Joel Embiid, five* more years

He made his NBA debut almost a year ago. The atmosphere was electric. You could feel something special in the making. I was there with my cousins Mike and Pat. The game had everything. It was Russell Westbrook’s first game without Kevin Durant following a dramatic summer. It had a doctor flip off Westbrook with not just one, but two middle fingers. And then there was Joel Embiid.

Embiid, the bruising, enthralling seven-foot-two center from Africa, made a nifty turnaround jumper in Andre Roberson’s face for the first two points of his career. It didn’t matter the 76ers lost the game.

Continue reading “Joel Embiid, five* more years”

Future 76er Josh Jackson?

I didn’t watch the lottery. Work got in the way of seeing the genius Sam Hinkie trade from two years ago come into fruition. The Sacramento Kings and Philadelphia swapped picks. It’s a beautiful thing to have happened. Of course one of my best friends cheers for the Celtics while the other loves the Lakers. And the same thing that happened last year happened this year as all three of our teams made the commercial break to guarantee a top-three pick in a loaded draft.  The results, however, were in reverse with Boston claiming the top pick, Lakers staying at second and Philly picking third. The attention immediately flips to who Philly will select third overall, especially after the presumption of Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball going one and two. It’s Josh Jackson, and I don’t think it’s particularly close.

Jayson Tatum’s name will surface. As will Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith. But Jackson’s the guy for the Philadelphia 76ers to add to an already fascinating core. The potential perimeter defense of Robert Covington and Jackson appears substantial. Covington made waves as a dominant wing defender during last season, and Jackson’s defensive potential draws comparisons to former 76er Andre Iguodala. It’s a beautiful situation for Philadelphia to be in from a defensive standpoint. In today’s space and pace NBA, defensive flexibility is a must. Jackson makes too much sense for Philly’s efforts to become the best defensive team in the NBA. Head coach Brett Brown would be enthralled with the idea of pressuring teams with Covington and Jackson with Joel Embiid protecting the rim.  There’s another aspect of basketball, however. And on offense people will question whether Jackson’s the right selection or not.

Jackson shot the ball well from three during the second half of his lone season at Kansas. But it was a small sample size, and college three-point shooting success doesn’t always translate to NBA three-point shooting success. Free-throw shooting usually determines NBA three-point shooting at a more consistent rate, but Jackson struggled from the line. It wasn’t Aaron Gordon bad (42.2 percent), but it wasn’t much better (56.6 percent on 173 attempts) Philly fans probably cringe anytime they hear a prospects a jumper away from being a bona fide stud. Memories of Nerlens Noel working on his jumper, and Michael Carter-Williams clanking shot after shot come to mind. Yeah, Jackson has to re-tool his shot. It’s not a pretty from a mechanical perspective. Kevin O’Connor,  of the Ringer, provided this assessment of Jackson’s shooting mechanics: Poor shooting mechanics needing an overhaul: wide base, elbow out, brings ball to shot pocket early, low and slow release, has a hitch. (By the way, please check out Kevin O’Connor’s NBA Draft Guide, it’s tremendous. I trust Draft Express the most for NBA draft material, but the NBA Draft Guide better be bookmarked on your computers).

Can Jackson ever be an average three-point shooter? Will spacing work with non-shooter Ben Simmons? Don’t the 76ers need to draft Monk to be the team’s perimeter, go-to scorer? These are valid questions. Some won’t be answered until years from now. It takes the top-picks plenty of time to figure the NBA out. And Jackson won’t be any different. Jackson, however, has the superstar potential every NBA team desires. Jackson also isn’t just this athletic wing with little offensive diversity. Jackson was a playmaker at Kansas, averaging three assists per game. His ability to quickly drive by his defender and find a teammate with a solid pass will translate to the next level. The idea is for Embiid to remain healthy. Jackson doesn’t have to be the absolute workhorse on offense. Philly’s style of play will be team friendly. Everyone will get touches, and it’s Embiid who will be the focal offensive point. In that respect, Jackson makes more sense for Philly’s offense than a guy like Tatum. Tatum is a throwback, DeMar DeRozan-type scorer capable of scoring from all over expect from three. Jackson could play some power forward, too. I admit Monk would be the perfect offensive fit for Philly, but basketball is a two-way game, and Jackson’s just a much better overall prospect than the sharpshooting Kentucky freshman.

It’s unclear who Bryan Colangelo favors for the 76ers. Two years ago I tweeted something along the lines of: welcome to Philadelphia, DeAngelo Russell. I assumed Los Angeles would pick Jahlil Okafor. But we know how that ended. The Lakers are destined for Ball, but crazier things have happened. Embiid said after the lottery he expected Fultz and Ball to go one and two, and the two guys he thinks Philly would chose are Tatum and Jackson. I tend to agree with Embiid, but the guy has to be Josh Jackson.

