Zhaire Smith 2.0, Matisse Thybulle's defense, Shake Milton at point guard and more to watch with Sixers in summer league

Zhaire Smith 2.0, Matisse Thybulle's defense, Shake Milton at point guard and more to watch with Sixers in summer league

Basketball is almost back.

Amid the free-agency frenzy, the Sixers held their summer league minicamp from Monday through Wednesday at their facility in Camden, New Jersey. The team is now in Las Vegas, with its first game set for Friday afternoon.

Their full schedule is below: 

Friday, July 5: Sixers-Bucks, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Saturday, July 6: Sixers-Celtics, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Monday, July 8: Sixers-Thunder, 3 p.m. (ESPNU)
Wednesday, July 10: Sixers-Pistons, 3 p.m. (NBA TV)

And here are a few storylines worth watching:

Zhaire Smith 2.0

The resilient, relentless Zhaire Smith endured plenty in his rookie season (see story). He returns to summer league eager to compete defensively and continue growing confidence in a jumper he had to rebuild after losing approximately 40 pounds following a severe allergic reaction.

Smith's explosiveness didn’t magically return all at once either.

“[Body] went through a whole lot,” Smith said Monday. “It took my athleticism. When I first came back, I tried to dunk and that didn’t work very well. I had to rebuild all of that again, but now I’m all good.”

Smith’s shot, which he gradually reconstructed with the help of player development coach Tyler Lashbrook, looks as it did at the tail end of last season — a good sign for someone seeking consistency. There’s a clear emphasis on proper footwork and extending his follow through. 

From the Sixers’ perspective, Smith’s defensive talent would seem to fit well on a team that’s staked its identity on that side of the ball. 

Zhaire’s exciting to me,” said Connor Johnson, the head coach of the Delaware Blue Coats and Sixers’ summer league team. “He’s a guy that’s getting better every day. Getting so much stronger and really becoming comfortable in his body. And you can see his athletic ability, especially on the defensive end. He’s got an unbelievable ability, in my opinion, to stay in front of the ball, fight through screens and be an on-ball, point-of-attack defender.

A defensive duo 

You don’t have to stretch to find the similarities between Smith and Matisse Thybulle, the 20th pick in this year’s draft.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for the two to form a connection. 

“For me, it’s really cool playing with Zhaire because me and him are really similar players,” Thybulle said Tuesday. “Having him be such a good defender and already knowing what to do, he’s someone I’ve been watching, looking up to and trying to kind of mimic his game — follow in his footsteps a little.” 

The two were part of the same group in various drills at the end of practices and are starting to build a relationship.

Like with Smith, Thybulle’s jump shot is something to monitor. He shot 35.8 percent from three-point range in his four seasons at the University of Washington but dipped to 30.5 percent as a senior.

An initial impression with Thybulle’s shot is that he seems to have success when he’s in rhythm and has his feet set. 

Smith, Johnson and Shake Milton all praised Thybulle’s active hands and sharp instincts defensively. 

“Man, he gets in the passing lanes like crazy,” Milton said Wednesday. “You’ve got to be careful — you can’t really be loose with the ball around him. Quick to the ball, he’s active and he makes it tough on you.”

The Sixers' backup point guard? 

Though the Sixers signed veteran Raul Neto to a one-year deal Wednesday, Milton should still have an opportunity to earn minutes this season.

The 22-year-old, who received a four-year NBA contract Tuesday, can play both guard spots and shoots a well-balanced, uncomplicated jumper.

Milton had the ball in his hands a lot with the Blue Coats, and Johnson said a key part of summer league for Milton will be further demonstrating his abilities as a point guard. 

“The best thing we can do for Shake and for the Sixers is show his versatility,” Johnson said Monday. “Show that he can play in multiple ways. He can play off the ball; he can play with the ball; he can play in more of a scoring role; he can play as more of a facilitator. We’re just trying, for all of our guys, to expand their skill set, expand their versatility, so they have multiple options for themselves, and then also for our program.”

Before the draft, as inquisitive reporters watched Milton working out at the Sixers’ facility and wondered what was next for the SMU product, general manager Elton Brand said, “I haven’t seen a player so excited to play in summer league.”

Milton, who missed last year’s summer league with a stress fracture in his back, explained Tuesday why that’s the case.

“I mean, I didn’t get to play last year,” he said. “It sucked having to sit there and watch everybody out there practicing and having fun. Summer league is such a great opportunity to get together and play, so I’m excited.”

Others to watch 

Smith, Thybulle and Milton are three of the 14 players on the Sixers’ summer league roster. 

Norvel Pelle, a recent recipient of a two-way contract, second-round pick Marial Shayok and Terry Harris, the sharpshooting younger brother of Tobias Harris, are three others to watch.

High-scoring guard PJ Dozier and 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje are also players of interest, and two possible candidates for the Sixers’ vacant two-way spot (see story).

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Sixers pursued 'high-level, accomplished' executives before hiring Elton Brand as general manager

Sixers pursued 'high-level, accomplished' executives before hiring Elton Brand as general manager

In the wake of the absurd scandal involving Bryan Colangelo and burner Twitter accounts, the Sixers searched for their next general manager and handed Brett Brown the job on an interim basis. Eventually, they promoted Elton Brand.

