Sixers' summer league run fizzles out with loss to Grizzlies

Sixers' summer league run fizzles out with loss to Grizzlies

The Sixers’ summer league campaign fizzled out Sunday night with an 82-73 loss to the Memphis Grizzles at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. 

After an 0-3 start, the Sixers made a surprising run to the quarterfinals, but the Grizzlies ended any hope of a championship run.

As they have throughout summer league play, the Sixers started slow, falling behind 26-11 early, and the Grizzles stayed in command for most of the night.

Here are five observations from the loss: 

1. Furkan Korkmaz became the face of the summer league Sixers, and he seemed to embrace that responsibility Sunday. Korkmaz appears comfortable with a constant green light on offense, which bodes well for him possibly taking on some of Marco Belinelli’s “instant offense” role off the bench. That’s not to say Korkmaz will singlehandedly replace Belinelli, but if his aggressive mindset and scoring ability could translate off the bench, it would be a big boost for the Sixers.

Along with his three-point shooting (4 for 9 from long range), Korkmaz also showed a soft touch on a couple first-quarter floaters. 

After a 19-point effort Saturday against the Bucks, Korkmaz posted 18 points, five rebounds and three assists. Outside of clunkers in the Sixers’ second and third games, when he shot a combined 1 for 18 from the floor, Korkmaz had a stellar summer league. 

2. We’ve already talked a lot about the ways Zhaire Smith can refine his game as he works on becoming an NBA wing after playing at power forward in college. One of the areas where Smith can improve is his finishing around the rim. He has the explosiveness to get into great positions, but he doesn’t have much variety or touch near the basket. On one play in the middle of the first quarter, Smith took the ball into a crowd of defenders, twisted into the air and flipped up a shot more in hope than anything else. His first instinct is to dunk the ball, which is certainly not a bad thing, but a little nuance would help him in the NBA, as would a dependable floater. 

Smith continues to show good vision and feel for the game, like when he found Isaiah Miles inside with this no-look dish.

Smith had five points on 2 for 8 shooting, four rebounds and four assists. His only field goals were a late breakaway dunk and a patented putback slam. 

3. Jonah Bolden admitted Saturday night he hasn’t been satisfied with his summer league performances, citing his inconsistency. After his best showing of this summer league campaign on Saturday, with 13 points and eight rebounds, Bolden was disappointing against the Grizzlies.  

In 24 minutes, Bolden had five points and four rebounds and was a minus-22. His tendency to disappear for extended stretches is somewhat concerning, since, along with his shooting ability and defensive versatility, you’d want Bolden to provide energy off the bench in the NBA. 

4. At just 18 years old, Jaren Jackson Jr. is seriously impressive. The No. 4 pick in the draft immediately took control of the game, with seven points, three rebounds and a block in the first three-plus minutes, helping the Grizzlies take an 11-2 lead. In that stretch, he made a three-pointer from the right wing, blocked a seemingly wide-open Bolden at the rim and finished inside with his left hand. Jackson posted 14 points, eight rebounds and four blocks.

He has a promising future, but Jackson has the versatile, modern game to make a significant immediate impact.

5. Another Jackson, the Sixers’ Demetrius, has quietly been solid throughout summer league. He hasn’t done anything that screams NBA player, and at 6-foot-1 it’s a struggle for him to find space inside, but Jackson, who entered Sunday night’s game averaging 7.6 points, 5.0 assists and 3.8 rebounds per contest, has been a dependable playmaker in his third summer league campaign. He had 11 points on Sunday night. 

For Jackson, what might hold him back from carving out an NBA role is his size and lack of a standout skill. As a two-way player, Jackson appeared in three games late last season for the Sixers. He’s also had brief NBA stints with the Celtics and Rockets. 

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Furkan Korkmaz the hero in Sixers' win over Bucks in MGM Resorts NBA Summer League

Furkan Korkmaz the hero in Sixers' win over Bucks in MGM Resorts NBA Summer League

With a quarterfinal berth nearly in their grasp, the Sixers fell apart in the fourth quarter Saturday night but Furkan Korkmaz was there to save the day again.

Thanks to a furious late run and an and-1 from Korkmaz with 3.6 seconds left, the Sixers pulled out a miraculous 91-89 win over the Milwaukee Bucks to advance to the quarterfinals of the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League. They'll play the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday at 10 p.m. 

