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NBA PM: Sixers are Ready to Begin Competing

After two years near the bottom of the standings, the 76ers are ready to take a step forward … Anthony Bennett is playing with confidence for Canada

Cody Taylor

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Sixers are Ready to Begin Competing

Over the past two seasons, the Philadelphia 76ers have been among the worst teams in the Eastern Conference. Although they have yet to finish in last place in the conference during that time frame, they have been near the bottom of the standings.

For all of the attention that they’ve received in how they’ve approached their rebuilding effort, the franchise is only three years removed from their last playoff appearance. The negative publicity they’ve endured since that last playoff appearance feels as though it’s been much longer since playing in the postseason. After all, this is a team that has won just 71 games combined over the previous three seasons.

That 2011-12 playoff team featured the likes of Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Andre Iduodala, Elton Brand, Evan Turner and Nikola Vucevic, among others. All of those players are long gone from that playoff squad. They were traded for assets and other pieces in order to rebuild from the ground up. The front office recognized that roster went as far as it could go and it was time to start over.

That rebuilding effort has brought us to where we are today. The front office has instituted a plan, and they’ve been methodical in their approach. They have remained patient during this time and optimistic as they stockpile young players and draft picks. Of course, relying on young players and draft picks doesn’t necessarily mean things will work out. No matter how promising a player out of college may appear, there is no “sure bet” regarding the NBA draft.

We’ve seen before how injuries can derail a player’s career. So, it should be no surprise that the team has gone through several players to get to where they are today. They’ll try out some players, and if they don’t work out, they’ll move on to the next crop of talent. It’s how the team settled on its new mantra: “Trust the process.”

Everyone around the organization seems to be fully embracing that motto. Everyone from the fans to even the players have bought into the system, which the team has created. It’s true that the team is improving. Each season they’ve gained more experience and have improved their individual skills. They’re beginning to believe that they can compete in the NBA.

It was just one week ago that Tony Wroten let the world know that they’re here to compete.

The reaction to Wroten’s tweet was mixed. Of course, Sixers fans embraced the message and were encouraged that their team feels they can compete. And then there were those that didn’t seem quite as sold as others. The fact of the matter is within the next few years, the team seems poised to return to the playoff picture.

During this past draft, the Sixers were handed a gift when the Los Angeles Lakers passed on drafting Jahlil Okafor with the second pick. They instead drafted D’Angelo Russell, which left the door wide open for Philadelphia to grab Okafor. The decision to add Okafor to the team was a no-brainer. He seemed to be one of the most well-rounded players in the draft and perhaps the best option to walk off of the college court and contribute immediately in the NBA.

He had himself a great Summer League between Utah and Las Vegas, which further added to the hype around him. Okafor averaged 15.8 points and 8.4 rebounds in five contests during Summer League. His best performance came against the Lakers when he recorded 19 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Although performances in Summer League are often taken with a grain of salt, his solid outings will further improve his confidence heading into training camp.

Okafor seems to be fitting in well so far with his new teammates. He has known Joel Embiid and newcomer Pierre Jackson for a number of years and considers them good friends. He also has history with Jerami Grant, as they played for Team USA together when they were younger. Point guard Isaiah Canaan even flew out to Las Vegas just to meet him during Summer League.

While Okafor’s future seems extremely bright in Philadelphia, there still remains perhaps the biggest question on the roster in Embiid. He’s expected to miss the entire 2015-16 campaign after undergoing a second surgery to repair his right foot. The team announced that his foot wasn’t healing quite up to expectations and opted to have a second surgery.

These kinds of injuries to big men are always tricky. Players in the past have proven that recovery from these injuries are not always guaranteed. Given the uncertainty surrounding Embiid’s future, the team has been heavily criticized for drafting him knowing that this could happen.

But, when you look at how the rest of the 2014 draft has panned out, the argument can still be made that Embiid was the right pick. He was the next best option in the draft after Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were taken. Several other players from the draft class have missed significant time due to injury or have yet to receive consistent minutes yet. Knowing what we know now, Embiid could still be the best option with the third pick.

