Al Horford

With Shake Milton at point guard, it sounds like Sixers are leaning toward a new starting 5

With Shake Milton at point guard, it sounds like Sixers are leaning toward a new starting 5

Shake Milton has been the Sixers’ starting point guard in their practices at Disney World, Joel Embiid revealed on Monday.

The 23-year-old Milton started the Sixers’ final seven games before the NBA season was suspended on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and he appears to have retained that responsibility for the time being. Ben Simmons, who’d been out with a lower back injury before the season was suspended, is healthy now. According to Brett Brown, the two-time All-Star has been used exclusively as a power forward in practice. 

“In relation to trying new things, there’s some high-level stuff, whether it’s Ben more off the ball, how we’re going to rotate the group,” Brown said. “Who are we going to start is probably the simplest way to go. And it’s still all on the table. We’re still all learning about some things."

If the Sixers used a starting lineup of Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Simmons and Embiid, it would be the first time that unit has ever played together in a competitive game. Simmons and Milton have only played 223 minutes together this year. 

It makes sense that the Sixers would want Milton to still be a starter. He averaged 17.8 points and 4.1 assists over the team’s last nine games, and he shot 60.4 percent from three-point territory during that span. 

He also theoretically pairs well with Simmons in several ways. The Sixers sound determined to use Simmons more as a screener and roller, and Milton is comfortable and competent as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll. The sample size isn’t large — Milton has only played 32 NBA games in his second professional season — but he’s in the 59th percentile in pick-and-roll efficiency this year. He’s converted 44.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers, which is a valuable trait next to Simmons, who has already assisted on 230 threes

“I feel like it’ll be easy,” Milton said last Tuesday of playing with Simmons. “Ben’s a very unselfish player. He can pass the ball, he can finish however, we can play pick-and-roll together, I can spot up while he creates and does his thing and just shoot the ball. I feel like playing with Ben is going to make the game a lot easier for anybody, so I don’t see it being a problem.”

Embiid is impressed with what he’s seen from Milton. 

“He’s been amazing,” he said. “He’s been the starting point guard. I think he has a huge opportunity to help us accomplish what we believe we can. He’s been doing an amazing job, just running the team, and we're going to need him to knock down shots, which he did before the league basically got shut down. He was on a roll. So we all need him to keep it going. But it’s been great.”

Milton spent parts of this season in the G League and outside of the Sixers’ rotation, working quietly behind the scenes, but he’s received opportunities to start because of injuries to Josh Richardson and Simmons. His steady, unperturbed approach has served him well, and it seems he may have a big chance to build on his emergence before the break. 

He said last Tuesday that success before play shut down elevated his confidence, a quality he’s never appeared to lack. 

“I feel like for any player, when they’re given an opportunity to do something like that, to see what works and have freedoms, I feel like you’re going to see growth anywhere,” he said. “I definitely feel good, I feel confident, and I’m excited.”

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Brett Brown previews competitions for spots in Sixers' rotation

Brett Brown previews competitions for spots in Sixers' rotation

Al Horford has played in 13 NBA seasons. He’s now embarking on something close to a 14th.

“It felt like a new season, absolutely,” Horford said Sunday in a video conference call before the Sixers’ second practice at Disney World. “This feels completely new. … Coach is teaching everything, he’s putting us through things and we’re learning everything all over again.”

Horford and Furkan Korkmaz both felt positively about the Sixers’ practice Saturday in Orlando, which Brett Brown described as a competitive, fast-paced affair with 5-on-5 action. 

“As a team, I think we were flying,” Korkmaz said of the team's first practice since March 10. “I was not expecting that practice was going to look like that. … Everybody was trying to do everything, everything had the same desire. After four, five months, I didn’t think we were going to have a good practice, but it was a really, really good practice, so I was impressed.’

Brown sounded confident that the Sixers have returned at a satisfactory fitness base, something he’d prioritized during the NBA’s hiatus. He said Joel Embiid “especially stood out.”

On a strategic front, Brown previewed the jostling for rotation spots he anticipates over the next few weeks, and perhaps during some of the Sixers’ seeding games as well. Health permitting, Embiid, Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris will clearly be in the starting lineup. Otherwise, the composition of the rotation appears to largely be up in the air.

My mindset is I want to look at a set of 10,” he said. “I hope, as we lead up to this, to play 10 people. I think it’s going to shrink to nine at some point — for sure in the playoffs. My bandwidth, my net is wider right now because I really do want to see. I haven’t seen these guys for four months. You get into people like Glenn Robinson and Alec Burks and Mike Scott … and Matisse (Thybulle) and Furkan, and what are we going to do with Al? 

“There needs to be some decisions, and something’s gotta give. You’re not going to play everybody. But initially I hope to play 10 people. It could be you give X player the 10th spot today and you sit somebody — I don’t want to piecemeal minutes — and really give somebody a true opportunity.

Given Brown reiterated that he’s not “worrying too much” about seeding and potential playoff matchups, it wouldn’t be surprising to see playoff rotation minutes be at stake in some form for many of the team’s eight seeding contests. 

