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Isaiah Canaan Adjusting to New System in Philadelphia

Isaiah Canaan may be the Philadelphia 76ers’ point guard of the future, replacing Michael Carter-Williams.

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Thursday’s trade deadline went on record as the the busiest in NBA history with a total of 37 players getting traded before the 3 p.m. deadline. One of the most active teams on the day was the Philadelphia 76ers, as they took part in three of the 13 deals that transpired.

Perhaps the biggest shock of the day happened when the Sixers opted to trade last year’s Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams, to the Milwaukee Bucks. In all, the Sixers acquired a total of three draft picks, Isaiah Canaan, JaVale McGee (from Denver) and the rights to Chu Chu Maduabum. In addition, the 76ers traded away another promising rookie in K.J. McDaniels to the Houston Rockets for Canaan and a second-round draft pick.

The Sixers’ most coveted piece in the final deal appears to be Canaan, the former second-round pick by the Rockets. Canaan was the 34th pick in the 2013 draft and was selected one pick ahead of the 76ers that year. The Sixers were said to be interested in the former Murray State guard, but the Rockets nabbed him just before Philadelphia had a chance to take him. First- and second-year players are often not included in trades because they’re still developing and finding their way in the league, which explained why Canaan was surprised by the trade.

“It was a whirlwind, as a player you never expect it and it kind of caught us off guard right before the deadline,” Canaan said. “I can just remember [being] in practice and going through the regular day and next thing you know you come and get grabbed and say you are part of a trade. So the last 48 hours have been a whirlwind and it’s starting to slow down for me so I’m glad to be here and I’m glad that they gave me an opportunity.”

The change in atmosphere for Canaan will surely be a welcomed opportunity as it appears he’ll have the chance to immediately play major minutes, something he wasn’t afforded in Houston being buried on the depth chart behind Patrick Beverley, James Harden and Jason Terry in the backcourt. In 25 games with the Rockets this season, Canaan was averaging just under 15 minutes a game. In his debut with the 76ers on Sunday night in Orlando, Canaan played in 29 minutes and could have played more, but suffered cramps throughout the game and was in and out of the lineup. In the 76ers’ 103-98 loss against the Magic, Canaan had 14 points, four rebounds and three assists.

“I criticize myself the hardest so of course I think I could have done better, but it’s the first game in a while,” Canaan said after his debut. “I try not to make no excuses when I’m out there on the court and I try to be perfect and want do whatever I could to lead this team. It’s just a blessing to be able to continue to wear an NBA jersey. [I’m] just glad that this organization gave me another opportunity and [I’m] looking forward to it. It’s a good challenge, a lot of great teammates on this team, a lot of great players on this team and it’s just a stepping stone and we’re getting it.”

The challenge for the 76ers is now getting Canaan caught up with the playbook. Major roster shake ups and additions are often saved for the offseason when a team can get plenty of practice in, but Canaan and the 76ers will be dealing with this change on the fly. The 76ers are a team that has had plenty of experience in adding new players throughout the season so the team should be able to make the transition seamless.

“[I just want to continue] to learn the offense and make sure I keep putting my teammates in a better position to be successful and just keep learning,” Canaan said. “It’s the first day and it’s a stepping stone for us; we saw a lot of great things. They threw a lot at me and I’m pretty good at grasping things but when you have one day of practice and then you have to get on the road so it wasn’t much time. I don’t make no excuses, I’m out there playing. In this league, you got to learn how to play on the fly.”

Prior to Sunday’s game, Sixers head coach Brett Brown told reporters that the plan with Canaan will be to keep the offense as simple as possible to get him acclimated and eliminate mistakes. Canaan had participated in just one practice and was in the early stages of learning the new system. After the first game with his new team, Brown was impressed with how he performed.

“To be an NBA point guard [on a new team] at the end of February is hard to do when you’re playing against a team that is grouped together [like the Magic],” Brown said. “I thought that he did a good job. I think the fitter he gets, the better in shape he gets and better understanding it’ll all come together. I thought our first performance, he was way above average and I can see the upside in him in what he can bring once he knows me and the system and gets in better shape.”

After trading away top contributors in Carter-Williams and McDaniels, the Sixers’ offensive game plan seems to be changing. The 76ers average 24 three-point attempts per game, but attempted 34 on Sunday night against the Magic, with Canaan accounting for nine of those shots. The team knocked down 13 of those 34 attempts, which is nearly twice as many as they’re used to hitting (7.6 per game).

“We’re going to learn [how to fit Canaan into the system],” Brown said. “His identifiable NBA skill, when you ask and you study, is that he can shoot. He has a scorer’s mentality so when you hear that, that sometimes doesn’t translate into [a lot of assists] and somewhere out there we’re going to need balance; we want it all. We’ve had candid conversations, he understands that. We’ll see with the tiny package that we’ve given him. He’s got a big personality, big charisma; those are pretty good starting points for a point guard.”

Thursday’s deadline left many wondering what direction the Sixers are taking, especially after trading away cornerstone players in Carter-Williams and McDaniels. The team could have as many as eight picks (four first-rounders and four second-rounders) in June’s draft and the roster is far from a finished product. Sam Hinkie and his staff will have to figure out which current players will stick around and which will leave. One thing that is clear during this process is that the team is moving at their own pace and that the front office isn’t afraid to move a player if the fit isn’t right.

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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