CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers began training camp Tuesday without Ben Simmons, as expected.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers maintained that he believes Simmons will come to camp “at some point,” but there’s nothing to indicate an imminent arrival for the 25-year-old, who's made it known he wants to be traded.
Every other player on the roster was present, though, and reporters got to glimpse a few minutes of end-of-practice action. Tyrese Maxey replaced Simmons on the Sixers’ first unit, which Rivers confirmed was the case for the entirety of Day 1. Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Georges Niang and Andre Drummond comprised the Sixers’ second unit.
We’ll start with Maxey in these Day 1 observations:
Maxey’s learning curve
Even though the situation is odd, Maxey has had time to prepare for the idea of significant point guard minutes.
Rivers asked him to work on “running the team” leading into summer league. In a Simmons-less world, Maxey and Shake Milton appeared to be the only two realistic starting point guard candidates, assuming Rivers didn’t shift Seth Curry to that spot. Maxey is ascendant, whereas Milton is aiming to play regular, heavy postseason minutes after receiving sporadic playing time in June.
Rivers is high on Maxey but also knows this isn’t an easy role.
“It’s going to take some time,” Rivers said. “He’s not a natural point guard. It’s a position he’s going to have to learn.”
Tobias Harris had a positive initial impression of Maxey, who developed impressively over an abnormal rookie season. Maxey was sidelined early in training camp last year after testing positive for COVID-19.
“He did a great job today coming in, handling the team and being able to put us in the right spots,” Harris said. “The point guard position is a crucial position. For him, it’s going to help him grow his leadership skills as well out there.”
The Maxey-Curry backcourt is a small one that may very well be vulnerable against certain opponents defensively. One advantage, however, is that Curry is comfortable handling the ball and can perhaps help Maxey adjust.
“I’ve done that my whole life,” Curry said Monday. “People see me shoot but if you really watch me play, I’ve got a lot of different layers to my game — nothing new. I pride myself on being a versatile player offensively, being able to play the one and two at times.
“I feel like I can adapt to any situation so no matter what the team needs from me, I’m ready to do it. Every season, every month … calls for different things from us as a team and as individuals. I want to be a well-rounded player that does a lot on the floor.”
Want to bring it up? Feel free
Curry isn’t the only player who Rivers will encourage to push the ball without Simmons.
“Tyrese will bring it up a lot but if Tobias gets it, I want him to break out with it,” Rivers said. “If Seth gets it, I don’t want him to wait. Last year, at least with Ben, we more gave it to him every time because of his ability to get to the paint and make plays. This year we’ll probably do something different.”
Harris was the sharpest of his career during the 2020-21 season as a facilitator. His 0.72 assist-to-usage ratio was his best ever, per Cleaning the Glass.
“Just quicker decisions,” he told NBC Sports Philadelphia last May. “That was the biggest thing. And I also think being put in those type of situations, I know where I’m getting the ball, I know how teams are going to play, I know positions and personalities of other players and where they want the ball.
“It’s just getting the timing, and the trust and patience, as well. All those things just kind of added up this year for me. That’s one of the things I always as a player was striving to be better at — in those situations, making the right plays.”
He handled the ball Tuesday on a few of the possessions reporters watched, and it doesn’t sound like that was fluky.
“No, we were just showing that for you guys,” Harris said with a laugh. “That wasn’t real life. No, that’ll be a key thing. However the ball flows around, the big thing for us that we were progressing on today and will continue to progress on is just ball movement — getting the ball side to side and making the game easier for everyone on the floor. I think you’re going to see continued effort from all the guys making that extra pass, the right play, and just living with the results.”
‘They know they have a shooter’
Rivers on Monday called Niang “the silent pickup that I personally believe will really be big for us in a lot of ways.”
The 28-year-old stood out to him during the season’s first practice.
“The energy was amazing, especially from the returning guys,” Rivers said. “Usually the energy is better from the rookies and the new guys, but I thought clearly Joel, Danny (Green) and Seth, they came with a very serious energy. And I also thought Furk, Matisse and Shake, they were really good today. They enjoyed playing with Niang, you could see that. They know they have a shooter.”
It will be interesting to monitor how Rivers employs Niang. While he prioritized cohesiveness among his key bench players last season, he mentioned the possibility of using Niang as a small-ball center Monday. Which players would surround Niang in those lineups? How often will Niang play next to the Sixers' stars?
We’ll get answers to those sorts of questions soon enough, but it’s already clear Rivers is pleased to have Niang in the mix as a sweet-shooting backup four.