A.J. English, Michael Bryson confident in NBA dreams despite mid-major label

A.J. English, Michael Bryson confident in NBA dreams despite mid-major label

The Patriot League is not considered a hotbed for NBA talent, but that conference produced the NBA's Most Improved Player in Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum.

After winning the conference's Player of the Year twice and leading Lehigh to an upset of Duke in the NCAA Tournament in 2012, McCollum was taken 10th overall by the Blazers in 2013.

Iona's A.J. English and UC Santa Barbara's Michael Bryson won't be top-10 picks, but McCollum's success — after struggles and injuries plagued his first two seasons as a pro — shows that good players can be found outside of major programs.  

As far as offense goes, English dominated the MAAC. He led the league last season in points, points per game, three-pointers made and attempted, assists, assists per game and for good measure, he also had the highest player efficiency rating in the conference.

English knows the transition won't be easy, but it's a challenge he's ready to accept.

"I've always had a lot of confidence in myself," English said. "I'm from right down the street in Delaware. You have to have confidence coming out of a small state like that so I just try to keep it up."

In leading Iona to the MAAC championship and a first-round loss to Georges Niang's Iowa State squad in the NCAA Tournament, English earned workouts like the one at PCOM on Tuesday.

Bryson has gotten these workouts for one reason: his shot.

Bryson will shoot from anywhere on the floor. He shot 38 percent from three last season, led the Mountain West with 18 points per game and finished third in the conference in field goal percentage despite being a 6-foot-4 off guard. 

He showed off a little bit of that skill for the Sixers on Tuesday. While spending four years at a school like UC Santa Barbara may not seem like a path to the NBA, Bryson is glad that he took that route.

"I think that being able to have four years in college allowed me to really hone my skills," Bryson said. "Be able to see what I can do, what I can't do. Being able to hide my weaknesses and really flourish with my strengths. The social and the media aspect are some of things you need to learn, you have to develop. It was a really fun experience for me being able to play four years at [UC Santa Barbara]."

Bryson has enjoyed the draft circuit, which has included stops with his hometown Sacramento Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryson played with Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak's son, Maxwell, last season. Bryson may be an under-the-radar prospect, but he enjoyed his time in Philly with the Sixers' staff.

"It's been a really fun time," Bryson said. "Those two workouts (in Sacramento and Los Angeles) were extremely fun. This workout, [Philadelphia's] a beautiful city, beautiful gym. The atmosphere here is extremely go-lucky, that's something I really enjoy."

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

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

Fresh off the All-Star break, the Sixers (37-21) look to build on their 23-7 home record Thursday at Wells Fargo Center (23-7) against the Miami Heat (26-30).

Here are the essentials:

• When: 7 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 6:30 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:

No Jo Jo

On Wednesday, we found out that Joel Embiid has been dealing with left knee soreness for a few weeks now. Despite an MRI revealing no structural damage, the plan, for precautionary reasons, is to sit him out for approximately one week, at which point he will be re-evaluated. Brett Brown says that Boban Marjanovic will start in Embiid's place, and Jonah Bolden will likely regain some of the minutes that he’s lost since the Tobias Harris trade. Though Marjanovic is certainly capable of sliding into Embiid’s starting spot, look out for Miami to run quick-hitting pick and rolls to take advantage of Marjanovic’s slower foot speed.  

Who will step up?

Even without Embiid in the lineup, the Sixers have four guys in their starting lineup averaging at least 16.0 points per game. No other team has more than three players averaging 16-plus. That means business as usual in terms of normal play and flow, and taking advantage of the amount of dribble-out players they now have. But, if it comes down to crunch time, without Embiid, who steps up? Brown says he thinks it will be Jimmy Butler. Look out for that Harris-Butler two-man game.

