Under-the-radar players pushing Philly teams forward

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Under-the-radar players pushing Philly teams forward

Carson Wentz, Fletcher Cox, Malcolm Jenkins, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Wayne Simmonds, Claude Giroux ... the city of Philadelphia now has its share of big-time players. Stars, if you will. It feels good to say that because that was not the case all that long ago. 

Gone are the days when James Anderson leads the Sixers in scoring or DGB is starting for the Eagles. There's no denying that talent wins — ask any coach. You can draw up the greatest plays in the world, but if you don't have the players to execute, it doesn't matter. And while the cupboard is beginning to fill with lead actors, let's recognize those understudies who may have snuck up on us a bit to play a bigger role in their team's success than we thought. 

Patrick Robinson
He looked so lost in training camp this summer that many observers, including myself, thought he wouldn't make it to final cuts. He was playing on his third team in as many years and at 29 years old and entering his eighth season, he appeared on his way out of the league. But aided by a move to the slot and a better grasp of Jim Schwartz's scheme, Robinson slowly but surely improved. He's consistently covered well and been a sure tackler. 

Robinson's turnaround is one of the more remarkable storylines of the Eagles' amazing start. Pressed into duty because of injuries, the veteran Robinson and the youngster Jalen Mills have been perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise of the season.

Jake Elliott
Speaking of Eagles coming out of nowhere, when Caleb Sturgis went down after Week 1, it appeared the Birds would be going on the kicker carousel tour, populated by the likes of Mike Nugent and Nick Novak. But to Howie Roseman and crew's credit, they found a winner in Jake Elliott. 

The rookie, a fifth-round pick who was sitting on Cincinnati's practice squad, is a remarkable 8 of 9 from 40-plus yards, 5 of 6 from 50-plus and 1 of 1 from 60-plus. You might remember that 61-yard cannon shot to win the Giants game. 

Excluding a couple of missed PATs in the wet conditions Sunday vs. the 49ers, Elliott has been money.      

T.J. McConnell
While our Sixers focus has been on Embiid's play and health and Simmons' ridiculous skill set, one of the other players who catch your eye and admiration night in and night out was undrafted and given little chance of playing in the NBA out of college. 

McConnell surprised many when he stuck with the Sixers in 2015. Most thought he was nothing more than a "camp body" with no chance of making the team, even one with as little talent as the Sixers. So even after making the team initially, he was written off as just another name in a parade of guys who wore a Sixers uniform during that time. He'd be gone before you knew him, as the club did its best to fill out a roster while trying to lose to ultimately win. 

But each game, each year, McConnell showed his mettle. He's transformed himself into a quality NBA role player, not a novelty with great hair. The mere thought of him guarding a James Harden would have made you cringe a few years ago. But now he is that guy. He has also made himself a decent threat from the outside, something that was not in his arsenal until this year. He's done it through hard work, something not lost on his teammates.

Robert Covington
Covington, much like McConnell, was not drafted coming out of Tennessee State in 2013. And after signing with Houston, he bounced between the Rockets and the G-League, even winning the league's rookie of the year honors. But he was waived in October 2014. 

The next month, Sam Hinkie and the Sixers signed him. Covington came here with the reputation of being a standstill shooter. And while that is still a key component of his repertoire, he's diversified his game and is now one the better stretch-three defenders in the league. He will soon be paid big bucks.  

So while the stars get most of the shine, let's celebrate some of the better supporting acts in the city.

Markelle Fultz out of starting lineup for Jimmy Butler's Sixers debut vs. Magic

Markelle Fultz out of starting lineup for Jimmy Butler's Sixers debut vs. Magic

Just 15 games into the season, Markelle Fultz is no longer a starter.

In a move that many saw coming after the Jimmy Butler trade, Fultz will not be in the Sixers' starting lineup Wednesday in Orlando.

Instead, Butler will start in his debut alongside JJ Redick, Ben Simmons, Wilson Chandler and Joel Embiid.

As of now, this looks like the Sixers’ strongest five-man lineup — especially defensively. While Brett Brown had his reasons for starting Fultz, this seemed inevitable. It’s clear at this point in their careers that Fultz and Simmons are both point guards.

This is far from the end of the world for Fultz. He’ll still probably average around 24 minutes a game off the bench as the backup point. There have been several times this season when he’s actually given the Sixers a nice spark off the bench during his second-half run. While his shot obviously has not progressed, he's made vast improvements defensively and in his aggressiveness getting to the rim.

Looking big picture is likely where the Butler trade affects Fultz more. If the Sixers sign Butler to a long-term contract this offseason, it leaves little room for Fultz once Simmons gets his extension in 2020. Elton Brand was adamant that the Butler move was not an indictment on Fultz, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on going forward.

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6 possible trade targets for the Sixers

6 possible trade targets for the Sixers

The Jimmy Butler trade leaves the Sixers with an empty roster spot and Elton Brand acknowledged Tuesday that he’s not done yet (see story).

Here are a few trade options that would fit.

Kyle Korver

We all know Korver’s deal by now. He’s one of the most prolific three-point shooters in NBA history and the team he’s playing on is a dumpster fire. The Cavaliers need to move him and the question will just be price. Nobody is giving Cleveland more than a second — maybe multiple seconds and a prospect that hasn’t quite hit (think Furkan Korkmaz).

It's no surprise the Sixers have been linked to Korver for a reunion. He's 37 and he’s limited athletically but he’ll give effort on defense and is also a smart enough basketball player to make up for those limitations. And he can definitely still shoot. 

Carmelo Anthony


Markieff Morris

The Philly native was brought up in a report along with fellow Wizards Jeff Green and Kelly Oubre Jr. Of the three, Morris is probably the most attractive fit for the Sixers. Morris can you give minutes at the four and at the five. Amir Johnson played three minutes Monday night and is struggling.

Brett Brown talks about playing "Philly tough" so who better to provide that than a tough dude from Philly? Morris is also a pretty solid offensive player. He’s a very good mid-range shooter and while he’s not a sharpshooter, he can make the occasional open three. It would be fun if he eventually had to face his twin brother Marcus in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Courtney Lee

Lee has been mentioned as a possibility for the Sixers since he’s an expiring contract on a bad team. He’s a solid defender with excellent basketball instincts. He’s shot over 40 percent from three in three of the last four seasons. 

Lee would be a phenomenal fit here, if he can recover from the neck injury that has kept him out this season. He’s obviously not a star but he can do a little bit of everything, including two things the Sixers desperately need more of: shot create and shot make. If you’re looking for a more diverse solution than Korver, Lee could be it.

Trevor Ariza

There have been no indications that the Suns will look to move on from Ariza and his one-year, $15-million deal, but it could make sense to allow their younger players to play. I bet the struggling Rockets would love to have Ariza back.

Ariza is an elite on-the-ball defender that can guard one through four. He takes a ton of threes but has hovered around the league average percentage wise. He’s 33 but looks like he has plenty in the tank. Plus his playoff experience would be a huge asset for a young Sixers team.

Vince Carter

Yes, Vince Carter is still playing basketball. Long gone are the days of Vinsanity but the 41-year-old can still fill a complementary role. The Hawks signed Carter to be a positive influence on their young players and they may choose to keep him for that reason.

For 15 minutes a game, Carter can still bring something to the table. He can score on all three levels and still create his own shot from time to time. He’s shooting 37 percent from three this season and can play solid defense. As far as experience, the resume speaks for itself.

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