Four players have been ruled out for Wednesday night’s Sixers-Pelicans game. Unless you’ve firmly separated yourself from all sports media over the last day, you’ve likely heard of one of them.
Ben Simmons is suspended for the Sixers’ season opener for conduct detrimental to the team. Pelicans star Zion Williamson (right foot fracture) is also sidelined, along with Sixers guards Shake Milton (right ankle sprain) and Grant Riller (left knee injury recovery).
Here are the essentials for Wednesday’s game, the Sixers’ first regular-season contest since Tyrese Maxey scored 30 points in a meaningless May 16 win over the Magic:
- When: 8 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 7 p.m.
- Where: Smoothie King Center
- Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
- Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com
And here are three storylines to watch:
The Year 2 crew
Even as the Simmons drama perpetually percolates, it shouldn’t be necessary to manufacture any enthusiasm about Maxey. He’s a lively player on the rise who won’t turn 21 years old until Nov. 4. Without Simmons (and Milton), expect him to start and play important minutes.
Early areas to monitor for Maxey are how he fares as a facilitator, whether his increased three-point shooting confidence corresponds with improved efficiency, and if he can keep trending up defensively. Maxey and Seth Curry is certainly a small defensive backcourt.
“Last year, I’m not going to say it was extremely difficult, but I had to learn on the fly,” Maxey said Monday. “I only practiced two times last year during training camp, literally, and I was playing opening night. And right now I’ve really been focused on getting into the ball — ball pressure, getting over screens and being in the right place off the ball; being able to communicate and just being the ultimate team defender.”
Fellow second-year player Isaiah Joe also appears set for an expanded role. He was the Sixers’ best player of the preseason, averaging 16.8 points and shooting 59.3 percent from three-point range.
“To keep playing the way he’s playing,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said Monday of his expectations for Joe. “To keep growing. He’s shown us a lot. He’s been great. Where he’s at offensively this year is where I honestly thought he’d be more last year. He was more advanced last year defensively than he was offensively. Even though he has a cannon, he didn’t know how to get open.
“This year he’s been wonderful. He’s been doing everything, and so he’s going to play minutes. And that’s good for us. The guys have confidence in him, and that’s a good thing.”
Though he’s behind new frontcourt additions Andre Drummond and Georges Niang, Paul Reed remains a relentless, skilled offensive rebounder with an intriguing game after winning G League MVP his rookie year.
A shift in style?
Since Simmons has been a central part of the Sixers’ on-court identity for four seasons, his absence can’t be brushed aside as insignificant.
However, the Sixers plan on running many of the same actions and building on the principles Rivers instilled in his first year with the team.
“Not a lot (of tweaks). But just some things with Ben being out,” Danny Green said. “You have to see the floor spacing and how we’re going to operate. Ben and Tyrese are two different guys — and Shake. You’re not going to play those guys in the dunker (spot) as much.
“So just figuring that out, the post spacing with Joel (Embiid) and those guys, and how we’re going to slash cut, when to slash cut, where guys should space — just small, little things here and there, and guys learning and reading differently.”
One positive preseason change for the Sixers was the team had more shooters on the court around Embiid and increased its three-point volume.
Last regular season, 31.3 percent of the Sixers’ shot attempts were threes, per Cleaning the Glass, which ranked 26th in the NBA. During the preseason, the team’s three-point frequency was 36.8 percent.
Face (and voice) of the franchise
Embiid finished second in MVP voting last season, played through a small lateral meniscus tear during the playoffs, signed a supermax contract extension in August and has been incredibly forthright about Simmons.
The Sixers need him to be great as a player and as a respected voice in the locker room. He knows it.
“Leadership,” Embiid said on Oct. 11 of what’s different in his approach from last season. “Just being a better leader. I think in the past the way I led — which I still do — was on the basketball court, going with these guys and having the mentality of: ‘Just hop on my back and I got you, whether it’s playing hard offensively or defensively.’ And then obviously we went through a lot these past few months.
“As the organization sees me, that’s my job. I have to be a leader, whether it’s on or off the court. I have to do my best. That’s what I’ve really been trying to do — just try to keep the team together, because I still believe we have a chance. We just need to have fun. ... We’ve been moving the ball. I’ve been playing freely, having the ball in my hands and just making plays. We have a lot of space. It’s been working out well and we just need to keep building on that.”