76ers

Jeff Ruland analyzes Andrew Bynum; reflects on career

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Jeff Ruland analyzes Andrew Bynum; reflects on career

Jeff Ruland, who years ago offered Sixers fans a preview of coming distractions, doesn’t know Andrew Bynum. But he knows better than anyone what he’s going through.

“I hope he recovers, I really do,” Ruland said over the phone Tuesday. “Tell him I wish him the best.”

Then he chuckled.

“He probably doesn’t even know who the bleep I am,” Ruland said.

Suffice it to say that a great many others remember Ruland. Especially now, given the parallels between his tale and that of Bynum, who has yet to play this season because of bone bruises to both knees, and might not play at all.

Like Bynum, Ruland was once a proven center who came to the Sixers in a monstrous trade. And like Bynum, knee problems prevented him from ever making a significant impact in Philadelphia. So as he looks on from afar, Ruland -- now the head men’s basketball coach at Division II University of the District of Columbia -- realizes that the paying customers’ patience has surely been stretched beyond the breaking point.

At the same time, he said this: “Fans, as bitter as they get, should also understand that he wants to play a lot more than they want him to, trust me.”

It is something coach Doug Collins has said repeatedly: Bynum wants to be out there. And it would obviously behoove Bynum to play, since he is in the last year of his contract -- a deal that pays him over $16 million this year -- and would thus sacrifice bargaining power if he cannot take the court.

But season-ending arthroscopic surgery is a possibility, and Bynum surely did himself no favors in the public’s eye when he told reporters the following last Friday: “I don’t want to play in pain.”

While not on par with Ricky Watters’ “For who? For what?” rant of years ago, it was not the best thing to say, given the dashed expectations, ever-elusive return dates and, of course, the whole bowling thing. It is a statement that might come to define Bynum’s Sixers tenure, such as it is, if not serve as an epitaph.

The 54-year-old Ruland, though, would like you to believe that players always want to play. And surely it was true in his case, a quarter-century ago.

In his pre-Sixers incarnation, he was a low-post mangler for the Washington Bullets, a blacksmith with a velvet shooting touch. He and his tag-team partner, Rick Mahorn, came to be known as the “Bruise Brothers.” (Also “McFilthy and McNasty,” according to the cantankerous Johnny Most, the Celtics’ late radio voice.)

Ruland was twice an All-Star while averaging a double-double over five years in Washington. Under different circumstances, his blue-collar style would have made him a folk hero in Philadelphia. But he came over in a trade with forward Cliff Robinson, for no less a player than Moses Malone, on the eve of the 1986 draft. That came in tandem with the deal that saw the Sixers ship the No. 1 overall pick to Cleveland for forward Roy Hinson. The Cavs then used that choice on North Carolina center Brad Daugherty.

While Malone slogged through nine more seasons (and 21 in all) and Daugherty enjoyed a productive eight-year career with the Cavs, Hinson and Robinson provided little to the Sixers. And Ruland provided next to nothing.

He played five games in ’86-87 before his balky left knee forced him to retire. He did undergo microfracture surgery -- a relatively new procedure at the time -- affording him the opportunity to attempt a comeback in ’91-92. He played 13 games for the Sixers that year, 11 the following year with Detroit, and then was done for good.

“It’s difficult when you’re one of the best players in the world, and it’s taken away from you at 28,” he said, referring to his age in ’86-87. “It’s not an easy row to hoe. You can understand the fans’ point, but they didn’t get it, either. They didn’t understand that nobody wanted to play more than me. … It was my life. I was only 28.”

Goodness knows, some red flags were waving before the deal was struck. Ruland had played exactly 67 games over the previous two seasons because of injuries to his right shoulder, right foot and left knee. Years earlier, while starring for the late Jim Valvano at Iona, he had also torn the meniscus in his left knee. And Ruland had injured a foot so badly while spending the ’80-81 season in Spain that it required seven pain-killing injections, according to what he told the Inquirer at the time.

The trade was consummated anyway.

“At that time, I thought I was all right,” he said. “After training camp, the knee didn’t feel right. Just didn’t feel right.”

He played two games, shut it down, underwent an arthroscopic procedure and was out until February. He managed three more appearances, but could play no more.

