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All-Star Notebook: Sixers’ Young Talent on Display

Notebook: Philly’s young talent is on display tonight, Mason Plumlee talks dunk contest strategy and more.

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Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo discusses his relationship with Cody Zeller, his dunk contest approach and much more in this video interview.

Sixers’ Young Talent on Display

When the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge tips off tonight, three Philadelphia 76ers will be in attendance: Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Robert Covington. Only the Minnesota Timberwolves have more players featured in the game (Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng), although Philadelphia likely would’ve had the most selections if lottery picks Joel Embiid and Dario Saric were able to suit up for them this season.

Carter-Williams won’t be playing due to a toe injury, but he is in New York to support his teammates and he believes the fact that Philadelphia is so well represented in the Rising Stars Challenge says something about the direction that the team is headed.

“It means a lot, it says a lot about our team and the young talent that we have,” Carter-Williams told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just happy that those guys are there and being able to play. I’m going to cheer these guys on and Nerlens and Robert should do great.”

Even if you disagree with the Sixers’ decision to go all-in on the draft over the last few years, you have to admit that the plan has yielded a ton of young talent and positioned Philadelphia as one of the top up-and-coming franchises in the NBA. The fan base has had to endure some ugly games, but it could really pay off for the team in the long run.

In addition to Carter-Williams, Noel, Covington, Embiid and Saric, the team also has youngsters Tony Wroten, K.J. McDaniels, Jerami Grant, Henry Simms, Hollis Thompson and Furkan Aldemir among others. Twelve of Philly’s players are 24 years old or younger, with the only exceptions being Malcolm Thomas, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Jason Richardson and Andrei Kirilenko (and the latter two haven’t played a single game for the Sixers this season).

And the young players will just keep coming, as the Sixers are just 12-41 this season and poised to get another top pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Philadelphia is hoping that by stockpiling lottery players, they’ll be able to build a star-laden team through the draft, just as the Oklahoma City Thunder did when they drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden over a three-year span. That will obviously take some luck, but Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie has done a solid job stockpiling draft picks and using them wisely thus far.

Carter-Williams, who was last season’s Rookie of the Year, looks at Philadelphia’s roster and sees a team that could eventually be very good.

“I think we can be good if we get a couple more pieces, grow ourselves and really put in work in the offseason,” Carter-Williams said. “I think we can be pretty good and contend in the East and make a playoff run.

“I think a lot of people look at our record and the games we’ve lost and get impatient and think that we are never going to be good, but it does take time to grow just like with anything. We were not going to come into the league and dominate right away – it takes time to grow pieces and just to be good. It always takes time.”

This season, Carter-Williams is averaging impressive numbers across the board including 15 points, 7.4 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals while playing fewer minutes per game than during his ROY campaign. While he feel he has played pretty well, he can’t wait until the offseason when he can really focus on honing his craft.

“I’ve had some ups and downs this year, but I think for the most part I’ve played pretty solid,” Carter-Williams said. “I’m just trying to do the best I can and get as many wins as I can.

“I’m really looking forward to this second half of this season and then the summertime. Last summer, I really didn’t get a chance to do much since I had surgery on my shoulder, so this summer I’m really looking forward to it. I’m really focused and really want to put in the work to be great.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season for the Sixers has been the emergence of Robert Covington, who was signed from the D-League on Nov. 15 and quickly made his presence felt. He emerged as a starter for the team, averaging 14.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals when playing in the starting lineup. His journey from undrafted rookie to D-League player to significant piece for the Sixers has been incredible. He has been so impressive that he beat out some lottery picks to be included in the Rising Stars Challenge. Carter-Williams is proud of his teammate and believes he still has a ton of room to grow.

“I think Robert coming from the D-League, the steps he has taken in his career are just great,” he said. “I think people should really keep an eye on him from where he has come from to where he is now.”

Fans and media should really keep an eye on this entire Sixers team, as it’s very possible that they will flip a switch at some point in the next few years and become really, really good. Right now, they’re a young team that’s overflowing with potential and high-upside players. But once Carter-Williams, Noel, Emiid, Saric, their 2015 pick, McDaniels, Grant and others are comfortable, on the same page and ready to play at a high level, Philly could look like the OKC of the East – a young team where all of the players mature and hit their prime at the same time to form a scary juggernaut capable of making a deep postseason run.

It may sound crazy to think of the Sixers as a contender, but that has been Hinkie’s plan all along. He wants to add multiple stars through the draft or stockpile attractive assets that can be flipped for a proven star. That’s the one possibility that most people don’t bring up. While it seems that Hinkie would like to build through the draft, packaging all of these young players for a star or two could be an option as well. It certainly worked for the Boston Celtics when they traded the fifth pick in 2007 along with Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West to Seattle for Ray Allen and then dealt Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Theo Ratliff, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, two first-round picks and cash for Kevin Garnett.

It remains to be seen what Hinkie’s long-term plan is, but both routes seem promising. Building through the draft could give Philadelphia several stars who are on bargain contracts and locked up for quite some time before they can test free agency. Or, trading for stars and speeding up the rebuilding process is an interesting option as well. Either way, it’s safe to say that you should keep an eye on Philly going forward. Not only are they always active in trade talks and open to facilitating larger deals, they’re an interesting NBA experiment that many executives are watching and intrigued to see how it’ll turn out.

Plumlee Wants to Showcase New Dunks

When Mason Plumlee takes the floor for the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday night, it won’t be his first time participating in an event like this. Back in 2009, he was the runner-up in the McDonald’s All-American dunk contest, finishing second behind Avery Bradley.

During that contest, he threw down a powerful slam after catching a pass off the side of the backboard, a nice reverse dunk and an alley-oop windmill among others. He also released a video of him dunking three balls at one time, and he says he was the first to ever do this.

However, don’t expect to see those same dunks on Saturday night. Plumlee wants to come up with some new, creative dunks to keep things interesting.

“I have done the dunk contest before, but I’m just trying to do new stuff [that’s different] from the dunk contest I did in high school,” Plumlee said. “I can’t really tell you [what I’ll do] because I don’t even know all the dunks I’m going to do, but I have about two in my mind already that I’m for sure on.”

When asked if he’s feeling any pressure or nerves, Plumlee admits that he’s not sure what to expect since the stage is so much bigger than any other dunk contests he’s competed in.

“Man, I don’t know because I’ve never really been there before,” Plumlee said. “The McDonald’s dunk contest arena was about a quarter full, so we will see how the NBA one is.”

Plumlee says that he isn’t a big prop guy, but he does want to come out with some creative dunks that haven’t been seen before.

“You won’t see me use too many props, but then again I don’t want to be basic because I don’t think basic is going to win it,” Plumlee said. “I’ve got to come up with something creative.”

Plumlee also insists that he’s determined to land every dunk on his attempt. He’s not going to be the guy who misses dunk after dunk, so that when he finally nails it there’s an anticlimactic finish.

“I think delivering on the first attempt is important,” Plumlee said. “I think there is something to be said about coming out and hitting it right away so you don’t have to use all three attempts. You throw it down with force. Some guys just squeak it in, but you really want to flush it and then play to the crowd, because you have to get the crowd involved.”

Plumlee is certainly an underdog entering the contest against high-flyers like Zach LaVine, Victor Oladipo and Giannis Antetokounmpo, but if he’ll have a shot. His All-American dunks were impressive, so don’t sleep on Plumlee just yet.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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