Elton Brand

Could 'deep draft class' change Elton Brand, Sixers' draft strategy?

Could 'deep draft class' change Elton Brand, Sixers' draft strategy?

While none of the four major sports are currently playing games because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NFL held its 2020 draft a couple weeks ago.

No matter what happens with the rest of the NBA season, the league will still need to hold a draft. While it was set to take place in June, it will most likely be moved. Both the draft lottery and combine that were supposed to happen in May were indefinitely postponed. 

Since we don’t know when or even if the season will resume, teams are forced to expedite their draft process virtually. The Sixers seem to think they’re ahead of the game.

“[Vice president of scouting] Vince Rozman, I give him a lot of credit,” GM Elton Brand said in a conference call with reporters last Tuesday. “He ran our pre-draft process last year. He's doing a great job again this year. Done a lot of deep dives, a lot of film work. I've been talking to agents, players, families — actually have some calls today. But with potentially five picks, we think this is a deep draft. I'm excited. We're one of the first teams to actually pull our scouts from the road, so we could get to video just in case it did get to a point where we are today.”

Going into last year’s draft, Brand said on more than one occasion that he was eyeing an older player with experience. 

Little did we know at the time that Brand was targeting a specific player in 22-year-old Matisse Thybulle, who spent four seasons at Washington. Even in the second round, Brand selected Marial Shayok, who spent three years at Virginia, then spent a year off because of transfer rules before playing at Iowa State. 

If the NBA regular season standings don’t change, the Sixers will hold the Thunder’s first-round pick — acquired in the Markelle Fultz trade — at No. 22. In that range, a player with Thybulle-like experience and maturity may not be available.

So will Brand be open to taking a more projectable player?

We’re going to keep all options open,” Brand said. “We’ve got as many as five picks. We’re fortunate to have a great core to build around, and I think this is a deep draft class. But we’re going to explore all the options and try to add some youth and depth to our program that fits our identity — versatility, dynamic, committed to defense. There are going to hopefully be some gems that we can pick during our draft. But it’s going to be more broad. We might take some flyers on players with potential and we’ll see — there might be some players that can help us right now. But we’re going to look at the full scope.

Brand made it a point to mention how deep the draft class was and that the team could have as many as five picks. Despite having the potential to draft that many players in 2019, Brand only made two selections with the trade up for Thybulle and drafting of Shayok 54th overall. He used pick No. 33 to move up for Thybulle and then essentially sold his other two picks.

Perhaps Brand is having more of an open mind this season — or maybe he’s being coy after it appeared the Celtics were on to his desire to select Thybulle and got a second-round pick out of him.

In any case, Brand and his staff are using the time to evaluate players, which includes plenty of virtual 1-on-1 conversations.

“I actually have another one today,” Brand said. “I’ve spoken to parents, spoken to agents. The draft is a multi-year thing — it’s a buildup. The draft night is a culmination of that. We know who the prospects are, we do deep, deep dives. But there’s little things you can pick up 1-on-1 in person talking to a potential prospect. It’s much different interviewing someone on Zoom and not having them come to your court for a workout. Sometimes you can get blown away by a workout and that can skew your thoughts on a player. But we know a lot about them and it’s good to at least be able to talk to them, through video conference or in person.”

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Has Elton Brand built a team full of Elton Brands, or is that a misconception?

USA Today Images/Bill Streicher

Has Elton Brand built a team full of Elton Brands, or is that a misconception?

What would a team full of Elton Brands look like?

It’s a silly question, of course, and the answer is it might actually not be too bad. The No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft, the “Old School Chevy” averaged 20.3 points and 10.2 rebounds before signing with the Sixers in 2008. 

There seems to be a perception that the team Brand has helped construct since taking over as GM in September of 2018 isn’t very far from a real-life representation of that absurd hypothetical. ESPN’s Pablo Torre, appearing on the Habershow podcast with NBC Sports NBA insider Tom Haberstroh, voiced that view.

“I want the Sixers to live up to the promise of the Process,” he said. “What Elton Brand has been doing, it is John Elway s--- to me. It’s like ‘Hey, I’m going to draft or I’m going to select and sign a bunch of guys who remind me of me. They’re going to be big and they’re going to sort of plod around, and they’re going to be individually quite useful.’ But in terms of the modern sport getting away from the Sixers, yeah, they’re zagging …” 

At first glance, Torre’s point is valid. Despite having a 6-foot-10 speed demon in Ben Simmons, the Sixers are 19th in pace. They post up much more than any other NBA team and are third in rebounding percentage. Though they’re 19th in made threes per game, that statistic would be likely be much worse if it wasn’t for Furkan Korkmaz. The shortest player in their Opening Night starting lineup was 6-foot-6 Josh Richardson.

So far, the costly, high-stakes moves Brand has made don’t look very good. Jimmy Butler had the Sixers a few excruciating bounces from the Eastern Conference Finals, but the net result of the original Butler trade is essentially Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick for Richardson. That’s not terrible, but it’s not a great return, either. Through the same lens, the initial Tobias Harris trade is now this: Mike Muscala, Wilson Chandler, the Sixers’ first-round pick this year, the Heat’s unprotected first-rounder in 2021, Detroit’s second-round selections in 2021 and 2023 and $189.8 million for Harris and Mike Scott. About 95 percent of that money went to Harris, who the Sixers believe is on an upward trajectory.