After that, he wanted to get into coaching, but learned he needed his degree to do so. Problem was, he was some 70 credits short of earning that, despite spending three undergrad years at Iona. It took him some 18 months, and countless commutes from his home in South Jersey to the school’s campus in New Rochelle, N.Y. (with stopovers at his mother-in-law’s house in Yonkers), to finish it off. But there it was, in 1991: Jeff Ruland, BA, communications.

“Actually made the Dean’s List and everything,” he said. “When you actually open the book and study, instead of selling it, it’s a lot easier.”

He spent some time with the Sixers as an assistant, then served in the same capacity at Iona before becoming the school’s head man in 1998, going 139-135 in nine years and making three NCAA Tournament appearances before his dismissal in 2007.

He coached in the NBA Developmental League for a year, then returned to the Sixers as an assistant, in ’08-09. UDC hired him on the eve of the following school year, and he endured a 1-20 campaign, one in which the Firebirds were so short-handed that they were forced to play four-on-five part of one game. But last season they went 22-6 and earned their first NCAA berth in 25 years.

This year? Not so good -- 6-20. Injuries, Ruland said, were a factor.

His long-term prospects? Not much better. He’s approaching the last year of a contract, and he said a four-year renewal was recently yanked off the table.

“Life isn’t a bed of roses,” he said. “It’s what you make of it.”

There are plenty of other reasons for him to believe that. His second stint with the Sixers ended after he was struck in the back of the leg by a luggage cart steered by a Celtics ballboy, resulting in a torn Achilles tendon. (Ruland sued the Celtics, and lost. “You don’t want to sue the Boston Celtics in Boston,” he said. “You’ve got a loaded deck right there.”)

All of which pales in comparison to having to bury your wife. Or in his case, his ex-wife, Maureen. They divorced in 2001 -- it was, he said, “because of her drinking” -- but remained close. She underwent treatment for her alcoholism, and appeared to be getting a handle on things; Ruland said that in 2008, she marked six years of sobriety.

Then, another cruel twist for Maureen: Leukemia. The doctors felt like they caught it in time, though, and she went through one round of chemo, then another. Maybe she could beat this, too.

But a heart attack took her in September 2008, the end sudden and shocking after the grinding travails of the preceding years. Even now Ruland grows emotional when he speaks of her. Even now his voice catches.

“I got three girls, you know?” he said, referring to his three adult daughters. “Gotta be strong for them.”

Life isn’t a bed of roses. Sometimes you’ve got to tiptoe around the thorns. Jeff Ruland would like you to believe he has always tried to do that, in all circumstances.

And he can only hope to make you believe others would, too.

Ben Simmons not-so-subtly hinted at a Sixers trade target over the weekend

Ben Simmons not-so-subtly hinted at a Sixers trade target over the weekend

We've reached the second calendar month of the NBA's hiatus, and Sixers star Ben Simmons is still chatting basketball while streaming his Call of Duty matches on Twitch.

In March, Simmons talked about his views on the best defenders in the league - a list, I'll note, which should include Simmons himself. Over the first weekend of April, Simmons was reading the chat on his stream when he decided to choose a very... interesting comment to read aloud:

Hmm. 

I wonder why Simmons decided to read that comment, out of the hundreds he sees during a stream, and then remind us that he's just reading the comments.

At least one commenter in the chat called out "tampering!", but it's not tampering if you're just reading ideas from other people!

In reality, of course, this is just Simmons joking around with the basketball world. He knows fans (and writers) are glued to things like Twitch streams and Instagram feeds without actual basketball to talk about, so he peppered in a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge joke for us to get fired up about.

Still, it makes you wonder...

Booker would probably be a great fit on today's Sixers team. He's a two-guard who can shoot from anywhere on the floor and create his own shot at will, and he's played point guard in the past, which would help keep the offense running when Simmons checks out. Booker's defense being an afterthought isn't much a problem, considering the Sixers are loaded with great defenders.

The real problem for the Sixers would be acquiring, and affording, Booker. He's in the first year of a five-year max contract with the Suns, so waiting for his contract to end isn't viable. And his deal brings a cap hit of $27 million this year, and climbs each year, all the way up to $36 million by the last year of his contract in 2023-24, when Joel Embiid turns 30.

If the Sixers were somehow able to convince the Suns to take one of Al Horford or Tobias Harris off their hands in exchange for Booker - along with other valuable assets headed to Phoenix, of course - it might be possible to balance a payroll with minimum contract players and young, affordable talent around a core of Embiid, Simmons, and Booker.