He was certainly not their first choice, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

“When they opened that job up, when Colangelo was gone and before they promoted Elton Brand, they went after any number of high-level, accomplished executives around the league,” Wojnarowski said on The Woj Pod. “They were willing to offer Daryl Morey, Bob Meyers, Dennis Lindsey, Sam Presti. There may have been more.”

Brand’s only previous executive experience was as the GM of the Sixers’ G-League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats (formerly the 87ers). It makes sense that the Sixers would have preferred more established candidates.

The Sixers were “rebuffed” in their efforts to hire Morey, The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported in July of 2018. A mentor to former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie, Morey won the NBA’s Executive of the Year Award in 2018 and is still GM of the Rockets. 

Stein also reported the Sixers “commissioned a clandestine run at prying Myers away from the Warriors that was likewise rebuffed.” Myers has served as the Warriors’ general manger since 2012 and won three championships with the team.

Lindsey is the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Jazz, while Presti has been GM of the Thunder franchise since 2007. 

The Sixers had an interview with former Cavs and current Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin but, according to The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, “felt he wasn’t a good fit for their front-office structure” and wanted to “make collaborative decisions instead of a GM who will have the final say.”

In July of 2018, Sixers managing partner Josh Harris told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Amy Fadool, “It’s very consensus-oriented, there’s a lot of people in the dialogue, and we want to make sure we find the right fit for that.”

Wojnarowski noted on the podcast that Harris and the Sixers’ leadership above Brand remain influential.

“Ownership’s got a lot of say in Philly," he said. “You’ve got a group of owners that are involved, that are there. How many team have multiple owners courtside each corner of the arena, each night?

Brand has made several major moves since assuming the GM job in September of 2018, including trading for Jimmy Butler, shipping Markelle Fultz to Orlando, trading for Tobias Harris and then signing him to a five-year, $180 million deal this summer, and giving Al Horford a four-year contract with $97 million guaranteed. At 37-23 this season and 9-21 on the road, Brand’s roster has not performed the way he envisioned. 

Wojnarowski and Max Kellerman also talk about expectations for the rest of the Sixers' season, the history of Sam Hinkie’s Process and more on the podcast, which you can listen to here

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Tobias Harris is blocking out outside noise about big contract, trying to carry Sixers

Tobias Harris is blocking out outside noise about big contract, trying to carry Sixers

When you’re given the largest contract in the history of a storied franchise like the Sixers in the city of Philadelphia, you’re going to face scrutiny.

Tobias Harris has gotten his fair share since inking a five-year, $180 million near-max deal this past offseason. The 27-year-old hasn’t consistently provided the scoring needed to complement Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Though at times, like Thursday night against the Knicks, Harris has looked like the player GM Elton Brand traded for and then chose to re-sign as a franchise cornerstone. 

With Embiid and Simmons both on the shelf, this is the version the Sixers need to see a lot more of.

“At the beginning of the game, had some good looks going,” Harris said. “We had good pop to our flow, to our offense, and was able to get some just in-the-flow plays. Once I'm able to get into the flow and the ball is able to move around, that's where I'm at my best. And I just carried that throughout the game.”

Harris, who was one off his Sixers high with 34 points, has said since he arrived before last season’s trade deadline that he flourishes in systems with good ball movement. That’s likely why he’s shot the ball better from three with Simmons on the floor (37.5) than off (29.5).

Simmons leads the NBA in assists on threes whereas with Embiid, his methodical approach in the post can make the offense stagnant at times. With both off the floor, Harris will have to do more to get his own shot.

Brett Brown admitted after Thursday’s game that he’s simplified the offense with his two All-Stars out. Against the Knicks, Harris just attacked mismatches all night, punishing smaller defenders in the post and driving on New York’s bigs.

“With those two out, we'll have to find our identity of how we're going to play,” Harris said. “You saw tonight, we had a lot of just wide-open looks out of the initial pin down action either between Al [Horford] and [Josh Richardson] or Al [Horford] and [Alec] Burks so we got a lot of easy ones going and just were able to go at different mismatches that we felt.”

The trio of Harris, Horford and Richardson struggled in Cleveland, going 12 of 35. They all had bounce-back games of some sort, but it was Harris who likely got the most heat and responded in the biggest way.

Does he feel like it’s his responsibility to carry the team right now because of the large investment the they made on him?

“I would be naive to think there’s not a hint of that,” Brown said. “I think he’s really competitive and if you paid him a nickel or $170 million, I think that you’re going to get a highly competitive player. ... He’s very prideful. That’s why he’s good. 

“He’s trying to do his part obviously to earn his keep, but I think it’s way deeper than that. I think he just wants to be on a winning team for a long time and try to help steer this program to trying to find, at some point, a championship.”

With the fans, there's a sentiment of Harris being overpaid, so not much is made when he hangs 34 on a bad Knicks team. It makes sense. Fans would rather root for an underdog like Shake Milton, who's come out of nowhere to earn important minutes.

Harris has become a leader and a respected player in the Sixers’ locker room. That’s his only concern.

“There's obviously outside noise that comes involved with [signing a big contract],” Harris said. “I always look at it like the only noise that really carries weight for me is noise in our locker room, and with the guys on our team and coaching staff. I truly believe that you can ask every single one of them in the locker room, the value that I bring to this team, on and off the floor, and they will vouch for that. That's the credibility that I go with. ... So I just try to do my job on a daily basis, be a professional every day and go to work.”

With 22 games left and the Sixers trying to claw their way up the East with their All-Stars banged up, Harris will have ample opportunity to show his value to everyone else.

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