Day 2 of Sixers training camp concluded just like Day 1, at least on the court closest to reporters.
Tyrese Maxey, Shake Milton and Seth Curry worked with skill development coaches Tyler Lashbrook and Spencer Rivers, putting up a healthy volume of three-pointers.
In these Day 2 observations, we’ll begin with that trio of players who look likeliest to handle the ball in Ben Simmons’ absence.
The Milton-Maxey-Curry group is nothing new.
Milton said Wednesday that he worked out with those two teammates this summer in Dallas, Texas, joined by Lashbrook and Rivers. Each guard could assume greater responsibility without Simmons, whether that means Maxey starting at point guard, Milton conducting the second unit or Curry seeing his usage rise.
Milton, who Doc Rivers lauded often during last year’s training camp, earned his head coach’s praise Wednesday.
“Shake had a great day today overall leading the second team,” Rivers said. “You could tell he’s put a lot of work in at that position where last year, honestly, he came into the year with no idea that he’d be a point guard. So he’s been fantastic for us."
Though not as scintillating an athlete as Maxey or oozing with the 20-year-old’s obvious potential, Milton should be an important player for the 2021-22 Sixers. At media day, he said he focused on three-point shooting and defense during the offseason with the aim of “being in the game when it matters most.”
Rivers noted on a few occasions last season — and fairly enough — that Milton sometimes struggled with ball pressure. That again figures to be a key challenge for him this season, in addition to honing all of the intangible qualities that come with commanding a lineup as its point guard.
“It feels good,” Milton said. “Definitely a work in progress. It’s not like it’s a finished thing. I’m constantly learning every day and I just try to take a little bit from everybody that I see — how Joel (Embiid) commands the team, how Tobias (Harris) uses his voice as a leader — and just kind of incorporate it into my own thing, and it’s been fun.”
‘Why are you at where you’re at?’
Rivers occasionally teased the possibility of playing Simmons more minutes at center, including when it appeared Embiid might miss the beginning of the Sixers’ second-round series against the Hawks with a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. It never became a staple, though, as Rivers almost always preferred Dwight Howard as his backup center.
He was asked Wednesday whether he’s given any thought to using smaller lineups.
“What do you think? I’m going to ask you that,” he said. “We’ve got nine coaches. You think that has never been discussed? I’m joking with you but yeah, of course we have. But last year we really worked on it more with Ben, because of his size. This year, if you try to go small, it sounds great to you and everybody, but defensively you put yourself in a pretty tough spot.
“There are units that we can run small. But whenever I think of that I always think: ‘You mean take Joel off the floor?’ Maybe with the second unit you can do it some. But overall, I think we’re going to stay big and at times we will be ready to play small, for sure.”
One reason Rivers might be resistant to much small ball is his belief in Andre Drummond’s abilities. The two go back a long way, as Rivers explained.
“I’ve known Andre since high school,” he said. “The kid that I adopted, Adam (Jones), and Andre were roommates at military academy. So I’ve literally known him and his mom since high school. We’ve had this running joke since however long he’s been in the league, every year: ‘When are you going to come get me?’
“So when I called, I said, ‘I’m calling to come get you. Now you’ve got to make the decision.’ ... Listen, Andre two or three years ago was making the max. And my first question is, ‘Why are you at where you’re at? Let’s do something about that.’ I’m telling you, he’s in great shape, he’s doing great things right now. We’ve just got to keep him doing it.”
The dunker spot hasn’t disappeared
A surface-level silver lining of a world without Simmons on the floor is enhanced shooting around Embiid.
Despite former head coach Brett Brown’s stated desire to station Simmons more in the corners ahead of the 2019-20 season, the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up has generally been placed in the dunker spot. The Sixers don’t intend to abandon that off-ball position — an area between the short corner and low block — which practically every NBA team fills on post-ups.
“We’ve still got to get a guy to the dunker spot,” Rivers said. “You can’t have four guys standing out at the three. You’ve got to cut guys; our cutting has to be better. We have to have more urgency. We showed them film the other day. We get it to Joel and we’re walking to our spots. That allows the defense to hang in there a little bit longer.
“It doesn’t change as much as you would think, but we have to be in the right spots. If teams are going to come, we have to be ready for it. And if I was the other team, I’m coming. I don’t care who’s on the floor, (anyone else is) better than Joel shooting. That’s what defenses think, especially down the stretch, so we have to be ready for that.”
There are a plethora of valid questions about how things change minus Simmons, and few of the answers are simple.
For instance, adjusting the starting lineup might not be as easy as plugging in Maxey. Rivers acknowledged it could be necessary at times to tweak his first five based on matchups.
“I hope not, but most likely yes,” he said. “We definitely have to make sure we have a defender in that starting group — if that’s Matisse (Thybulle); if Danny (Green) can do it. We also can go big at that group where you put in Georges (Niang) and move Tobias to the three. So there’s options there. We don’t know if any of them work yet; we have to see them. Because of not having (Ben), those are the things we have to do, for sure.”
As for the Sixers’ one present All-Star, Rivers said Embiid is in “even better shape” than last season. That’s an unambiguous positive at a time when the Sixers are doing their best to manage uncertainty.