76ers

Next step in Joel Embiid's evolution is disciplined preparation

Next step in Joel Embiid's evolution is disciplined preparation

A shade over 20 points, nearly eight rebounds and over two blocks per game — all on a minutes restriction after being sidelined for the previous two years because of foot injuries.

Joel Embiid dominated over 31 contests as a rookie last season. Yet, there still is room for development from the 23-year-old big man. As Sixers head coach Brett Brown sees it, some of the most significant growth will happen away from the court. 

“I think it has nothing to do really with his game. It’s not his jump hook. It’s not his defense. It’s his health,” Brown said last week while previewing his Coach’s Clinic. “Helping him better understand how to consistently play NBA basketball is most on my mind.”

Embiid underwent season-ending arthroscopic surgery in late March to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee. He has not played in an NBA game since Jan. 28. There has been no definitive timetable set for his return this coming season. Embiid has been working out at the Sixers’ training complex, but he has not been participating in 5-on-5 activity. The objective of his rehab is to be healthy for opening night on Oct. 18. 

“To take basketball away, as it has been taken away because of injuries, there’s a sullenness, there’s a body language that you feel for him,” Brown said. “He’s had some rough luck. I see an excited player starting to come back. We sure will be excited to have him back.” 

Once again, Embiid will have to practice patience. He was limited to 28 minutes a night and held out of consecutive games last season. The Sixers have 14 pairs of back-to-backs on the 2017-18 schedule. It is unlikely Embiid will start the season without some type of restrictions. 

“The competitive side that Joel possesses is not to be denied,” Brown said. “Helping him really prepare his body, helping him be able to play NBA basketball in multiple games and back-to-backs, all those types of things, that’s a health thing, that’s a discipline thing.”

Embiid already proved what he can do on the floor. Next step, staying healthy for a full season.

“The preparation to go play a game, the pre-hab stuff, the discipline of getting yourself ready is always an evolution for any player,” Brown said. “Joel’s no different.” 

NBA draft profile: Miami G Bruce Brown Jr.

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NBA draft profile: Miami G Bruce Brown Jr.

Bruce Brown Jr.

Position: Guard

Height: 6-5

Weight: 195

School: Miami

After his freshman year, Bruce Brown Jr. would have been a no-brainer first-round pick and most likely a lottery selection. Now, it would be a big surprise to see him go in the lottery, and even the first round is far from a sure thing.

There are two main reasons for Brown’s stock falling, the first of which is the regression in his play as a sophomore, especially his shooting. Brown’s three-point percentage dropped from 34.7 percent to 26.7 percent and his free-throw shooting went from 74.4 percent to 62.9 percent. The second reason is the left foot injury Brown suffered in late January, which caused him to miss the second half of the season.

There don’t appear to be any serious concerns about the injury for Brown, who worked out with the Sixers Wednesday. But questions about his shot and why he couldn’t build upon an impressive freshman year are certainly lingering.

Strengths
Brown is an outstanding athlete and competitor. He bench pressed 225 pounds 17 times at the combine, the most by any guard, and that's not at all surprising given the strength with which way he plays. He’s an intense, physical defender with a knack for turning defense into offense. For a guard, he’s an exceptional rebounder, posting 7.1 boards per contest in 2017-18. Offensively, Brown is a solid passer who’s comfortable in pick-and-rolls, which he ran a lot at Miami. He looks capable of being a secondary NBA ball-handler.

Weaknesses
His sophomore shooting dip is obviously a major worry. That 62.9 percent free throw percentage and the fact Brown made only 7 of 46 attempts from NBA three-point range last season are ominous signs. Like his teammate Lonnie Walker IV, Brown was inconsistent on offense. In 19 games last season, he shot 50 percent or better from the floor nine times and 25 percent or worse seven times. Brown has a variety of dribble moves, but his handle isn’t the most tight or fluid. His pull-up game, in terms of shot selection, rhythm and balance, has a lot of room for improvement.  Given how talented an athlete he is, Brown isn’t a great finisher (he shot 58.5 percent at the rim last season) and he doesn’t seem to like using his left hand.

NBA comparison
Brown has said he models his game after Russell Westbrook. He definitely has a little bit of Westbrook in him, especially with his intensity and explosiveness. He also seems to have some Westbrook-like confidence – he thinks he’s the best guard in the draft. And like Westbrook, Brown left college after his sophomore season without a great offensive résumé.