Butler and Dwyane Wade

Speaking of Butler, he’ll have the chance to go up against one of his good friends tonight in Dwyane Wade, who also happens to be averaging 14.0 points and 4.3 assists off the bench in his 15th season.  Butler and Wade (both Marquette guys) played together in Chicago, where Butler says they trained and vacationed together. They also like to give each other a hard time, so watch out for when they’re both on the floor together.

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Exploring Sixers' 'Ear tug world,' a fundamental part of team's offense

Exploring Sixers' 'Ear tug world,' a fundamental part of team's offense

If you’ve ever noticed Brett Brown tugging on his ear on the sideline, chances are he’s calling an action out of the Sixers’ “Ear tug world.” 

It’s a series that begins with what many teams call a “Horns” alignment — two men at the elbows and two in the corners. The Sixers’ Ear tug world is one of the fundamental parts of the team’s offense, and assistant coach Monty Williams has played a key role in shaping it (see story). 

With the Sixers taking a break from competitive basketball for the past week, we decided to explore the team’s Ear tug world in more detail.

The lob 

The lob is the most basic Ear tug action. When the primary option is the lob — often after timeouts — the Sixers sometimes call this play “Elbow rub,” per Mike O’Connor of The Athletic.

The man at one elbow curls around a screen from the man at the other elbow at “the nail” (middle of the foul line). He’s open a surprising amount of the time. 

Some of the Sixers’ Ear tug actions start with a flare around the first screen instead of a curl directly to the rim. After flaring off Boban Marjanovic’s screen, Jimmy Butler read Jamal Murray’s overplay well and made a sharp back cut. An alley-oop was again the end result.


Spicing it up 

On the play below, Joel Embiid sets a screen at the nail for Wilson Chandler. However, you can tell the play isn’t designed for a lob to Chandler by his rather casual trot in the direction of the hoop. Instead, Ben Simmons gives the ball to Embiid, who dribbles into an inverted pick-and-roll with JJ Redick. 

You’ll notice this a lot with Redick and Embiid — because Redick is guarded so closely, as a screener he’s often able to basically wedge his man into Embiid’s defender.

The Sixers also sometimes have Redick run around screens in their Ear tug world.

As usual, this play starts off with a screen at the nail. And again, you can tell the Sixers aren’t looking for a lob initially — Murray plays physical defense on Tobias Harris, who doesn’t seem too concerned with getting all the way to the rim.

The Sixers instead have Simmons dish it to Embiid at the top of the key, and the big man hands it to Jimmy Butler. Off the ball, Redick brushes around down screens from Harris and Embiid and dips in for a jumper. 

Embiid post-ups are a frequent Ear tug objective. The goal isn’t for Embiid to curl around a screen for a lob, but for him to establish position on the block. 

Below is a simple example, with Landry Shamet and Embiid the two men at the elbows. Shamet flashes across Embid to the wing, Embiid goes down low, and the Sixers clear out the left side of the floor to give him maximum space to work.

Brown introduced a clever action to get Simmons a post-up on Jan. 19 vs. the Thunder. The play started with Redick darting across Chandler’s screen at the elbow. Redick is essentially in Shamet’s spot on the play above, with Chandler in Embiid’s place. But instead of Chandler stationing himself in the post once Redick receives the pass from Simmons at the wing, he stays at the elbow.

There, he sets a back screen for Simmons, and the point guard makes a UCLA cut to the left block. When Simmons drives baseline, Jonah Bolden frees up Jimmy Butler with a back screen on the weak side of the floor.

A similar action got Simmons an easy dunk on Jan. 8 against Washington, though it wasn’t technically part of the Sixers’ Ear tug world.

Simmons tosses the ball to Embiid at the top of the key, then accelerates to the hoop off Chandler’s back screen at the elbow. 

These sort of basic actions are a lot more effective than you might think they’d be, looking at them on paper. And because the Sixers get so many successful lobs out of their Ear tug world, teams now have to be wary of that option. 

That makes the creative layers Brown and Williams have added to the Sixers’ Ear tug world a greater threat. 

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