76ers

Well, it looks like a Magic Johnson-Ben Simmons workout can happen now

Well, it looks like a Magic Johnson-Ben Simmons workout can happen now

While the Sixers were getting shellacked in Dwyane Wade’s swan song in Miami, something bizarre was happening on the West Coast.

Magic Johnson stepped down as Lakers president in an impromptu press conference before the team took on the Portland Trail Blazers. Even more peculiar: He didn’t tell his boss.

Yikes (pretty crazy to see the very level-headed Woj going in on someone like that, by the way).

So why did Johnson step down? One of the things mentioned was how he’d like to freely interact with players around the NBA. The Lakers have been smacked with fines for tampering on a couple occasions during Johnson’s tenure.

If you’ll recall, Johnson made waves in Philadelphia earlier this season. Already entrenched in a weird situation involving Pelicans star big man Anthony Davis’ trade request, Johnson spoke to reporters at the Wells Fargo Center before the Lakers played the Sixers back on Feb. 10.

When asked a generic question about Ben Simmons, who some have speculated would be keen on joining the Lakers at some point in his career, Johnson had this response:

[Simmons] reached out to me, not to me directly, to the Lakers, to find out if we can get together this summer. I said, you got to clear it with the league ... but if he wants to know how to play the position as a big guard, it's fine, I will do that. But if everybody doesn't sign off we can't get together.

It was odd that Johnson put himself in that situation. During a radio interview with 97.5 The Fanatic, Sixers GM Elton Brand was asked about the situation, saying he told the Lakers “no.” Brand later acknowledged that he had a good relationship with all parties involved and didn't want to make waves. The league reviewed the situation and determined there was no evidence of tampering, but it was still a strange thing for Johnson to share. 

What’s funny is how much Johnson was credited for getting LeBron James to come to the Lakers in free agency. Was it Johnson’s pull or James’ desire to be closer to his family and thinking about his life after basketball that lured the greatest player on the planet to L.A.? It seems to be more the latter. 

Him leaving his current post does make it seem like the comments involving Simmons were innocent and not some sort of recruiting pitch. Johnson is probably the closest parallel in NBA history to Simmons as a near seven-foot point guard.

Now that Johnson no longer works for the Lakers, he’s free to share as many “big guard” secrets with Simmons as he’d like.

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Whether he knows it or not, Shake Milton is now the Sixers' starting point guard

Whether he knows it or not, Shake Milton is now the Sixers' starting point guard

If you listen to Brett Brown, Shake Milton is the Sixers’ starting point guard.

If you listen to Shake Milton, the situation isn’t so definitive.

“No, not really,” Milton said Thursday night after the Sixers’ 115-106 win over the Knicks when asked if Brown had told him he could expect to start moving forward. “When somebody goes down, especially somebody who is kind of in your position, you kind of might have an idea that your number might be called, so it's just about staying ready and being prepared to play.”

Minutes earlier, Brown had raved about Milton, the second-year guard who’s gone from second-round pick to G-League standout to fringe rotation player to, well, starting point guard with Ben Simmons sidelined by nerve impingement in his lower back. He scored 19 points (6 of 7 shooting) and had four assists and two blocks vs. the Knicks. With 9 made threes in his last 11 attempts, he’s surged to a team-best 43 percent from long range. 

What a fantastic story late,” Brown said. “It’s getting to the stage where the sort of unique performances that catch your eye have become more and more frequent. … He’s just becoming consistently reliable on a bunch of things. The statistics we’re all going to see, but defensively, watch him sit in a stance and watch him follow a game plan. He’s deceptively long and I think he’s improved tremendously defensively. … 

“At this stage you’d have to say, if everybody’s looking for a tournament, he’s winning it. He’s the starting point guard. The rest of it falls into place with some other ball handlers that are more than capable and at times really good, but Shake has been a needed surprise late.

While Milton is performing above Brown's expectations, his recent success shouldn’t be shocking. At SMU, he was an excellent three-point shooter (42.7 percent from three) and a competent facilitator. In the G League, he gained experience at both guard positions and the confidence that comes with being a star in that setting. He “keeps it cool,” emphasizes being ready for anything with a steady tone in his increasingly frequent sessions with reporters, and steps in when asked. 

His jumper is a smooth and simple tool that he seems to shoot on his own terms, rarely rushed, with all the pieces aligned. An old acronym comes to mind when you watch it — Balance, eyes, elbow, follow through. 

Milton’s defense has improved recently, too, as he sharpens his feel for how and when to best use his 7-foot wingspan and takes smarter paths working around and through screens.

“I’m still learning a lot,” he said. “Every game I feel like I'm able to take away something new and learn from it, and kind of put that on my board to get better at. Tomorrow we'll go back and watch film and see the mistakes that I made and how I'm able to change those, and put out an even better effort next time.”

Tobias Harris, who led the Sixers with 34 points, said Milton’s disposition is what impressed him the most. 

“Just his fearlessness on the floor,” he said. “Shake is a really good player, but he has the confidence in himself, in his game to go out night after night and just to play. … He puts in a lot of work, works really hard. So, I'm happy for him and every time he gets an opportunity, he takes advantage of it. Tonight, he was huge for us.”

In a Sixers’ season that has, through 60 games, failed to meet expectations, a young player excelling in an expanded role is an obvious, rare feel-good story. 

To what extent Milton can sustain this level of play remains to be seen. He’ll probably be featured on more scouting reports, and it’s very possible his shooting will slump. We can say with confidence that, though he’s a far superior outside shooter, he won’t be anywhere near Simmons’ overall level any time soon. 

Milton is indeed the Sixers’ starting point guard for now, though, whether he knows it or not. 

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Sixers Talk podcast: Joel Embiid is out, but at least we have Shake Milton

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NBCSP/USa Today Images

Sixers Talk podcast: Joel Embiid is out, but at least we have Shake Milton

On this edition of Sixers Talk, Paul Hudrick and Tyrone Johnson discuss the latest on Joel Embiid's injury, Tobias Harris and Shake Milton picking up the slack without Embiid and Ben Simmons, and much more.

• Reacting to the latest on Joel Embiid's shoulder injury (1:03)

• Tobias Harris and Al Horford playing better (3:24)

• Shake Milton giving the Sixers a much-needed boost (10:37)

• Glenn Robinson III claiming to not understand his role (16:14)

• Locker room issues? (23:33)

• The brutal upcoming road trip (29:01)

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