Shake Milton has been here before, in command of the offense and in charge of producing quality looks for himself and his teammates.
In fact, there were several hundred more fans in attendance for his starring performances with the Delaware Blue Coats in the G League than the zero that attended the Sixers’ season-opening 113-107 win Wednesday night over the Wizards because of the coronavirus pandemic.
As Milton keeps progressing in the NBA and keeps looking too self-assured and too skilled to be deterred by the occasional stumble, his professional origins are relevant. The 24-year-old had 19 points on 6-for-11 shooting, three assists and no turnovers against Washington. He played 30 minutes, closed the game in place of Danny Green and guarded Bradley Beal in the final minutes. Instead of the Maine Red Claws, he matched up against a backcourt with 11 combined All-Star appearances and was one of the Sixers’ best players in a game the team almost spoiled with an unsightly third quarter.
Perhaps more significant than any of Milton’s offensive exploits was his defense. That looms as a big question this season if head coach Doc Rivers and the Sixers continue to use all-bench lineups for stretches during both halves and All-Defensive First Team selection Ben Simmons rests as Milton leads the show. As has become the norm with Milton, nothing he was asked to do seemed uncomfortable or beyond his capability. Russell Westbrook shot 0 for 6 when guarded by him.
“He was great, offensively and defensively,” Joel Embiid said. “Offensively, he did his thing. He ran the offense as a point guard and he made shots, he made plays. Defensively, he took on the challenge of guarding the best players on the other team in Brad and Westbrook. So I thought he was excellent tonight.”
Even Rivers, who’s glowed whenever he’s had a chance to talk about Milton, said this defensive showing exceeded his expectations.
“He was so good offensively, we needed to keep him on the floor,” Rivers said. “He ends up on Bradley Beal, he does a terrific job. He ends up on Westbrook, he holds his ground. One of the things we talked to him about right before the season started is, ‘Listen, we’re going to lean on you offensively but that doesn’t mean you get a pass on the other end.’ And tonight he showed that he wasn’t taking a pass. I thought he was terrific.”
Milton is stronger than the player who refined his game in the G League. At the start of training camp, he said he was up to 217-218 pounds after playing last year in the 204-205 range. Unsurprisingly, he thinks that physical development is helpful defensively, allowing him to pose more forceful resistance.
Another area where his added weight could be beneficial is shrugging off defenders and absorbing contact from them. The Sixers didn’t draw enough foul shots during the 2019-20 season, finishing 20th in free throw rate according to Cleaning the Glass. After drawing fouls on 10.4 percent of his shot attempts last season, in the 73rd percentile among combo guards per Cleaning the Glass, a more muscular Milton could theoretically be important here. He shot 5 for 7 from the foul line Wednesday.
Back in his Blue Coats days, the Delaware coaching staff wanted Milton to create more free throws for himself and play with aggression. Who knows when it will stop, but he seemingly remains on an upward trajectory with that and almost every other aspect of his game.
“I think for the most part, it’s just playing basketball over time,” Milton said. “The more reps you get, the more comfortable you feel doing certain things. I will say that putting weight on has definitely helped with taking the contact and being able to seek contact now and absorb it better, and still be able to finish and draw fouls. I definitely think that’s helped.”
Milton didn't fare poorly during his first playoff series, averaging 14.5 points and shooting 40 percent from three-point range against the Celtics. His preseason showed why Rivers and many of Milton’s teammates were eager to rave about how he looked in training camp. Still, the Sixers have 71 games left on their schedule and Wednesday’s contest was Milton’s 61st in the NBA. There will, one would think, be moments when his defense doesn’t hold up and he can’t quite find an offensive groove.
This is all new ground, and we’ll learn how Milton navigates it. When one considers how he reached this stage and the role he played in much smaller gyms than Wells Fargo Center, though, it’s not all uncharted territory.