Sixers Media Day

The reason Tobias Harris didn't play for Team USA and his rise as a leader

The reason Tobias Harris didn't play for Team USA and his rise as a leader

CAMDEN, N.J. — Tobias Harris has always been known as a scorer. Whether it was during his lone season at Tennessee or when he first started to see the floor in the NBA with the Magic, Harris could always go get a bucket.

As his career has gone on, he’s continued to ascend. He was a borderline All-Star last season with the Clippers before being traded to the Sixers. Part of that ascension has been a precipitous jump in three-point shooting (40.5 percent over the last two seasons).

What hasn’t necessarily been his calling card is defense. Meanwhile, the Sixers’ starting five features two legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, one of the best post defenders in the league in Al Horford, and Josh Richardson, who’s regularly recognized for his two-way play.

The idea that he could be the “weak link” defensively doesn’t sit well with Harris. That’s why he spent his offseason improving a perceived weakness.

As a player, I want to be a better two-way player — for myself, for the team and for us as a group,” Harris said at media day Monday. “So that's something I definitely took a lot of time in the summer to enhance my game on and it's something that's going to open up a lot of doors for our group as a collective unit and for myself also — just take that added level being able to be considered a two-way guy.

Focusing on his defense wasn’t the reason Harris had to decline an opportunity to play for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup this summer. Harris mentioned that he’d been dealing with a foot injury that needed more time to heal after the playoffs ended. He also wasn’t used to the rigors of an NBA playoff run.

But at 27 and entering his ninth NBA season — only Horford has played more on the Sixers — Harris is somewhat of an elder statesman on the team. That’s part of the reason he’s stepped into a leadership role. The other part of it is that it’s just his way. He has an unquestioned work ethic, which has allowed his NBA rise to continue.

He’s aided the career of Richardson. When Richardson was starting his college career as an unheralded recruit, Harris was prepping for the NBA draft after his one-and-done season with the Vols. Harris took Richardson out to dinner and the two formed a bond that’s lasted since.

Richardson referenced this encounter during his introductory press conference back in July. Years later, the two are together again with the Sixers.

“He was the first person to call me actually when I got traded,” Richardson said “Just being able to come collaborate with him here is very exciting to me. He’s grown into one of the better wings in the league and I think we could do a lot of damage going forward.”

Another young player was happy to see Harris return to the Sixers. Ben Simmons, whose improvement is paramount to everything the Sixers hope to accomplish, lauded Harris for impacting him in the short time they’ve been together.

"It's great. I love Tobias,” Simmons said. “He's been a positive influence on me. And he's hungry. He's hungry to win and I think we're all at a certain stage where we know we can do something here that will live on forever."

It won’t be easy for Harris to make a leap defensively. His primary position will likely be the three after playing the four for the Sixers last season. It’s not that foreign to Harris, who played on the wing with the Clippers and has spent time on the perimeter throughout his career. But it will still be a transition.

During his annual luncheon last week, Brett Brown referenced a conversation he had with Harris. Unprompted, Harris told his head coach that he was going to be better defensively. It was another reflection of Harris’ natural leadership qualities. He holds himself accountable.

While he admitted that he has a 50-40-90 season on his list of goals, his ultimate individual goal isn’t an individual one at all.

Individual goal for me this season is be the best player that I could be for this team and help win us a championship,” Harris said. “You know, I think every season I go into, obviously there's things that I in the summer work on my game, but for this group and this team that we have is to help us be the best team, to help us be able to grow into a team that can win a championship. For me, that's my biggest individual goal. That's going to take a whole bunch of hard work to do but that's where my mindset is. That's why I'm just so excited for this upcoming season.

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Slimmer Joel Embiid talks the plan to stay healthy and why he trusts it

Slimmer Joel Embiid talks the plan to stay healthy and why he trusts it

Joel Embiid did not want to divulge his weight Monday at the Sixers’ media day at their training complex in Camden, New Jersey, though he did reveal it is 20 pounds less than it was at the end of last season.

“I lost 25 [this summer], and then I put on another five … of muscle,” he said with a coy smile.  
Embiid, for the most part, said everything you’d want to hear if you’re a Sixers fan frustrated at his history of injury and fitness problems. The way he began his explanation of the habits he’d changed in order to drop those 20 pounds, however, was a little curious. 

“I haven’t done anything differently,” he said. “I just try to eat the right way, cut out anything bad. I’ve just been extremely focused on what I have to do and I still have a long way to go. I’m not at my goal yet.”

Clearly, Embiid made a few changes in order to lose the weight he did. For what it’s worth — perhaps not much — Embiid is listed at 260 pounds in the Sixers’ official media guide. He aims to be 25 pounds lighter than the weight he finished last year at. 

He expressed in clear terms why his fitness is important and what he thinks he’s capable of if he makes it through a full season healthy. 

I feel like my focus when it comes to being in the gym, taking care of my body, making sure I’m strong — I feel like it’s been on another level the whole summer. I’ve definitely been more focused than ever because I feel like if I take care of that stuff, basketball is going to be easier, I guess. … I can’t accomplish winning 60 games or Defensive Player of the Year if I don’t take care of my body. So, I think the main thing is just adopting a new mindset, a different mindset, when it comes to taking care of my body. And the rest is going to take care of itself.

The left knee tendinitis that caused his status throughout the playoffs to be a constant source of consternation is no longer an issue, Embiid said, after rehabilitation this summer. His offseason work was in part motivated by his desire to be less prone to such injuries in the future.

