Norvel Pelle

2020 NBA restart: How Sixers think they'll adapt to 'weird,' fan-less games

2020 NBA restart: How Sixers think they'll adapt to 'weird,' fan-less games

There is no good comparison for playing competitive basketball games away from the outside world during a pandemic.

That didn’t stop a handful of Sixers over the last week from putting the NBA's planned resumption in familiar terms, though.

“It’s going to be like the AAU tournament of the century, kind of,” Josh Richardson said.

“I think it’s the richest summer camp in the history of basketball,” Alec Burks said. 

Of course, AAU tournaments and summer camps aren’t played with NBA championships at stake, and players there don’t usually have to adhere to stringent health and safety rules. If everything progresses smoothly at Disney World, the Sixers will transition from an in-room quarantine in which their neighbors’ identities were a mystery to high-stakes competition in a three-week span.

The Sixers’ first practice is scheduled for Saturday, and they have scrimmages set for July 24, July 26 and July 28. Their first game after the league’s hiatus is scheduled for Aug. 1. 

While there’s a chance to adjust, it’s not a ton of time to acclimate to the isolated, fan-less atmosphere. 

“I think the first games will just be weird,” Matisse Thybulle said. “I think a lot of the energy that we’re used to getting from the fans will have to come from the bench. We have amazing guys on our team across the board so I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. … I think with this, it’s going to be a cool challenge and it can also help us.”

Several teammates agreed with Thybulle’s view that the bench would need to inject energy. Richardson even thought the competition might be something like a lethargic regular-season game — a December matchup against the Wizards, as an example — where the playoffs are far away and it’s difficult for players to find motivation. 

I feel like that’s the same in a regular game ... because teams can come out flat and there’s always got to be a guy or a few guys to get guys’ heads in the game or to rev everybody up a little bit,” he said. “I think we’ll definitely have to bring our own energy. It’s going to be like scrimmages, I guess, the whole time. … But I’ll be one of those guys trying to bring energy. I know (Kyle O’Quinn)’s going to be a big energy guy for us. So hopefully some guys will step up, get a little uncomfortable and be able to help us in a different way.

The Wells Fargo Center crowd won’t be behind the Sixers, which they'll surely miss after going an NBA-best 29-2 at home. The roar of the fans when the Sixers are on a run and taking control won’t be there anymore. But the grumbling, tension and boos when the team is playing below its best and on the verge of letting a game slip away won’t be either, and it’s possible that will be the greater loss. The Sixers often seemed to respond to that collective demand for better effort by sharpening their focus. 

How will that in-person pressure from thousands of people no longer being present affect the players? If it feels like one’s playing a scrimmage or a pick-up game, it wouldn’t be surprising to see certain players operate with a little more looseness, a little less apparent knowledge that the game they’re playing in matters. That could mean a higher willingness to fire jumpers for players sometimes reluctant to take them, or a bit more flash and bravado from someone who gets hot and is having a good time without as strong an awareness of the score and situation as he might otherwise have. 

So, while the notion of energy exclusively coming from the bench sounds like it could be great for the Sixers for their “road” games, given how much the team struggled away from Philadelphia this season (10-24), the bench also may need to provide somewhat of a moderating influence, along with strategic input. We should be able to clearly hear everything, from coaches and players shouting out adjustments in pick-and-roll coverages to instructions that a player should keep a tighter handle on the ball. 

The bench obviously won’t be a single, homogeneous entity. Norvel Pelle won’t be shouting out the same things to his teammates as Thybulle. 

“Everybody’s bringing their own energy in a different manner,” Pelle said. “I know I’m a little out there with the (air) guitar and all the extra stuff. It just brings smiles to people.”

In these odd circumstances, the Sixers might appreciate a little levity. 

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Major takeaways on Zhaire Smith, Marial Shayok and the Delaware Blue Coats

Major takeaways on Zhaire Smith, Marial Shayok and the Delaware Blue Coats

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Malika Andrews, the NBA G League season is expected to be canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.

If that's the case, the Sixers’ G-League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats, will finish with a 22-21 record — the franchise's best since the 2016-17 season.

Since the G League is largely about player development, though, let’s highlight four notable players who spent time with the Blue Coats and see how they fared this year: 

Marial Shayok 

Shayok, who posted 23.0 points per game (third in the G League), can score at all three levels. Though not an exceptional athlete, he has a good sense of pace and angles. The 24-year-old seems to enjoy having the ball in important moments, too.

He only played two games with the Sixers as a rookie on a two-way deal, sinking a three in Milwaukee on Feb. 6 for his first NBA points. 

Blue Coats head coach Connor Johnson focused on Shayok’s defense in the G League, asking him to pressure the ball and consistently fight over screens. He also used Shayok often as a primary ball handler and looked to develop him as a distributor.

“If someone closes out on him, he can’t shoot it, but can he find somebody else? Making that next play is a big point of emphasis for him, and I think that will be what continues to drive his progression,” Johnson said in January. 