The Sixers led, 71-61, early in the fourth quarter, but some sloppy play and stagnant offense allowed the Bucks to go on a 15-0 run. But the Sixers made a strong late push. Trailing 88-80, Korkmaz and the Sixers went on a run of their own. Two free throws from Korkmaz with 36.1 seconds left cut the deficit to 89-87. Then, with the clock ticking down, he drove from the left wing and converted his decisive leaner, the shot rolling around the rim before dropping in. Korkmaz calmly made the free throw to give the Sixers the lead.

Jonah Bolden broke up an inside pass intended for Milwaukee’s Christian Wood on the ensuing inbounds play. He made one of two free throws with 1.2 seconds left, and the Bucks couldn’t get off a desperation heave.

Let’s get into five observations from Saturday’s incredible win:

1. Even before his late-game heroics, Korkmaz’s assertiveness was noticeable Saturday night. With the Sixers’ offense floundering, Korkmaz confidently pushed the pace and looked to score. He wasn’t always in control, but to see him create his own offense instead of camping out in the corner and waiting for the game to come to him was encouraging. 

"Of course I feel proud of [my performance] because I just got here," Korkmaz told ESPN's Cassidy Hubbarth after the game. Korkmaz arrived in Las Vegas after competing in FIBA World Cup European Qualifiers for Turkey. 

"The guys are really positive guys. We stay as a team and we play together. If I need to talk about myself, I feel good on the court. I just try to play more aggressive and that's the point for me."

There was absolutely no hesitation on this coast-to-coast drive and Euro step finish from Korkmaz in the second quarter.

Korkmaz’s trust in himself as a ball-handler and shot creator could be an important element of his game. That said, showing the same conviction against physical NBA wings is, of course, a much bigger challenge than doing it in summer league.

After the game, Korkmaz reiterated his aggressive mindset.

“I feel more confidence in this summer league … When I feel good on the court, I start to play more aggressive," Korkmaz told reporters. "I just need to keep it up in all [my] minutes.” 

Sixers summer league coach Kevin Young felt he could trust Korkmaz with the ball in his hands late.

“He’s been hot or cold all tournament long, but the thing I love about Furk is he’s a gamer," Young said. "He’s played in a lot of big games, happy to get the ball in his hands, and [I] let him kind of make a play.”

Korkmaz had 19 points on 6 for 13 shooting Saturday night. 

2. Throughout the Sixers’ five summer league games, Zhaire Smith’s instincts have stood out. Offensively, he cuts well, darting backdoor at the perfect moments. His teammates often have missed him, but that shouldn’t be the case in the regular season. Defensively, he tends to make the right read, knowing when to help off his man and when to stay home. And his hands are active, like on this steal against the Bucks’ Sterling Brown and finish in transition.

It’s clear that Smith has a lot of areas to grow as he transitions to being an NBA wing. That was evident again Saturday, as he shot just 3 for 11 from the field. But those high basketball IQ instincts combined with his elite athleticism should help him improve and adjust at the next level quicker than many people may expect.

3.  If Jonah Bolden can put it all together, it’s easy to see how he could be a productive piece for the Sixers. He just seems to struggle to show all his skills on the same night. 

Saturday, Bolden again showed glimpses of his ability, like when he squared up his defender and knocked down a three-pointer on the right wing in the second quarter, or when he smoothly pulled down offensive rebounds. There weren’t any sustained stretches of consistently solid play, but his performance against Milwaukee was his best of summer league. Bolden had 13 points on 5 for 10 shooting and eight rebounds against the Bucks.

“To be completely honest with you, up until this point, I think I might’ve played better last summer," Bolden said. "Not to say I’ve played terribly, it’s just not up to my personal standards. And I feel I’ve gotten better and better each game. Still not up to where I’d want to be, not up to the same standard, just the consistency from Game One last summer to the end, whereas this summer has kind of been starting lower and getting up there game by game.”

At a minimum, the Sixers want to see consistent effort and defense from Bolden. Through the first four games, Young was happy with what he’d seen in that regard. 

“Offensively, he’s struggled,” Young told reporters Friday. “He’s not in a great rhythm; he kind of came in late. I think that probably hurt him a little bit just in terms of individual rhythm. But defensively, he’s been good. He’s a high-energy guy. he can guard a lot of positions, which for him I think is something that is really valuable for his NBA life. He’s versatile defensively in terms of being able to guard inside against big guys, guard smaller guys. So that’s really where he’s at his best for us.”

We saw last season how Brett Brown valued Amir Johnson’s defensive presence over Richaun Holmes’ offensive spark. If Bolden is going to earn a spot on the Sixers this season, his defense may be the key. 

4. Cameron Oliver has a serious affinity for attacking the rim. The Blue Coats forward, who entered Saturday’s game averaging 10.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in 19.3 minutes per game in summer league, has had far more than his fair share of emphatic dunks. He added another to his collection against Milwaukee.