“You can’t control when you’re going to get sick or when you’re not going to get sick, but all I can do is just making sure I do the right things and eat the right things,” Embiid said. “But, I mean, I just try to do what I can do best. I had a knee problem, tendinitis. I had to get stronger.”

The notion that Embiid wants to accomplish great things is no incredible revelation. Defensive Player of the Year and MVP are two personal achievements he thinks can coincide with the Sixers earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. What Embiid had to say about the plan to keep him healthy and why he’s more inclined to trust it in the past, though, was perhaps more interesting.

Among the notable moves the Sixers made this summer was hiring Lorena Torres as their performance director. Torres, who last worked with the San Antonio Spurs, will “oversee sports science, strength and conditioning, psychology, nutrition and load management, among other areas," according to the team.

Embiid played 54 of the Sixers’ first 58 games last season and led the league in minutes through the first few weeks. He knows replicating that load would not be prudent.

“We had some type of load management specialist come in to just figure out all the math and analytics,” he said. “And then we just figured out together what’s best for me and the way to do it. If I remember correctly, last year from the beginning I played a lot of minutes and it might’ve affected me, so this year we’ve gotta have a different approach.”

He wouldn’t put an exact number on the amount of games he expects to play, though Embiid did say he plans to play more than the 64 games he did last year. There’s an ongoing dialogue, however, and it sounds like one Embiid feels much better about engaging in than in years past.

I’ve always tried to make them understand me, and they do understand me. Especially Elton [Brand], they’ve created that relationship with me where we can trust each other. With the past GM, it wasn’t like that. I think the key is to stay consistent. Them finding a way for me to miss a game when we have two or three days off is not a good idea, because three or four days without doing anything is a lot. And maybe it’s just my body type or maybe it’s because I’m African, but it basically takes me about a day to lose it a little bit. We’ve just gotta stay consistent. With the play I have this year and how many games I’m going to play, and the minutes, I feel pretty confident that I’m going to reach higher levels. 

The prospect of confiding in Brand does indeed appear more comfortable than trusting Bryan Colangelo, whose tenure ended in a scandal involving burner Twitter accounts revealing confidential medical information and disparaging players. This plan — or process, if you will — seems an easier one to trust. 

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'If it's open, I'll take it' — How things have changed with Ben Simmons' shot

'If it's open, I'll take it' — How things have changed with Ben Simmons' shot

CAMDEN, N.J. — A little less than a year ago, Ben Simmons had a simple response to the question of whether he was planning to attempt three-point shots.

“No. I’m not going to come out and shoot threes,” he said. 

There were other parts of his offensive game he hoped to improve on, Simmons said, but the three-point shot wasn’t in the picture for the 2018-19 season.

When asked Monday at the Sixers' media day his thoughts on Brett Brown encouraging him to take threes, Simmons' answer was, in typical fashion, concise. However, his attitude had changed.

“It’s just a part of the game,” Simmons said. “If it’s open, I’ll take it.”

Outside shooting is indeed just a part of basketball, but it’s one that those who follow the Sixers have been fixated on with Simmons. The 23-year-old All-Star does so many other things well, from sparking the offense with his breakneck speed and creative passing in transition to guarding just about every position on the floor.

He’s yet to make a three-point shot in the NBA, though, and his track record both with any type of jump shot and from the foul line is poor. He shot 23.8 percent from 10 feet and out last season, while his free throw percentage improved slightly, from 56 to 60 percent.

The criticism about Simmons’ biggest weakness has been widespread, and he acknowledged Monday that he’s heard it and let it affect him in the past. He said something changed this summer. 

I think I was just too worried about what people are saying and what was going on around me, outside noises. And I was able to really block them out this summer and not really focus on what people were saying. At the end of the day, I don’t really care anymore unless it’s coming from someone in my circle or somebody that’s trying to help me get better.

Simmons worked on his game in Los Angeles this summer with trainer Chris Johnson, who released several videos full of highlight-reel dunks and swished jumpers. 

“We’ve been working on everything from ball handling to touch around the rim, floaters, jumpers, threes, whatever it is,” Simmons said. “Getting a consistent rhythm. I feel comfortable.”

Tobias Harris trained some with Simmons in L.A. and was impressed with what he saw.

“He’s a gym rat," Harris said. "He was in the gym all summer up until now. ... I’ve seen a lot of growth in him, not only on the basketball floor but off the floor, too — his maturity and where his mindset is on this upcoming year."

Simmons agreed with Harris’ assessment. He’s aware of the high expectations around the Sixers and is determined to meet them. He mostly deflected questions about individual accolades — besides stating his ambition to win Defensive Player of the Year — and said his focus is on winning a championship.

“It’s actually funny, I was talking to my brother about that the other day,” he said. “I was talking to him; ‘I just think I’m locked in.’ I don’t know what’s changed, a switch or whatever it was, but I feel locked in. I feel ready. This summer’s been huge for me, just working.”

So, how will that shift in mentality manifest itself in games this season? Will things really be as straightforward as Simmons taking jumpers when he’s open, or will he ultimately prefer to take the interior shots he already knows he can convert at a decent rate in NBA games? 

While Brown has said he wants Simmons to be confident shooting jumpers, there won’t be an unconditional green light — he won’t “hunt threes" for his point guard. What does Simmons and the Sixers not actively seeking out long range shots but still shooting them when open (and with confidence) actually look like? What kind of impact would it have on the Sixers' offense?

A reporter wondered whether all the questions about Simmons’ jumper ever get tiring.

“The jump shot stuff, I don’t really care,” he said.

He might be the only one.

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