And Jackson tweeted this out in January:

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Featured Image-Andy Lyons / Getty Images

NBA Draft Lottery

The NBA playoffs haven’t be super competitive. The Rockets/Spurs series ended in a dud of a  Game 6 while the Wizards/Celtics has been interesting to say the least. The best is yet to come as the eventual Cavaliers-Warriors Part 3 sets up in early June. But before the conference finals and NBA Finals begin, the marquee May event happens early next week: the NBA Draft Lottery. This year, between $495 sneakers and top-three protected picks, the lottery might be the most interesting it has ever been. The consensus seems there are several All-Star type players in this draft, but maybe only one clear superstar in the making: Markelle Fultz. Some teams, like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Orlando Magic, are apparently enamored with Lonzo Ball and his crazy but “smart” father. If all goes according to plan, this will be the last time the 76ers are in the lottery. Well, except for 2019 with an unprotected Kings pick or the unprotected 2018 Lakers pick. But besides Sam Hinkie’s second (and fourth?) greatest achievements, this could very well be Philadelphia’s final time in the lottery with their own pick. After four straight seasons with top-four odds of landing the top pick, it’s refreshing to know it’s finally over. Playoffs appear around the corner. But for now, let’s get ready for the lottery. I blame the curse of my friend’s house  for Philly selecting third in back-to-back lotteries. Over the years I’ve gone to their house for various events. It’s uncanny how often Philly sports have been eliminated when I’m over the Finnegan’s. The 2010 Phillies, the 2010 Flyers, the 2008 Eagles. I could go on and on. In 2008 I watched Game 5 of the World Series at their house. The game ended up delayed due to rain in the middle. The baseball gods knew the Phillies couldn’t win their second ever World Championship with me at the Finnegan’s. Two days later at the comfort of my own house the Phillies won. So, Philly fans, I apologize for stupidly watching the lottery at the Finnegan’s. It won’t happen again. Last year I watched the lottery with my brother in our basement. This year I have work during the lottery. I don’t know what to do. It’s just a city council meeting, so I can have my phone on for updates. This could be a great self-control practice if I’m able to keep my phone off for two hours and not know the results until afterwards. It’s going to be a game-time decision, for sure.

Like mentioned before, this lottery has major implications. The Lakers desperately want to keep their pick since it doesn’t appear they’ve drafted a franchise-altering player in the past three years. It’s top-three protected, and the Lakers have the third best odds to land the top pick. A real movie-like scenario for Philly would be if the Kings won the lottery. The 76ers would then swap picks with Sacramento, and one of the more dumbfounded trades in NBA history would somehow look even worse. It’s hard to find a more stressful situation than the NBA Lottery. There’s nothing leaked. I swear ESPN drags it out longer each and every year. Last year takes the cake as far as most stressful, especially given how brutal the rookie class played this year.

Joel Embiid represents the 76ers this year. There’s nobody I’d rather see on lottery night than Embiid. Embiid has been rehabbing, and beating Justin Anderson in Madden according to his Instagram. The key of the lottery is getting to the commercial break, and you’re golden. This year’s lottery feels different than ever before. Maybe it’s Boston having an opportunity to play a Eastern Conference Finals game the day before winning top pick. Maybe it’s Sacramento having the Pelicans top-three protected pick. Maybe it’s the loaded 2017 draft class that haul comparisons to 1984, 2003 and 2014.  Or maybe it’s the Lakers desperately wanting to keep their pick. Luke Walton assured Laker fans Los Angeles will keep its pick. He said Magic Johnson let him know. Embiid liked this tweet:

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CSN Philly says the 76ers have a 53 percent chance of getting the Lakers pick. A Philadelphia team already won a “coin flip” this year: The Eagles were awarded the 14th pick to select Tennessee’s Derek Barnett at the NFL combine.

Laker fans already created Lonzo Ball jerseys, even though apparently LaVar “don’t need no advice from Kobe Bryant.” Los Angeles want Ball to be its franchise savior. Philly’s in a weird spot because next year the Lakers pick becomes unprotected for the 76ers if it doesn’t convey this year. I’m sort of in the camp that just wants the pick this year to add a guy like Malik Monk or Jonathan Isaac. Mainly because I like the players in that 4-5 range, but also because the Lakers could acquire Paul George before next season begins, which makes their draft pick next season much better. Luke Walton had some interesting thoughts on tanking in January:

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It wasn’t as damning as people made it appear, at least in my opinion. He basically said Philly has some work to do, which is factual because the 76ers have yet to even sniff the postseason. The Lakers had 16 wins in mid January, and for most of the second half of the season it appeared they were all-out tanking for the worst record in basketball. But for some reason, I guess since Walton believes in good karma, began winning games in April. Los Angeles decided to go 5-2 in April for some reason. If the Lakers indeed lose their pick, they have themselves to blame.

