Trey Burke, Raul Neto already throwing shots in Sixers' backup point guard tussle

Trey Burke, Raul Neto already throwing shots in Sixers' backup point guard tussle

Less than a week ago, Raul Neto gave a brief preview at the Sixers’ media day about the upcoming competition for minutes between himself and Trey Burke, the second such tussle between the two in their NBA careers. Neto won the starting point guard job over Burke to begin the 2015-16 season with the Utah Jazz.

He was great for me,” Neto said Monday. “Coming in my first time in the league and having him as a competitor at the point guard position, it was great. We competed every day. Trey’s a great guy, he’s a great player — everybody knows that. I don’t think it’s about me against him or anything like that. … We all have the same goals. 

“I want him to play well, I want him to do well, and I want to do well, too. I think we’re going to compete every day in practice and it’s going to be good for him and good for me, just like the old times in Utah. But I don’t think my mentality is to get this spot from him or from anybody else.

Saturday afternoon at the Sixers’ Blue x White Scrimmage, Neto’s eyes widened as he felt Burke’s arm hit his ribs. As he ran down the floor next to his former teammate, he threw a sly elbow back.

It wasn’t anything that would rise to the level of a technical foul in a competitive game, but it certainly was, somewhat contrary to the Brazilian guard’s characterization earlier in the week, an intense, individual battle between Neto and Burke.

“I think the competition is obvious,” Brett Brown said after the scrimmage.

Some of Burke's and Neto’s strengths and weaknesses intersect. Both had strong assist-to-turnover ratios last season (2.6 assists/1.0 turnovers for Burke, 2.5/0.9 for Neto), are capable but unexceptional three-point shooters, and among the smaller players in the NBA. Each officially measured in at under 6-foot-1 without shoes.

The two are, however, different in a fundamental sense. While Burke fits the protoype of the explosive, shifty guard — Brown called him a "waterbug" after Day 1 of training camp — and is excellent at creating his own shot and in the pick-and-roll, Neto is a traditional point guard keen on making the right play and making his teammates happy. He also seems to surprise opponents on occasion with his burst and changes of pace.

“Both very good,” Shake Milton, who has matched up against both players in practice, said Friday. “Trey's quick, Raul is a little more crafty. So, you kind of pick your poison, but they both bring something to the table. … They're both looking to create for other guys and when it opens up, they take it for themselves.”

Milton himself is part of the backup point guard conversation heading into the Sixers’ preseason opener Tuesday at Wells Fargo Center against the Guangzhou Loong Lions, a Chinese opponent. The 23-year-old played well Saturday at 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware, a gym he scored plenty of points in last season in the G League. His pump fake on Joel Embiid, drive baseline and swooping reverse layup was a highlight.

With Brown having said he expects his rotation to be at 10 or 11 players in the beginning of the regular season, you’d figure Milton could get some early-season opportunities. 

As for Neto and Burke, Brown will have a close eye on their “tournament.” With Burke, the most important question might be whether he can defend at an acceptable level. Put another way, Brown’s calculus could be whether Burke's deficiencies on that end of the floor are outweighed by his abilities to score in flurries and conduct the pick-and-roll. 

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Burke, who grew up admiring Allen Iverson and won the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year award in 2012-13 for an electric sophomore season at Michigan, is determined that defensive intensity won't be an issue.

“[Brown] challenged me from Day 1," Burke said Wednesday. "He challenged me on the defensive end, said that he was going to be on me all year about having that edge on defense. He says that I show it at times, but he wants it to be a consistent thing, something I'm conscious and aware of every time I'm on the court. It's something that I've accepted and I'm trying to get it done every time I'm out there. Kind of be that head of the snake on the defensive end."

Neto has a mature understanding of his game. He identifies as a “team-first player,” he said Saturday, and he has an advantage over Burke as a defender. Burke scored a couple of times on Neto in the scrimmage, but Neto picked him up full court, stayed with him on drives to the rim and forced difficult shots. If he wins the job, Neto will do it because of his knack for solid, rarely spectacular play. 

