Shake Milton was feeling healthier, stronger and more confident last October during a nice preseason.
“Just going out there and being fearless,” he said.
He then hurt his left knee later that month in Atlanta, eventually went down to the G League and, after being told by Brett Brown that he wouldn’t be in the Sixers’ post-trade deadline rotation, became one of the team’s better second-half players.
As he enters his third professional season, the 24-year-old’s new head coach wants to see the fearless player that scored 39 points in March against his Clippers. Milton has rarely seemed inhibited or hesitant, but Doc Rivers said Tuesday he would like him to play “even more free,” and it sounded like he envisions Milton as an integral second-unit playmaker.
After playing last season at 204-205 pounds, Milton said Wednesday he’s again used the offseason to add muscle. How much? According to him, he’s now weighing in at 217-218 pounds, with greater self-belief than ever.
“I feel more confident just being out there,” he said. "Just how I feel, really, is the biggest difference. A lot of times going in I was injured, going into the preseason, in some way. So it kind of kept me out and I was always feeling like I had to play catch up. But now I feel like my body’s feeling good, I’m healthy and I feel a little bit more comfortable just moving out there, where I’m getting my shots, how I’m shooting the ball. Just an overall feel for the game — I just feel better.”
Milton still has only played 60 NBA regular-season games. There have been occasional exceptions — such as his scoreless, three-turnover performance in the Sixers’ first game at Disney World when he failed to handle the Pacers’ pressure and physicality — but an early defining quality of Milton’s is that he doesn’t tend to leave you doubting whether he belongs. Even if he doesn’t have the nominal burden of a starting spot, creating and making shots at a high level is a lot to ask of a player with relatively limited experience.
In Milton’s view, there’s no need to explode in scoring spurts or constantly venture from his comfort zone. It’s an educated green light.
“For me it means to be more aggressive and just be free to play,” he said. “Me and Doc talked about it, but it’s not really about coming down and shooting whatever shot — that’s not what a green light is, shooting crazy shots.
"It’s having the freedom to make plays and have confidence in what you’re doing. Whether it is me shooting or whether it is me driving and getting somebody else open for a shot, it’s just having the confidence to go out there and be aggressive.”
Adjusting to a higher-usage role, along with the heightened expectations about his offensive production and assertiveness, is one new challenge for Milton. His defense will be tested, too, especially if more ball handling responsibility means less time sharing the floor with Ben Simmons.
Non-garbage time lineups with Milton and without Simmons had an excellent 122.4 offensive rating in 989 possessions last season, but their defensive rating was 119.6, per Cleaning the Glass. They were especially poor at forcing turnovers as opponents gave it away only 10.9 percent of the time, in the 1st percentile for all 100-plus possession lineups in the NBA.
“He said he was going to challenge me defensively,” Milton said of Rivers. “I told him I was all for that. So I’m excited to put in the work and hopefully see some things happen.”
Milton hasn’t had a chance to learn from Rivers in a full-team setting just yet, but he’s taken it upon himself to do some informal studying about his role.
“Personally, just being on YouTube, you can just go on there and type in Jamal Crawford’s name or Lou (Williams') name and see what the actions look like,” he said. “It’s even funny, now that I’m able to see film of it, you can kind of see how the offense is set up and where guys are getting their shots and looks from.”