Tuesday night franchises will learn their fate. It’s a silly event. Ping-pong balls play a vital role in the future of NBA successes. The Grizzlies just missed out on LeBron James. The worst NBA team in history just missed out on Anthony Davis. Every team in the lottery searches for the franchise-altering guy. Yeah, teams build successes in more ways than just the draft. Yeah, teams build success in more ways than just the beginning of the draft. But some team will learn it has the opportunity to draft Fultz by 8:30 Eastern on May 16. And maybe that franchise will be changed forever.

Bye Bye Nerlens

It’s a weird feeling seeing Nerlens Noel in another uniform but he deserved a new situation. It made sense why Philadelphia traded him. Of course fans believed it would be Jahlil Okafor donning a new jersey, but sometimes things work out differently. After watching Noel the past three years, there’s little doubt he’ll be dynamic in Dallas. He’ll protect the rim, finish alley-oops and swipe the ball away from opponents just about as well as anyone else in the NBA. He’s a highly skilled big man with unlimited potential. As a fan of basketball, I’m excited to see what type of player he will become. As a fan of Philadelphia, I’m saddened.

It appeared once the season began it was inevitable that Noel would be elsewhere. Many speculated, following volunteer knee surgery days before the season started, Noel had played his last game as a 76er. Noel finally returned to the roster, only to come off the bench in a  limited role. He spoke out against Bryan Colangelo and his lack of minutes following a brutal home loss to the Lakers on national television Dec. 16. Eventually Noel found his role, taking over for Okafor and helping lead Philadelphia’s second unit for most of January and February. With Embiid sidelined for a handful of games, Noel started seven times, and Philly won five of them. He’s a difference maker.

It did make sense to trade Noel for the right price. He’s a restricted free agent this summer, requesting at least $20 million per year. Dallas will pay him. Who knows what would’ve happened if Philadelphia kept Noel into the summer? Dallas still would’ve made an offer for his services. Maybe Boston would, too. And Colangelo wouldn’t have matched any offer. Blame Sam Hinkie all you want for creating this logjam at center. He deserves it for drafting Okafor third overall when he already had a defensive star in Noel and an injured big man. People defended Hinkie, saying he drafted Okafor solely for insurance in case Embiid never played. Last summer rumors surfaced connecting Philly to a number of points guards and draft picks for Noel or Okafor. Everybody in the NBA knew Colangelo wanted to trade one or both players. The public probably won’t ever know exactly what trade offers Colangelo presumably turned down. Maybe Philly could’ve received a lightly protected 2017 lottery pick. It doesn’t really matter at this point, because Noel’s gone. He’s in Dallas where he’ll be a force for the next several years.

All the smart NBA people wrote about how effective Noel has been during his career on defense. He still has room to grow, of course. People worry about his maturity. People worry he’s injury prone. It’s baffling he elected for surgery days before the 2016 season began, but it’s unclear who the driving force was behind that decision. Teams overrate their own players all the time. Fans definitely overrate their own players all the time. It’s hard to see what Colangelo was thinking, unless he believes Richaun Holmes could do what Noel does, or he really likes Justin Anderson. He has a plan, and fans won’t see his plan until this summer, because he clearly didn’t want to tie-up cap space to essentially a back-up big man. Anderson will take time to adjust to a new situation. There’s hope for him because he does show flashes of defensive potential, which Philly sorely needs on the wing, but there’s no way Anderson has a better career than Noel. Noel and Embiid could create a dynamic one-two punch, causing havoc to every offense, no matter what big man was on the court. Out of players under 25, Noel and Embiid would rank in the top-5, maybe even top-3 of rim protectors. Rudy Gobert would be slated at the top spot, but you could make an argument the next best two are Noel and Embiid, which makes this trade even harder to digest.

Noel didn’t contribute to many wins as a 76er, especially his first three years. The team struggled to form an identity because they lost games purposely. Yes, the team tried hard, but rookies and undrafted players simply do not win many games. In Noel’s rookie season, when Philadelphia won 18 games, the 76ers finished 12th in defensive rating. Noel was a major reason for that rating. Noel’s happy to be in Dallas, that’s certain. Along with Harrison Barnes, Noel is the future of the Mavericks. He wanted his own situation where it was him, and only him, as a team’s big man, and he’ll flourish in that role.



