76ers

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

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The Sixers weren’t supposed to beat the Raptors, were they? This was going to be an “easy” game for the visiting team, which was coming to Philadelphia on a back-to-back that started in Brooklyn. The Raptors are a playoff team, and second in the Eastern Conference at that. Not to mention, they had defeated the Sixers in their last 14 meetings.

Maybe easy would have been the case the last time the two teams played back in mid-December. For the Sixers, though, things have changed since then and a 94-89 win over the Raptors on Wednesday proved this recent success is not fleeting (see Instant Replay).

“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” Joel Embiid said. “We’re competing. We’re winning games. We’re playing great defense. We finally found what we’ve been looking for.”

The Sixers had been missing clearly-defined roles and a defensive identity (see story). Now that Brett Brown has whittled down his roster to 10 players and laid out a starting five and second unit, the team has been gelling in those two aspects. The Sixers have won seven out of their last nine games, with the Raptors being the highest caliber of competition.

The Raptors entered the game averaging 111.5 points per game, first in the East and third in the NBA behind only the Warriors and Rockets. They had scored less than 100 points in just seven games this season. Additionally, the Raptors had been held to under 90 points by a single opponent: the Spurs. Not bad company to be in. 

Embiid led all players with 26 points (including 12 for 14 from the free throw line) to go with nine rebounds (see highlights). The Sixers staved off 25 points (11 for 21 from the field), six assists and three rebounds from DeMar DeRozan and 24 points (11 for 16 from the line), four rebounds, four assists and five steals from Kyle Lowry, who fouled out. The Raptors shot 25 percent from three and 65.2 percent at the free throw line.  

“We’re playing with a spirit, we’re playing with a defensive mindset,” Brown said. “There is a belief within each other amongst the team that is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here.”

The Sixers' winning stretch began against subpar teams, opponents who earlier in the season some would look at the schedule and say, the Sixers could probably take that one, as they tried to project a batch of victories. The Sixers turned those wins over the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Nets into momentum and carried it into a matchup against the Knicks.

Even though the Knicks are looking lost this season, they still have veteran offensive firepower that can take over a game against a struggling opponent. The Sixers made noise by beating them at the buzzer, then escalated their performance against the postseason-hungry Hornets and Bucks. 

The Raptors are different, though. There is no questioning their success and potential to make a deep playoff run … again. Nonetheless, the Sixers handled this well-seasoned opponent with composure and confidence down the stretch. 

They stayed together when DeRozan hit a jumper with 1:53 to play to give the Raptors their first lead since the second quarter. The Sixers responded to the one-point deficit with a 7-0 run to push the edge up to six points with 20.7 seconds to go.

“I think it says we’re for real. It shows our consistency that we’ve built throughout the year,” Nerlens Noel said. “We’re relentless. We have a young group of guys that know how to play the game and play it the right way and will come out there and compete against anybody in this league. I think the perception should be a whole different one now.”

The Sixers showed they can compete with top talent. Their wins aren't just coming from teams at the bottom of the standings. 

"That gives us a lot of confidence," Embiid said. "Coming into the game, we had a lot of confidence. Winning against the second-best team in the East is just amazing. We’re going to keep on working."

Report: Sixers trade No. 39 pick to Lakers for 2019 2nd-rounder, cash

Report: Sixers trade No. 39 pick to Lakers for 2019 2nd-rounder, cash

The Sixers didn’t wait until draft night to start their wheeling and dealing.

According to a report Wednesday by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Sixers have traded the No. 39 pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for a 2019 second-round pick (via the Chicago Bulls) and cash.

With the Sixers previously holding six total selections in Thursday’s 2018 NBA draft and 11 players already under contract for next season, the team was never going to be able to use all of its picks.

The Sixers now enter the draft with picks Nos. 10 and 26 in the first round and Nos. 38, 56 and 60 in the second round.

NBA draft profile: Villanova G Jalen Brunson

NBA draft profile: Villanova G Jalen Brunson

Jalen Brunson

Position: Guard

Height: 6-2

Weight: 198

School: Villanova

As Mikal Bridges cements his status as a consensus lottery pick and Donte DiVincenzo’s name becomes hot enough to reportedly receive an invite to the green room of the draft, their Villanova teammate who was the consensus national player of the year has seen his stock remain static.

Jalen Brunson was the leading scorer on Villanova’s national title team last season, pouring in 18.9 points per game while dishing out 4.6 assists. Bunson, a three-year starter and two-time national champ, was also highly-efficient, shooting 52.1 percent from the floor, 40.8 percent from deep and 80.2 percent from the free throw line. And as a result of his remarkable junior season, the Villanova point guard took home a ton of hardware in sweeping the major national player of the year awards.

But, Brunson isn’t considered a surefire first-round pick.

Two of the main reasons for this? His position and age. The point guard position has the greatest depth in the NBA so lead guards don’t tend be high draft picks unless they have All-Star upside. If Bridges was five inches shorter, he wouldn’t have the same kind of value. Teams are starving for rotation three-and-D wings and not so much for high-floor/low-ceiling point guards. 

With Brunson set to turn 22 years old in August, he doesn’t possess the tantalizing upside of the top point guards in this draft like Trae Young, Collin Sexton and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Even so, there's still a place for Brunson in the NBA.

Strengths
As a three-level scorer, Brunson can fill it up in a variety of ways. He has a smooth jumper that extends beyond the three-point line. In the mid-range area, he makes up for his lack of quickness with crafty moves to create separation for pull-ups. On drives, Brunson can initiate contact to draw fouls, contort his body to avoid contests and has good touch around the rim. And believe it or not, the 6-2 guard utilizes his craftiness to be an effective post player as well. 

When Brunson has the ball in his hands, he carries a calming force with him. He plays at his own pace and just always seems in control, rarely committing egregious turnovers or taking bad shots. He's also a willing, talented passer who will make the unselfish extra pass and can also fit the ball into a tight window to a cutter/roller.

Weaknesses
Brunson’s weaknesses have less to do with his skills and more with his physical traits and tools. He’s not an explosive athlete with crazy bounce and doesn’t possess game-changing speed or quickness. So will he be able to create enough space against more athletic wing defenders to penetrate to the rim or get off his pull-up jumper? 

Defensively, Brunson works hard and isn't way undersized as a point guard. But he doesn't have the size to switch across multiple positions and the one position he will defend is deep with high-level talent. He can survive against backups, but how will he fare against quality starters and stars?

NBA comparison
Lefties tend to get compared to other lefties, but I'm passing on the Derek Fisher comp and going with fellow Big 5 alum Jameer Nelson. The St. Joe’s product is shorter and had a little more quickness during his prime, but was a solid starter capable of scoring at all three levels despite some physical limitations. Brunson projects more as a backup but has the ceiling of a player like Nelson.

How’d he fit with the Sixers
Let’s look at the Sixers’ current guards beyond Ben Simmons. Markelle Fultz is an unknown. T.J. McConnell is set to be an unrestricted free agent next summer. And the only others under contract are Jerryd Bayless, Timothe Luwawu-Caborrot and Furkan Korkmaz.

This team needs guard depth, specifically ball handlers and shot creators/makers. While it may not come at an elite level, Brunson could fill both of those needs. And because of his shooting ability, he could also play off the ball as a spot-up shooter and secondary creator alongside Simmons and Fultz.

Draft projection 
A fringe first-rounder, Brunson's range will start right around the Sixers’ second pick at No. 26. If they pass on him there, they shouldn’t count on him still being on the board at their next pick at 38.

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