‘You’ve got a passport to what you remember’ 

For good reason, questions about whether the NBA’s endeavor to resume the season is wise and can be accomplished safely remain prominent. In the background of all the discussion about fitness and rotations and upcoming scrimmages is the awareness that the objective of playing sports indoors over several months during a pandemic may very well be rather tenuous, regardless of what precautions are taken. 

“We all worry about the virus, in some capacity, sneaking in,” Brown said.

And yet, one can imagine, the ability to enjoy the sport you love, away from all the worries and problems in the world, must provide relief. Brown captured that element well. 

“The freedom of a gymnasium is priceless,” he said. “You take off your mask and you’ve got a basketball in your hands, you’ve got a passport to what you remember and what you feel like brings you to a level of normality that none of us had.” 

The jersey discussion 

His framing of the issue was more diplomatic, but Horford thinks Mike Scott has a valid opinion on the NBA deciding to give players a pre-approved list of social justice messages they can include on the back of their jerseys. 

Horford said he went “back and forth” but will not be using one of the messages. LeBron James told reporters on Saturday he’s made the same choice.

“I kind of understand and share Mike Scott’s sentiment a little bit,” Horford said. “Even though this is a great platform for us to promote things, I think having the ability to kind of say what you want to say and leave it like that ... at the end of the day, everybody makes their own decision — whatever they feel is right, whatever they want to do.”

Scott had criticized the league for not allowing players to have input on the jersey idea.

“I’m all about just doing,” he said Monday, “instead of just saying or posting or putting something on the back of your jersey. I don’t think that’s going to stop anything."

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No excuses, but Al Horford makes a notable admission about his health this season

No excuses, but Al Horford makes a notable admission about his health this season

Way back on Nov. 12, well before the coronavirus was impacting all facets of life, Al Horford took a night off.

It did not appear a massive development at the time, though Horford said “there was definitely some pushback” on his end about the concept of load management.

He rested again on Nov. 29 against the Knicks. Horford also missed games on Dec. 12 and Dec. 13 because of left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness, and sat out Jan. 30 in Atlanta with left knee soreness. 

While playing 60 of 65 games looks fine on paper, Horford on Friday admitted he was not at his best physically this season. 

I probably wasn’t where I wanted to be,” he said. “I’m not going to make excuses but right now I’m in a much better place. The time off for me was beneficial. And getting to work now, the biggest challenge for us with the season coming back is doing everything at game-intensity level. 

“Going from not being able to get in the gym to start working out individually, and when we get to Orlando, we’ll start doing it together and then a quick transition to games — it’s really a process. So for me it’s really making sure that I continue to make strides and that I’m at my best, more specifically when the playoffs are ready to go.

For Horford, a veteran who tends to prefer keeping things close to the vest, it was a notable comment. While much of the disappointment about his first season with the Sixers so far stems from Horford’s well-documented struggle to be effective alongside Joel Embiid, his health is another factor to consider. 

Horford dealt with patellar tendinitis in his left knee last season with the Celtics. He’s 34 years old. At times this year, he appeared to have limited remaining supplies of explosiveness and agility. None of those realities are excuses, as Horford himself said, but they’re all relevant in thinking about Horford’s future with the team. 

In the short term, Horford again faces questions about what his role will be for the Sixers when the season resumes in Orlando and whether he’ll come off the bench. He was diplomatic on that subject, as usual. 

“For me, I just want us to be playing well and playing at a high level,” he said. “I’m going to continue to work … I do know that for us to be successful I have to play with Joel sometimes, I have to play with different people. It really doesn’t matter. I just think that this time off is going to benefit all of us, especially for Ben (Simmons), being able to be healthy now and being able to come in and have an impact. I really don’t think that’s going to matter that much, in my opinion.

“The way I’m going to look at it is I’m going to make the most of my situation, stay prepared, stay ready. Coach will have to decide how and when to play me, how much to play me, and I just have to be ready.”

A recurring line for the Sixers before the coronavirus hit the United States was that the team was “built for the playoffs.” Brett Brown used it again Wednesday, and Horford is still fond of it, too. 

I think it’s a great opportunity for our team,” Horford said. “The way the season was going, before it stopped, we had some positives. We got it going there toward the end, we felt, especially that last game we played. Ben’s future was uncertain, and now he’s going to be good to go. We have our full team and our full roster. I believe that our group is built for the playoffs. The regular season is always tough. We have new guys and everybody trying to mesh, but I believe this is a second chance for us and a great opportunity.

The Sixers do indeed have a healthy team, with the exception of Zhaire Smith, who will miss the rest of the season with a bone bruise in his left knee.

There are also, of course, gray areas during a season when players are able to play but below optimal health. It seems Horford fell into that category at times, and he’s surely not the only NBA player who will be fresher and feel better physically as a result of the hiatus.

We shouldn’t forget that he was playing well before the season was shut down, with the major caveat that he thrived when Embiid was out for five games because of a left shoulder sprain. Horford averaged 15.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.2 assists in the Sixers’ last six contests. 

He has not deviated, however, from believing that those distant regular-season performances matter much less than the postseason. 

“I do believe that there’s another level in the playoffs as far as the quality of the basketball goes,” he said. “My mindset is to make sure that I’m at my best on Aug. 17, when the playoffs start.”

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