All that said, it’s not fair (or at all realistic) to compare Brown to a player who has averaged a triple-double in back-to-back seasons. Lance Stephenson is a much better comparison. Like Brown, Stephenson is a strong defender, excellent guard rebounder and subpar shooter. It’s important to note, however, that Brown won’t come with any of Stephenson’s notorious, ear-blowing antics.

How he’d fit with Sixers
On the defensive end, Brown will help any NBA team immediately. With his ability to guard one through three at a high level, he’ll have a role off the bench. There’s no doubt Brown’s defense and rebounding would make the Sixers better in two areas where they’re already strong. His athleticism would also be a boost for a second unit lacking in that department last season. 

Draft projection
Because of his injury history and disappointing sophomore campaign, Brown has a slightly wider range than most prospects. He’s expected to be taken in the late first or early second round. He could be an option at No. 26 for the Sixers, or he could be a potential steal at No. 38 or No. 39.  

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Playoff loss to Celtics appears to be helping shape Sixers' draft plan

Playoff loss to Celtics appears to be helping shape Sixers' draft plan

It was just over a month ago that the Sixers were getting sliced apart by the Boston Celtics over the course of their five-game Eastern Conference semifinals series.

Sure, the Sixers allowed 106.4 points per game in the series (only up from 105.3 during the regular season). But it was how the Celtics scored those points that made the difference.

Boston’s perimeter players completely dominated the Sixers. Terry Rozier was able to dance with the ball in his hands before splashing one jump shot after another. Marcus Smart found a way to continually cut through the lane for baskets at the rim. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were stellar at all three levels to deliver the knockout punches.

It was certainly skill that allowed Tatum (23.6), Rozier (19.0), Brown (15.3) and Smart (10.8) to average double-digit points in the series. However, athleticism played a huge role in the production.

Now, the Sixers appear ready to combat some of that supreme ability in this week’s NBA draft. They’ve already taken close looks in workouts at athletic freaks Miles Bridges, Lonnie Walker and Mikal Bridges. Now high-fliers Kevin Knox and Zhaire Smith are both scheduled for follow-up workouts on Tuesday.

You have to think the Sixers are giving Knox (see draft profile) strong consideration with one of their two first-round picks (Nos. 10 and 26). The forward just displayed his skills for the team in a group setting on Friday and now he gets a solo workout on Tuesday afternoon.

“They’re really interested in me,” Knox said (see story). “They love my game, they love the way I can shoot the ball. That’s something they really like to do is shoot a lot of threes. My versatility, being able to take guys off the dribble is something that would complement really well with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. So that’s kind of the message they have for me, being able to come in with tenacity, play with fight, play with energy.”

The 18-year-old Knox also admitted the Sixers view him as a small forward. You think a  6-9, 215-pound body out on the wing would help slowing down the likes of the Celtics’ Brown and Tatum while giving them something to seriously worry about on the other end of the floor. Yeah, apparently so do the Sixers.

“I want to play the three,” Knox said. “That’s something that a lot of guys have me projected playing the three. Coach really liked that. He really wants me to play the three if I come here. So that’s kind of the mentality he wants me to have — be able to come in and be able to guard threes, be able to take guys off the dribble, pick-and-roll and be able to shoot threes. That’s kind of the message he had for me.”

Meanwhile, Smith (see draft profile) didn’t mince words when asked what his No. 1 asset is coming into the league.

“Athleticism,” he said following his June 12 workout for the Sixers. “Using it very well, rebounding, blocking shots, defending, et cetera.”

Smith isn’t lying. He’s arguably the most athletic player in the entire 2018 NBA draft as the 19-year-old tied for second among everyone at the combine with a vertical leap of 41.5 inches.

Still, Smith wants to make sure the Sixers and other teams know he brings much more to the table than being an elite leaper.

“I wanted to show my ability to shoot the ball, play-make, bring the ball up, coming off screens and making the right decisions.”

Whether the Sixers end up with either of these two prospects or not, it’s clear the organization has placed a premium on athleticism heading into Thursday night’s draft. And they can thank the rival Celtics for the not-so-subtle nudge in that direction.

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