The End of Jahlil Okafor

Rarely are top-three picks traded two seasons into a career. It just doesn’t happen. Jahlil Okafor will be traded today or tomorrow or some day soon it appears. The likely destination seems to be New Orleans, and the return doesn’t fit Okafor’s value just 18 months ago. But lots of things changed over that time period. And that’s where the 76ers find themselves. Okafor and Michael Carter-Williams were the only first-round rookies Sam Hinkie drafted who actually played their rookie seasons, and they are both gone just like the guy who drafted them.

Fans won’t remember Okafor too kindly, and it’s not his fault. The situation should have been avoided if the Lakers just drafted Okafor second overall. But the Golden State Warriors winning the title playing small ball really impacted the NBA landscape, forcing teams to abandon back-to-the-basket big guys who couldn’t do much else. Timing is everything, and Okafor appears a few years late to make the type of impact needed from such a high draft pick. It’s silly to throw away the idea that Okafor will not or cannot be a vital piece to a championship contender. Okafor has some serious offensive skill, and most big men are lousy defenders at a young age. It’s concerning Okafor still struggles mightily at that end, sometimes looking disinterested, but he usually brings it on offense, and he’s handled his benching with class. He’s grown up a great deal since his rookie season’s debacle (speeding ticket and fight outside a Boston nightclub), and that has to be worth something.

Okafor did not choose Philadelphia. He wasn’t a free agent. He provided some necessary excitement last season on the offensive end, and even if it didn’t translate directly into wins, he had a first-team All-Rookie type season. Drafting Okafor never made sense. Playing Okafor and Nerlens Noel together never mad sense. Last year’s 10-win team was the worst 76er team in a very long time, and arguably ever. Okafor’s legacy in Philadelphia won’t be much of anything. People will scoff at his time here, but it’s really not his fault. Sure, he could have played better, but here’s a guy whose best skills are nearly outdated, and he had not one or two but three players (Noel, Joel Embiid and Richaun Holmes) who seemingly fit better in today’s NBA. He was set up to fail, and now Philadelphia will be lucky to get a lottery-protected 2018 pick from the Pelicans.

Photo credit to USA Today’s Bill Streicher

Are playoffs possible?

In reality the playoffs are possible, especially since Philadelphia presently sits 5.5 games out of the eight seed. But it’s highly unlikely Philadelphia makes the playoffs this season. Last night’s win against Toronto, however, feels like a validation for the Philadelphia 76ers. The Raptors played their second game in as many nights, but Kyle Lowry took the first one off. The Raptors trail only the Warriors in offense this season, but Philadelphia held them to 89 points (which was only the second time they didn’t reach 90 points in a game this season). Yesterday I wrote the potential of Ben Simmons coming back next Friday, and of course later in the day ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported Simmons could come back soon after the All-Star Break, but there’s still no guarantee he’d play this season. That’s not the news 76er fans wanted to hear, but at least there’s a clearer indicator of when Simmons might be back. It’s not like the 76ers need him right now, anyway. The last time Philadelphia won six out of eight games was November 2012. But unlike that team that crumpled in Doug Collins final season, this team’s trending up, playing their best ball of the season with the only signs of slowing down happening with Joel Embiid off the court.

If Embiid misses the game, opponents have a really solid chance to win. If when Embiid leaves the game, and it’s a really close game, opponents have a really solid chance to win. screen-shot-2017-01-19-at-8-04-15-am

Philadelphia has several back-to-backs coming up, and that doesn’t bound too well for their playoff chances. It’d be a shame if Philly didn’t make the playoffs solely because of Embiid’s restrictions, but it’s completely acceptable for Embiid to continue to miss games to higher his chance of staying healthy. He’s been one of the best players in the NBA in January. It’s staggering how he’s impacted Philly’s defense. Check out this graphic (credit to reddit user: tomx312):

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He challenged DeMar DeRozan several times in the first half, and DeRozan struggled to get going. It wasn’t until the second half that DeRozan had success and unsurprisingly it was mostly against Philadelphia defenders not named Embiid. Embiid also switched on Lowry a few times, and the 44 percent 3-point shooter couldn’t make it over Embiid’s stretch-out arms and then Embiid’s block on Lowry basically sealed the game with 20 seconds remaining. (Quick shout out to Robert Covington who has been tremendous on defense all season for blocking Lowry’s first attempt on that same possession).