Oliver’s game is still raw and at 6-foot-8 he’s on the shorter side for an NBA power forward, but his explosiveness and fearless approach is impressive. He’s a developing player worth keeping an eye on this season in Delaware. 

5. Christian Wood looks like an NBA player. He’s already been one, in fact, albeit for only 17 games on the 2015-16 Sixers and 13 games on the 2016-17 Hornets. With his length, athleticism and activity, Wood seems like someone who should be able to secure a spot on an NBA bench. Saturday, he posted 27 points and 12 rebounds. The Sixers organization knows Wood well; along with that brief NBA stint a couple years back, he starred last season at the G-League level in Delaware, averaging 23.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. 

Speaking of Delaware, Newark’s own Donte DiVincenzo suited up for his second summer league game Saturday night.  After missing Milwaukee’s first three games with a right groin strain and playing just 10 minutes Thursday against the Spurs, the Villanova product looked rusty. He air-balled his first jumper and never got into a rhythm, finishing with one point on 0 for 5 shooting. 

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He'll always be linked with Mikal Bridges, but Sixers' Zhaire Smith deserves chance to craft own story

He'll always be linked with Mikal Bridges, but Sixers' Zhaire Smith deserves chance to craft own story

For the rest of their careers, Zhaire Smith and Mikal Bridges are probably going to be compared. That’s the reality of being involved in a memorable draft-night deal in which a local kid goes from thinking he’s playing for his hometown team to taking off his Sixers hat and getting ready to fly to Phoenix. 

Thursday night, Smith and Bridges will match up for the first time, as the Sixers take on the Suns in the first round of the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League tournament. Inevitably, their respective performances will be closely scrutinized.

Bridges may have a better game than Smith on Thursday. He’ll probably have a better rookie season, too, given that he’s almost three years older, has a more polished game and should get plenty of minutes on a rebuilding Suns team.

The Sixers knew Bridges was a player who could help them immediately when they selected him — that’s why he was their “1A,” according to coach and interim GM Brett Brown. And they felt Smith could eventually be a “special” player — that’s why he was their “1B.” Brown decided the opportunity to have Smith and a valuable asset in Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick was a “Godfather of a deal,” too good to pass up.

If Smith notches a triple-double and embarrasses Bridges, it will be too early to say Brown made the right decision. And if Bridges scores 40 points and Smith looks terrible, it will be too early to say Brown made the wrong move. Because Smith’s potential is one of the biggest reasons why he was an enticing pick, we won’t know who “won” the deal for at least a couple years, even if it’s tempting to make a verdict based on one matchup, or one month, or one season.

That’s not to say that Smith will be a total non-factor as a rookie and the Sixers are banking entirely on potential. With his defensive ability, athleticism and impressive feel for the game, he should be able to contribute off the bench. He’s shown flashes of those tools already in summer league. But Smith still needs plenty of work as an offensive player, especially with his ball-handling. His transition from college power forward to NBA wing is going to take some time. 

Bridges’ transition to the NBA seems like it will be a bit easier. His length, defense and three-point shooting all project well at the next level. It wouldn’t have been too hard to find an important role for him on the Sixers next season. For Smith, it’s not as clear if he’ll be able to make an immediate, significant impact. Brown admitted as much at the introductory press conference for Smith and fellow first-rounder Landry Shamet.

"We believe entirely in time he has the ability to be incredibly unique, maybe even great,” Brown said. “So I think so that the city and you all hear me say, Mikal Bridges would have come in and slotted in and played right away. Zhaire is going to be fighting for some minutes and we’re going to develop him and we are excited to do that and he may jump into this thing in a quicker way. …We believe we are going to take Zhaire and put him into our development system and polish up all of those things and we are excited. The city of Philadelphia is going to love him because of his complete competitiveness, his athleticism and his toughness. He is bred for the city of Philadelphia.”

Unlike Bridges, however, Smith wasn’t bred in the Philadelphia area. There may be some fans who will always resent the Sixers for the trade, regardless of the player Smith ends up becoming. Even Brown admitted that the human side of it was “disturbing.” It seemed like the perfect story, until it wasn’t.

But let’s keep in mind that Smith deserves a chance to craft his own story in the NBA, as does Bridges.

If Smith or Bridges dominates Thursday’s matchup, it’s only natural that many fans’ strong draft-night reactions will resurface. Ultimately, though, Thursday night is a fun summer-league matchup between two promising young players who have yet to play a regular-season minute in the NBA. 

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