For now, everything is on the table.

Those two, at the moment, you know, have the opportunity to one of them put their hand up,” Brown said. “I'm also not reluctant to look at just, you know, our best players. 'How can you play your best players?' Because maybe, you know, as I've said, maybe Shake can come in there and do that. I don't really want to play Josh [Richardson] as a backup point guard or our point guard, initially. I want to try to give Trey and Raul especially a chance, and a chance they will have. 

However much Neto and Burke want to stress mutual respect and friendship — genuine words, no doubt — this is a competition, and both players will have more shots to throw before it’s decided. 

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Matisse Thybulle seems like the real deal — and not just because of the Blue x White Scrimmage

Matisse Thybulle seems like the real deal — and not just because of the Blue x White Scrimmage

WILMINGTON, Del. — GM Elton Brand had to trade a second-round pick to the Boston Celtics to move up to No. 20 to draft Matisse Thybulle.

At the time, there was concern that Brand had showed his hand with his interest in Thybulle, allowing Danny Ainge to take advantage of the situation.

If Thybulle plays in real NBA games the way he did at the Sixers’ annual Blue x White Scrimmage Saturday, nobody is going to care about that extra pick.

On a day where we got our first look at the Sixers’ gigantic starting five at the 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware, that wasn’t the story. 

It was the rookie out of Washington that stole the show.

I hated him on defense. I hate him,” Ben Simmons said with a laugh. “So far he's been amazing. His length, the way he plays the game, he runs the floor, makes the right reads and he can just play the right way.

Simmons wasn’t the only one to have high praise for Thybulle. Everyone that spoke during the postgame availability was asked about Thybulle — and they were all glad to heap praise on the 22-year-old.

Coming into his first NBA camp, gaining the respect of his veteran teammates was his goal.

“It's a good feeling and that's what you set out to do when you get here,” Thybulle said. “That was my goal through open gym and training camp and this game, was just trying to like feel for myself I belong but just establish for the rest of guys I fit in with them. To hear you say that they're saying that is a pretty good feeling.”

If you saw Thybulle play at Washington, you would’ve seen this potential. If you’ve been following along during camp, none of this surprising.

In the first quarter Saturday, Thybulle had a nice strip of Al Horford but then front rimmed the dunk on the ensuing fast break. That was truly the last low moment of Thybulle’s day.

The second quarter was the Matisse Thybulle Show. He wrecked the game for Simmons and the Blue squad. There were at least 10 instances in which Thybulle got his hands on the ball defensively in the second period alone. And even that feels like a conservative guess.

The highlight of the day was when Josh Richardson thought he had a wide-open transition three on the wing. Thybulle came out of nowhere to smack the ball a few rows deep into the crowd. It was a highlight reel among the countless plays Thybulle made Saturday.

“At practice, we chart and reward in the way that we score games, deflections. And he shines in that area in practice,” Brett Brown said. “And there was clear carryover to this game. And oftentimes deflections can produce steals, too. When you charted, and we did, the number of times he got his hand on balls or came up with steals, it was elite.”

While he did make a couple nice offensive plays — a three off the dribble and a spinning floater in the third quarter — that’s not his forte. He was drafted as a wing with 3-and-D potential. That’s the role that Brand and Brown envisioned.

The lack of offensive game is part of what led him to becoming such a willing and strong defender. He learned at a young age that the defensive end of the floor is where he’d earn minutes.

Offense never came naturally for me as a kid,” Thybulle said. “So my dad would always just harp defense because he's like as long as you can play good defense there'll always be a place for you on the court. And just from a young age, I took that and just kind of ran with it.

Sure, it was just a scrimmage but it certainly isn’t isolated. This was what Thybulle did in college. This is what he’s been doing during training camp. This is why Brand was willing to part with an asset to a rival to make sure he got Thybulle.