But I can't imagine the Suns would jettison their only superstar, who is somehow still just 23 years old, unless they decide to blow it up in the next year or two. So instead we're left dreaming, and making trades in NBA 2K20, and waiting for Simmons' next dispatch.

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2020 NBA draft profile: Tre Jones is a stellar defender who could fit well on the Sixers

2020 NBA draft profile: Tre Jones is a stellar defender who could fit well on the Sixers

Tre Jones

Position: Point guard
Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 185 pounds 
School: Duke

Looking at the 2020 NBA draft prospects, there might not be a player that has been more closely scrutinized than Tre Jones. Such is life when you’re the point guard at Duke.

A look at Jones’ two years in Durham is a study in contrasts. In his first season, he played Ringo in a Fab Four freshman class that included Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. (Apologies to Joey Baker for not being included in that group.) Oftentimes, Jones would defer to his more prominent teammates to the point of disappearing offensively in games.

Jones was the lone member of that unit to return to school for a sophomore season. The Minnesota native emerged as the team’s leader and most complete player en route to earning ACC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors. Only Shane Battier and Malcolm Brogdon have accomplished that double this century.

But how does Jones’ game translate to the NBA? Let’s examine his strengths and weaknesses:

Strengths 

Excellent defender: Jones earned that Defensive Player of the Tear award on merit. The best example of his prowess on defense came in his last college game, a 13-point win over rival North Carolina. In that contest, Jones placed the clamps on likely lottery pick Cole Anthony. The UNC star scored just 9 points on 4 of 14 shooting while adding only three assists in 39 minutes. 

You can count the number of on-ball defenders who were better than Jones in the NCAA last season on one hand. That said, the 6-foot-3 guard will have to continue to develop strength if he’s going to disrupt NBA-caliber point guards on a consistent basis.

Embraces the moment: As mentioned above, the affable Jones willingly played facilitator in his freshman season. But in his second season, Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils counted on Jones to take the team’s big shots. Obviously, one could point to the game-tying buzzer beater in Duke’s other game with North Carolina last season as evidence of that. But there were countless times in 2020 when Jones read the moment and made a play when his team needed it.

Jones will not be a primary offensive option in the NBA, but his defense has the opportunity to keep him on the floor at the end of games. He won’t be afraid to take and make big shots in those instances.

Weaknesses 

Shooting: Tre is actually the second Jones to make his way through Duke in recent years. His brother Tyus, you may recall, starred for the 2015 national champions alongside Jahlil Okafor. Tyus displayed a great deal of offensive weapons in his lone season at Duke. The younger Jones is slightly more limited on the offensive side of the ball, specifically when comparing the two as shooters.

Tre shot over 42 percent from the field as a sophomore, a tick up from his freshman campaign. But where he really improved was as a three-point shooter, going from 26.2 point to 36.1 percent. Jones will need to continue to improve that part of his game, because NBA coaches are going to help off him initially and force him to hit open shots.

To his credit, Jones is a good free throw shooter (over 75 percent from the foul line in both seasons at Duke), and he gets better in that department late in games.

Ball handling:  A willing passer and good decision maker, Jones is the type of player you want to play alongside. But he’s not a point guard that can get anywhere he wants off the dribble. He’ll need screens in order to consistently get into the paint as an NBA player. 

His handle is also a little loose for a player of his size. That didn’t cost him much in college, but it will be a different story next season.

Fit 

Chances are that Jones will likely fall to the bottom part of the draft’s first round, and that might be a blessing in disguise for the 20-year old. He’ll never be the type of player that can change a franchise. But Jones has the potential to be a fit for a good team like the Sixers, initially as an eighth or ninth man. One could see Jones providing capable defense while taking some minutes as a lead ball handler when Ben Simmons needs a rest. He’d also provide the potential for giving the Sixers a ridiculous shutdown lineup of Jones, Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, Joel Embiid and any other player you’d like.

In a best-case scenario, the Duke star becomes Kyle Lowry, a tenacious defender that runs his team and does enough offensively to be a factor. But if he doesn’t become a better offensive player, he might be relegated to NBA journeyman. I’d bet Jones ends up as a solid contributor to playoff teams for the better part of the next decade.

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