An underrated aspect of judging a player is their desire. It’s nearly impossible to qualify, because other factors, namely money and fame, enter the view once a player reaches the professional level. Dario Saric was labeled a below-average defender. He doesn’t have the quickness to defend small forwards in the NBA, and that’s an entirely fair assessment. But what Saric did on one possession created this playoff-type atmosphere in the building that probably shocked many people considering how the player generated the buzz. Nobody would be surprised if Saric had hit back-to-back threes followed by a highlight behind the back pass. But he stuffed two players at the rim. These weren’t ordinary blocks. Saric first met Norman Powell’s incredible force just in the nick of time. And then Saric perfectly timed Jared Sullinger’s attempt, cause the ball to hit off Sullinger. Immediately Nerlens Noel and Gerald Henderson pushed Saric towards the 76er bench, and Saric wore a face comparable to any classic competitor. It was his moment, and he knew it. And Embiid even jumped up from his typical floor position to, for some unknown reason, squeeze Saric’s butt. Even more than Embiid’s fourth quarter dominance, Saric’s defensive stand will be remembered most from this game.

The city has embraced this team wholeheartedly. Now it could stem from the notion that the 76ers were the NBA’s punchline for three straight years, and this team now resembles actual, competent basketball. But for some reason, it appears deeper than that. This team’s actually good right now. They’re extremely confident, and who knows how long that’ll last, but the very best Zach Lowe tweeted this out this morning. And that’s encouraging moving forward. TJ McConnell and Nik Stauskas weren’t supposed to be the starting backcourt in January, but things happen, and for right now, it’s working for Philadelphia.

Ersan Ilyasova deserves so much credit. He’s been a fresh of breath air since Bryan Colangelo traded for him a week into the season. Colangelo deserves all the credit for making that happen, and it’s really changed the direction of this team. Ilyasova might not be here next month, or next year, but his imprint on this season has already been noted: The 76ers are 12-12 when Ilyasova starts.  And 11-7 when Embiid and Ilyasova both start.

It’s not likely the 76ers make the postseason this year, and that’s fine. They’re brought an excitement to this city that didn’t seem possible this time last year. A year ago today Philadelphia had a 5-38 record with little hope. They’re now 6-2 this month. 



The Return of Ben Simmons: It might be next week

It’s unclear when Ben Simmons will return. Yesterday the league announced Philly’s game against Houston next Friday night will be changed to 8 p.m. on ESPN. Moments later Simmons posted this on Instagram: Screen Shot 2017-01-18 at 8.15.35 AM.png

He’s coming soon, but could this mean Simmons will make his debut on national television as originally scheduled in October?

Brett Brown prematurely told reporters Simmons would be back sometime in January. He clarified, claiming his excitement for Simmons to return and he didn’t know when exactly Simmons would be back. Unlike Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid in the past, Simmons will definitely play this season. It’s a matter of time, of course, he’s already practiced 5-on-0, and who knows what he’s done since then. It’s happening. And even though Philly’s playing their best basketball in half a decade, it’s OK if they take a step back to welcome the top pick of 2016.

With Jerryd Bayless out for the season, TJ McConnell really stepped up as point guard. His numbers since being the de facto starting point guard have been phenomenal. Many speculated McConnell was like any other undrafted player Sam Hinkie signed solely to fill out a roster, but he’s been super impressive for even a late first-round pick let alone an undrafted guy. The best thing about McConnell is he’ll bring it no matter his situation, or the team situation. He loves forcing turnovers immediately after the 76ers score. He’s a terrible shooter, so maybe he and Simmons won’t be able to play together right away, but he’ll serve as a solid back-up point guard.

Simmons, as Brown said before, will play point guard. I’m sure it won’t be exclusive. He’ll log sometime at the wing on offense. But he’s the best player on the team with the ball in his hands, and he should be used as such. It’s hard to tell what Brown will do with the defense, however. Things changed once Ersan Ilyasova arrived. Before it appeared the starting line-up would be Bayless, Gerald Henderson, Robert Covington, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. But Ilyasova makes that more difficult to access, and what guard compliments Simmons best with Bayless out?  I don’t even want to speculate on what Brown will do. It’s a tough challenge, especially with Dario Saric needing minutes at forward, too. But that’ll be figured out, and even though Simmons coming back won’t automatically solve the logjam at center, it’ll be nice to watch the top pick play basketball, especially with Embiid.

It’s easy to say Philly made the right decision drafting Simmons over Brandon Ingram. Ingram hasn’t impressed, but he’s also younger than Simmons. It’s also easy to forget about Simmons because of Embiid and this suddenly winning team. But he’s there. He averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game in college which, according to Sports-Reference, no other player has done since at least 1992. His time might have disappointed, and at times Simmons might not have fit the bill as this superstar, but he impressed throughout his lone season at LSU. He’s coming back soon. And that’s an exciting thing for Philadelphia fans.