The Al Horford signing is where Torre’s stance is most on the nose. Not that Sixers fans need to be reminded, but Brand gave the 33-year-old Horford, a former teammate whose professionalism and work ethic he respected, a four-year contract with $97 million guaranteed. Horford has struggled alongside Joel Embiid and, to put it politely, has not played younger than his age.

Yet Brand has insisted whenever he’s had the opportunity that the Sixers were “built for the playoffs,” which remains to be seen. 

A lot of it, I think, is well, we’ve gotta beat the Bucks,” Torre said. “And how do we stop Giannis [Antetokounmpo]? We’ll throw, I don’t know, 28 feet combined of center at him. By the way, maybe that will work when we get the NBA back. Maybe that will be the redemption of Elton Brand in the eyes of all us nerdy Sixers apologists. 

“… What I continue to be haunted by as a nerdy sports fan here is, what would [former Sixers GM] Sam [Hinkie] have done? What was the trade he was going to make? Because the way he got that job was ‘Here’s the PowerPoint presentation of how we traded for James Harden when I was assistant GM with the Rockets. We all had all of these assets, there was a superstar who became available suddenly and unexpectedly. We were there better than anyone, and so we got him.’ The Sixers did not do that. They used their assets in different ways.

Though Brand hasn’t measurably improved the Sixers, it’s probably unfair to say he didn’t land a superstar who became available through unforeseen circumstances. Yet Butler, a four-time All-Star when the Sixers acquired him, left after 55 regular-season games and two playoff series. Perhaps Hinkie’s big, superstar trade would also have been for Butler. It’s impossible to know. Regardless, Brand’s pivot to replace JJ Redick and Butler with Richardson and Horford hasn’t worked out at this stage. 

Torre, who wrote an extensive feature on Hinkie and the Sixers’ Process in 2015, also shared an interesting anecdote with Haberstroh about his reporting for that piece. 

“We had an exhaustive, deep, wildly enlightening conversation in which he opened up,” Torre said. “But it was all off the record. … For better and for worse, that’s him. He wants to protect himself. The only clever move that I had was to ask for one sentence to be on the record. I had to pick the sentence, and the sentence that I picked was him talking about the fact that Robert Caro is his favorite author. It was telling, because Robert Caro was the guy who had written and is continuing to write these exhaustive, decades-long volumes about deep political history — Lyndon Johnson and so forth. 

“But as soon as Sam agreed to this one sentence … I haven’t asked him about this, but I have to believe he regrets allowing it. Because as soon as you allow me to quote you, I can then say, ‘We had an interview — here were the circumstances. The rest of it was off the record.’ It got him to be a participant in the story as opposed to being the invisible man who refused to be a part. The door got open and all this light shone through, and it ended up being the most important quote, after Tony Wroten saying, ‘Trust the Process.’ It was the most important quote in the whole piece.” 

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'If he just shoots a few ...' — Elton Brand weighs in on Ben Simmons' jumper

'If he just shoots a few ...' — Elton Brand weighs in on Ben Simmons' jumper

We’ve covered the topic of Ben Simmons’ jump shot a lot. Too much, one could certainly argue, given Simmons’ status as a non-shooting All-Star for the past two years. 

It came up again Tuesday on a conference call with Sixers general manager Elton Brand, who discussed Simmons’ health and, inevitably, his reluctance to shoot jumpers, something Simmons had recently opened up about in an ESPN story by Jackie MacMullan

Simmons had told MacMullan, “I could be one of those guys shooting 30 percent right now. But I'd rather be one of those guys shooting 40 percent."

Though Brand was sure to acknowledge Simmons’ talents and strengths, it didn’t sound like he was entirely on board with that philosophy.

Ben is a two-time All-Star, dynamic player on both ends,” he said. “We’re going to encourage him to shoot and I think once he unlocks that part of his game, it’s just going to open it up for his growth, become even more unstoppable and help our team. Where he is as a player, he is very dominant, very hyper-focused on both ends to help us win. And he wants to make the right play, and at times he feels like that might not be the right play. But he’s going to grow into that. I’m more on Brett [Brown’s] side with that. If he just shoots a few, it goes away, in my opinion. 

Simmons is just 12 for 63 (19 percent) from eight feet and out this season, per NBA.com/Stats, with two of those makes his first successful professional three-pointers. 

Analyzing the potential implications of Simmons’ shooting more is well-tread territory. It could alleviate some of the Sixers’ spacing issues, although it doesn’t seem probable that defenses would respect Simmons’ jumper unless he knocked a bunch of them down. There are ways outside of shooting Simmons can improve in half-court offense, too, including greater diligence about his off-ball movement, drawing (and making) more free throws and attacking sagging defenses. Again, he’s already an All-Star player and an excellent defender and passer, facts that shouldn’t be peripheral. We’ve covered these angles before. 

Brand’s point about Simmons making “it” go away, however, is a bit different. 

The idea of “Just shoot them, then we'll stop talking about it and it won't be an issue" might make sense on its face. But there’s now an inextricable link between Simmons’ shot and his identity as a player for most fans. That’s not illogical. Fair or not, he’s now the All-Star point guard who made two three-pointers in his first 214 NBA games. 

If Simmons were to shoot a few three-pointers when basketball resumes and develops his jumper as Brand, Brown and the Sixers hope, we’d still be talking about Simmons’ shot. It wouldn’t just go away, but at least we’d have be discussing something new. 

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