flexor tightness and, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, will be out again tonight. Trey Burke (left knee and ankle soreness) is questionable. 

Without Richardson, Furkan Korkmaz started against New York and shot 1 for 5 in 16 minutes. Burke has gotten minutes over Raul Neto in the Sixers’ past two games and gave the team a needed jolt in the second half Wednesday playing alongside Ben Simmons (see story).

‘I don’t care about that number’ 

The Spurs enter Philadelphia with a seven-game losing streak, their worst since the 1996-97 season, when Gregg Popovich took over the job. 

Brown, a former Popovich assistant, sees that streak as meaningless.

I didn’t even know that number. I don’t care about that number. They’re coached by Gregg Popovich. I know the large majority of their coaching staff that still exists, not as many of their players. I don’t even pay attention to it. I really don’t. My fondness and affection for Pop, and friendship with Pop, has extended two-plus decades. I just don’t care what they’ve been doing. If they’d won 15 in a row, I’d give you the same answer. All I’m doing is looking down there and it's the San Antonio Spurs, and I know we better bring our A-game or we’ll be in for a long night.

Led by DeRozan (21.7 points per game) and LaMarcus Aldridge (17.9 points), San Antonio has the fifth-best offensive rating in the league despite shooting and making the fewest threes in the NBA. However, the Spurs are No. 28 in defensive rating and have allowed 100 points or more in all but two games. 

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Would Ben Simmons making 3s help with any of the Sixers' spacing issues?

Would Ben Simmons making 3s help with any of the Sixers' spacing issues?

Ben Simmons’ first made three-pointer in a regular-season NBA game Wednesday night did not suddenly solve the Sixers’ spacing concerns. In fact, the Sixers didn’t score for the opening 5:34 of the third quarter in their win over the Knicks, and Brett Brown and Al Horford were both frank Thursday about the state of the Sixers’ offense.

“I’m prepared to be patient and try to fix spatial things, more than anything,” Brown said. “It’s not like a magic bean — here it is, here’s the play — it ain’t that. Space in pick-and-rolls, space in post, space in early offense — space.”

Horford described the issues as stemming from a team-wide desire to play aggressively.

“I just think that we have the mentality that we want to attack, we want to get in the paint, we all want to get in there and score,” he said. “Whether I have a mismatch or Ben has a mismatch, and we’re all in there. It’s just recognizing in the middle of the game if you see someone else, then you kind of find your place and re-space. I think it’s all good intentions. That’s why I keep saying, the more games we play, I feel the better that things will get."

The play below illustrates Horford’s point.

The sequence starts with Embiid rolling to the rim, then setting a down screen for Horford. When the high-low between Horford and Embiid isn’t available, Horford comes out to the left wing and hands it off to Tobias Harris, who attempts to drive to the rim. Julius Randle, though, leaves Horford to help, and Taj Gibson muddies the paint as well.

Gibson sneaks into the lane because he’s guarding Simmons, who sets a weak side flare screen for Shake Milton inside the arc on the right wing instead of planting himself in the corner. 

The idea of Simmons freeing up a teammate on occasion by catching an opponent with a surprise screen is fair enough, but that’s not where Brown typically prefers him to be placed.

Brown wants Simmons to either be in a corner or in the “dunker spot,” hovering in the region near the low block and behind the backboard. When Simmons is in the dunker spot, that tends to relegate his teammates to the perimeter.

On the play above, Simmons starts in the left corner while Harris and Embiid run a middle pick-and-roll, but he leaks down into the dunker spot. Once he's rolled, Embiid discovers the dunker spot is already occupied, meaning he needs to retreat to the corner. An unsightly possession ends with a fadeaway three-point attempt by Embiid at the end of the shot clock. 

Simmons situating himself in the corner more regularly could, in theory, leave that space open for Embiid and create more room for the offense.

“For the obvious space reasons, it helps,” Brown said of how Simmons taking and making threes might benefit the Sixers. “To have him grow to a different floor spot — we’ve talked lots about getting him out of the dunker into a corner. His current world is you will either be in two places — an extreme corner or playing peekaboo behind the backboard in a dunker, because he’s still very good at that. And I think that he’s growing those two areas. 

“He understands when he’s not on the ball, this is my home, this is my world, along those areas. … I think he’s been fantastic at embracing that and I believe that if he can continue to work in that world, that side of it will certainly help us as time unfolds.”

How many threes would Simmons need to hit — and at what rate — in order to merit consistent respect from opposing defenses? 

Even now, defenders will often stay in his vicinity when he’s behind the arc. The play below goes wrong because of Furkan Korkmaz’s drive into trouble, but notice that RJ Barrett guards Simmons close to the way one would play an average outside shooter. He doesn’t entirely abandon a player who’s yet to make a single NBA three from where he’s standing on the left wing.

The court is generally more congested and the distance required to send a double team is shorter when Simmons is in the dunker spot. 

With Simmons deciding to go to the dunker spot on the play above, Randle didn’t have far to travel to wrestle the ball away from Horford. If Simmons had been in the corner and if he’d established himself as something beyond a novice as a three-point shooter, would Horford have had more time and space to post up? Perhaps.

“I think it will open things up even more,” Horford said of Simmons adding a three-point shot. “It will make us more dangerous because teams won’t be able to help as much and clog the lane and things like that. I was just happy to see Ben — he’s been doing it every day in practice. And in different situations I’ve seen him, he’s shooting it comfortably. I was just glad that he took a shot, got it to go down and now we can kind of move forward.”

For the time being, the Sixers’ offense looks most fluid and makes most sense in transition, where one player's instinct to score in the paint tends not to butt heads with another’s insistence on posting up a smaller defender.

There was nothing complicated about the Sixers’ first points of the second half Thursday. Simmons threw the ball ahead to James Ennis, who dropped it off to Horford in an area where he could attack Randle.

Half-court spacing is currently less comfortable. Simmons’ outside shot — were it to become a regular threat — and him permanently shifting to the corners might change things. At the moment, the notion that both those things will happen seems highly hopeful.

We can predict with more confidence, however, that more minutes for this group of players together will help. Time won’t magically make a supersized lineup work offensively, but it should allow teammates to grow a better understanding of each other. 

“As a coach, the first thing I go to is space,” Brown said. “How do you help with space? And then at that point on, you create a gym that can breathe, and their skillsets should be able to shine. And then from that point on, it’s on them.”

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