Like another young player who put up eye-catching scoring numbers as a rookie with the Blue Coats, Shayok has a 7-foot wingspan. Shayok turning into a version of Shake Milton would obviously be an excellent outcome for the Sixers.

It appears he would be most likely to make an impact at this stage with his three-point shooting.

“I’ve always been a scorer and have developed my shot as years have gone by,” he said in July. “I really just simplified my game, knowing that teams need shooting.”

Zhaire Smith 

Smith spent a lot more time on the floor in his second professional season than his first, which was derailed by a severe allergic reaction that led to him being hospitalized and losing over 35 pounds. He played a similar amount in the NBA this year, though, appearing in seven Sixers games. 

“He’s expecting me to develop all around,” Smith said in the preseason of Brett Brown’s expectations. “Last year we tried to develop, but then obviously I had the setback. He feels like this is my rookie year, like this is [about] development.” 

Smith played in 28 games this season with the Blue Coats, averaging 13.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists. After a 4-for-18 start from long range in the G League, he shot the three well, finishing with a 37.6 percent mark on 4.2 attempts per game. 

“I’m trying to hunt threes now, I’m not trying to go to the rim and dunk,” he said with a smile in January. “I’m being lazy now, trying to shoot the threes. Give me three-balls.”

He also looks to have improved his ball handling and finishing around the rim, though neither of those skills is a strength. A blend of firm on-ball defense, athleticism and spot-up shooting is likely what would earn Smith regular playing time with the Sixers moving forward. He was one of several Sixers who had a tough time with Trae Young on Jan. 30, when the Hawks guard finished with 39 points and 18 assists. Eventually, that’s the kind of matchup where the Sixers would probably like Smith to be able to hold his own in a couple of stints off the bench. 

The team picked up Smith’s third-year option in October, so the 20-year-old will be on the roster next season barring an offseason trade.

Norvel Pelle 

One of the Blue Coats’ biggest success stories, Pelle actually began his professional career with Delaware back in 2013, when the franchise was known as the 87ers. 

After a period of uncertainty because of the 45 days on his two-way deal running out and the Sixers’ desire to be flexible heading into the trade deadline, Pelle earned a full NBA deal. If he’s not waived by July 6, his contract will be guaranteed for next season.

There are certainly a good number of players with more talent than Pelle, but he legitimately might be the most fearless center in the NBA, never deterred by the possibility of a ferocious dunk in his face.

“Next play,” he told NBC Sports Philadelphia in December. “At the end of the day, I’m a shot blocker, so if I get dunked on, I get dunked on — that’s my mentality. Next play.” 

Christ Koumadje 

Koumadje led the G League in blocks this season, swatting four shots per game. He also averaged a double-double (11.3 points and 10.9 rebounds), a significant step up in production after he posted 6.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game as a senior at Florida State. 

The 7-foot-3 Koumadje has a “mean streak,” in Johnson’s words, and was not hesitant to trash talk or voice his disagreement with officials’ decisions. While the competitiveness can be a positive, Johnson said on Jan. 25 after Koumadje was ejected in a Blue Coats’ win over the South Bay Lakers that he’d prefer the big man to model himself after a steady personality like Amir Johnson and be less of a “wild card.” 

He was certainly a smart player to use an Exhibit 10 contract on, and it’s worth continuing to track his progress. 

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Sixers Injury Update: Al Horford is questionable vs. Nets with left hand sprain

Sixers Injury Update: Al Horford is questionable vs. Nets with left hand sprain

The Sixers might be without their best two center options for Monday afternoon’s game against the Brooklyn Nets.

Al Horford is questionable with a left hand sprain. He sustained the injury with 6:31 left in the third quarter Saturday night vs. the Knicks after being fouled by Reggie Bullock.

"Yeah, I just took a fall there, landed on the hand,” Horford told reporters. “We’ll see where we’re at tomorrow. It’s pretty sore right now, but I’m just glad I was able to stay in the game and give the team whatever I could. … It’s definitely uncomfortable. In this game you always play through injuries and things like that. I just wanted to make sure that I did what I could. We’ll see where I’m at tomorrow, and hopefully good to go for Monday.”

Horford scored a season-low four points vs. the Knicks on 2 for 9 shooting. In the six games since Joel Embiid has been out because of a torn ligament in the ring finger of his left hand, the Sixers have gone 4-2 with Horford as their starting center.

According to multiple reports, Norvel Pelle will be listed as available but his status could change. The team is in a precarious situation with Pelle, who has one NBA day remaining on his two-way contract. The Sixers have opted against converting Pelle to an NBA deal for the time being to prioritize flexibility ahead of the Feb. 6 trade deadline, which has left them in this spot. The 26-year-old rookie has played 13 NBA games and averaged 2.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.

On Friday vs. the Bulls, the Sixers decided not to use up one of Pelle’s NBA days, and Kyle O’Quinn played nearly 16 minutes, his first action of 2020.

It looks like Ben Simmons playing some at center could be a possibility. Brett Brown used Simmons as a small-ball five in the first half on Jan. 9 vs. Boston and after the game said, “I suspect you’ll see it again.”

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