In a game-like atmosphere, Thybulle looked like a guy ready to help a team with championship aspirations.

“We know in training camp it's been hard for guys to get like a flow or rhythm because there's been so much stoppage,” Thybulle said. “So it was fun to just get out there and get a feel. And yeah, just wreak a little havoc.”

If Thybulle considers what he did Saturday a “little havoc,” him wreaking a lot of it must be something.

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Elton Brand — yes, Elton Brand — will have a say in Sixers' medical decisions

Elton Brand — yes, Elton Brand — will have a say in Sixers' medical decisions

WILMINGTON, Del. — Before Saturday’s Blue x White Scrimmage at 76ers Fieldhouse, Sixers general manager Elton Brand met with the media. Below are a few takeaways on what stood out from Brand’s availability.

A new kind of partnership 

The Sixers made significant changes to their medical and performance teams this summer, not renewing the contracts of vice president of athlete care Dr. Daniel Medina or director of performance, research and development Dr. David T. Martin. The team promoted Scott Epsley to medical director and hired Lorena Torres as performance director.

Brand also acknowledged Saturday there was a notable change the team didn’t announce.  

We brought in Lorena Torres from the Spurs — she had a great run there with the data science being her base and her background. And then Scott Epsley, who’s been here four years, his ability to relate to the players. … And with me. I admit it, I’ll be more a part of it with the players in a partnership for their care. I felt like for their daily care, changes needed to be made, but I’m confident in the changes we have made.

Joel Embiid talked at media day about the high level of trust he has in Brand, something he said didn’t exist under the regime of former president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo (see story).

Brand assuming a prominent role in the medical/performance sphere is unorthodox — especially when you consider the team has taken the duty of providing medical updates to the media off the plate of head coach Brett Brown — but it’s understandable. If it means Embiid and other Sixers are more inclined to buy in to the plan to keep them healthy, it’s a sensible shift. 

Speaking of Embiid, Brand classified the Sixers' approach with the All-Star big man as “daily, strategic, thoughtful consultation.”

He did not rule out Embiid playing more than the 64 games he did last year, or him suiting up for both games of back-to-backs. 

Though the team’s approach with Embiid will presumably be fluid, Brand was confident regardless that Embiid will be committed to it.

“I think the setback last year losing Game 7 in the [Eastern Conference] semifinals, it really hurt and he understood that, ‘Look, I need to be the best in May and June.’ I think that helped us a lot, and he understands it.”

No pressure

Brand is surely aware of all the buzz around Ben Simmons’ jumper, and he’s confident enough in the work Simmons put into his shot over the summer to further feed that hype.

He’s worked hard at it. And we support Ben, we believe in Ben. We want him to shoot and he’s going to shoot. And he’s going to shoot the right shots — that’s what’s important to me. Just developing, it’s a team effort. So if he’s open from a corner three, I expect him to let it fly, and from what I’ve seen, I expect it to go in. Not to put pressure on him, but he’s worked, and he’s built for that. He’s worked his butt off all summer long. 

Simmons took plenty of three-point shots pre-scrimmage.

He only took one jumper during the scrimmage, a fadeaway from about 12 feet away which he airballed.

Don't except more blockbuster deals 

Brand’s first year as an NBA general manger was an active one, highlighted by deals for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Things didn’t slow much in his first offseason either, with the departures of Butler and JJ Redick and the additions of Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

He wouldn’t rule anything out, but don’t expect that same level of near-constant roster turnover in Brand’s second year on the job.

“We have a championship-caliber team, for sure,” he said. “A lot of things have to fall into place for any championship, but I think we have the pieces. I’m certainly going to monitor and look at any way I can improve the team throughout the season.” 

The idea of being able to build chemistry and continuity is a positive in Brand’s mind, which is another reason why him making a huge move would indeed be a surprise.

“I’m happy we get it from Day 1 and it’s not at the deadline or moving parts around and making it fit,” he said. “Being able to start in the summer, a lot of guys came in early — it meant a lot.”

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