This time next year, we could be talking about the 76ers making a big jump in the East. Okafor will have a season under his belt, Embiid could return healthy and the team could finally bring Dario Saric in from overseas, as he’s reportedly warming to the idea of leaving Anadolu Efes and playing in the NBA.

The Sixers could have as much as $52 million in cap space next season, depending on how they handle their upcoming contract situations. They have only Carl Landry, Okafor and Richaun Holmes guaranteed on the books for the 2016-17 season, which amounts to only $12,314,671 in commitments. They control the fate of virtually everyone else on the roster via team options, restricted free agency or non-guaranteed deals.

They’ll go through another season able to evaluate their own talent. Wroten was the team’s best scoring option last season before going down with an ACL injury in January. He looks poised to return healthy by the start of training camp as he was seen already dunking, just six months after his surgery. Robert Covington, Jerami Grant, JaKarr Sampson and Canaan are other players that seem to have bright futures in the league that could be major pieces in the next few seasons.

The Sixers also added role players in Pierre Jackson and Scottie Wilbekin after solid outings in the Summer League. Both players are on the books for less than $1 million, which is a steal considering that players are earning significantly more given the rising salary cap. Both of those deals represent great value for the team, given the upside that both players have shown.

It’d be unfair to expect the Sixers to go out and make the playoffs next season. They’re built for long-term success, which could begin as soon as the 2016-17 season. Wroten, Okafor and the rest of the team will be setting out this season to prove that they can come out from the bottom of the East and be competitive. An improvement of five to 10 games could begin to turn the franchise around, paving the way for a breakout campaign in 2016-17.

Anthony Bennett Playing Confidently for Canada

The attitude and drive that led Anthony Bennett to become a number one overall pick in the NBA seems to returning. Bennett has been playing with the Canadian Men’s Basketball team this summer, which today began the FIBA Americas tournament against Argentina.

Bennett averaged 15.6 points and a tournament-high 9.6 rebounds in the Pan American games last month and turned in a 16-point performance last week in Puerto Rico at the Tuto Marchand Continental Cup. Those around Bennett have noticed a different player this summer.

“Anthony has been exemplary this summer,” said Steve Nash (via TSN), the general manager of Canada’s men’s senior team. “He’s had a tough first two years in the league but his attitude’s been amazing. His talent has never been in question but his attitude, willingness to learn and attention to detail … not that his attitude was ever an issue, but for him to come, to play in the Pan Am Games, to partake in a whole summer with us, it shows he has a real willingness to learn and get better and a want to be a great player.”

“[I’m] just playing with confidence, pretty much,” Bennett said. “Just going out there, playing defense [and] running the court. Just doing the little things first and trying to make offence come to me.”

Bennett’s journey in the NBA has been well-documented to this point. Injuries have been a big part of his lack of development thus far. He averaged just 4.2 points during his rookie season two years ago for the Cleveland Cavaliers in which he played in just 52 games. He was then traded last summer as part of the Kevin Love deal and played in only 57 games last season in Minnesota.

“I saw him play a little bit,” said Jay Triano, head coach of the Canadian senior men’s team and assistant with the Portland Trail Blazers. “Whether there were injuries or not getting a chance in the NBA, he was always grumpy and never smiling. And I remember him as a guy who was vocal, smiling, having fun playing the game.

“It looks like he’s loving basketball again,” Triano said. “And I think that was the big thing for us. We try to make it fun for him, try to simplify it. He’s so talented in a variety of areas that we needed to just simplify what we expect of him. If he does that, the rest of it is gonna fall into place.”

The Timberwolves are hoping his new-found confidence will translate into the NBA next season. The team is now filled with several young players, including Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng and Adreian Payne. Bennett will be a huge addition to that roster if he can begin to find success in the NBA.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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