My 6 Burning Questions for 76ers Training Camp

 Can you believe it?!?! Sixers training camp is finally here. Dario and Furkan had some fun overseas. Our boy TJ McConnell got himself a wife. Joel Embiid was a star in the 2018 Africa Game. Markelle spent his offseason summer loving and drifting away with Drew Hanlen. Ben had a fling with a Kardashian (thank God it’s over) and won Rookie of the Year. It’s September and we’re a Thanos finger snap away from watching the 17-game win streak vanish into dust. The 4-1 loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semi-finals is history. Good riddance. The new year is upon us and Sixers basketball is back! Here are my six burning questions to watch for during Sixers training camp.

 #1: Will the real Markelle Fultz please stand up?

What do I need to see from Markelle Fultz this preseason? For me, I want my Markelle to be fearless and get to the free throw line. I want my Markelle to be relentless at attacking the rim and shooting from midrange. I want my Markelle to play in the flow of the offense and look to score, rather than thinking too much on every possession like he did last season.  Sure, a consistent shot from three for Markelle would be nice, but what the Sixers lacked most in the playoffs was a shot creator and someone that can get buckets in the 4th quarter when the defense stiffened. Yips or not, Markelle clearly avoided contact when attacking the rim in order to avoid going to the free throw line. One of Markelle’s biggest strengths is his ability to create separation with his handle and get into the lane. I’d like to see Markelle get 5-6 free throw attempts per game during the preseason. A fearless Markelle will result in a confident Markelle. In my opinion, when we get a confident Markelle, everything else (mid-range game, three point range) will surely fall into place.

On Thursday morning, it happened. The Player’s Tribune released the first video of Markelle’s new jump shot. Personally, it looks much improved from when he was at the University of Washington. Markelle’s new shot is in one motion, has a much quicker release and nice arc to it.  I’m very much interested in how Markelle’s shot will look off the dribble, but it’s clear he has much more confidence with his current release. Does his head come up occasionally? Yes, but most importantly, Fultz now has a form that is much more repeatable than before. In my opinion, it looks smoother than it did during his days at UW. Fingers crossed his new form will translate to a game, which starts on September 28.

Here is a phenomenal breakdown of Markelle’s shot from Jake Hyman at Liberty Ballers!

 #2: Can Ben Simmons hit a 3-10 foot jump shot and increase his free throw percentage?

It’s no secret anymore. The Boston Celtics exposed the best blueprint on slowing down the Sixers: play tight on the Sixers perimeter shooters and make Ben Simmons beat you on offense. First off, not every team in the NBA has the athleticism and defensive potential at the wing  that the Celtics do in Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart. However, a great reason the Sixers went on that monumental winning streak at the end of last season was due to Ben’s ability to find guys on the perimeter for three.

For me, Ben Simmons on offense has two distinct looks:

1) Constantly attacking the rim, drawing in double teams, getting to the free throw line and/or kicking it out for the open three-pointer and

2) One that is passive and/or be reluctant to hit a wide open 10-15 foot jumper.

When Ben stops attacking, he is a completely different player on the court.

Not surprising, Ben Simmons stunk up the joint shooting between 10-16 feet. Think about this, though. During the regular season, Ben Simmons shot 74.4% around the rim (0-3 feet) but only 41.7% from 3-10 feet. It was even worse in the playoffs, when he shot 30.2% from 3-10 feet. That is horrendous for a 6’10 point guard. In my opinion, that 32.7% difference between 0-3 and 3-10 from the regular season is the only number Ben Simmons should truly care about this preseason. Ben Simmons must be able to have defenses respect his 3-10 foot jump shot. Period. I can’t stress how significant a 3-10 jumper is for the Sixers offense. Not only does it benefit Ben, but it opens up the offense for our shooters and clogs the lane less for Joel.

In a recent article by Tom Moore, Brett Brown recently said he likes the idea of Ben playing more time at the power forward spot this season. What’s the main takeaway from this? Brett wants Ben to get to the free throw line more often and this is an excellent way to get the Aussie more attempts.

 #3: Can Joel Embiid cut down on the turnovers in the post?

First, a sweet, musical interlude by our man Joel.

There is no player in the NBA that is more cerebral (basketball, not piano) than Joel Embiid. Joel Embiid has been working with Drew Hanlen this summer on his handle and reducing turnovers in the post. Embiid must cut down on the turnovers as he was 6th in the NBA last season with 234 turnovers. He was also 6th in the NBA with 3.7 turnovers per game. Embiid had especially significant turnover problems in crunch time last season. Embiid wasn’t in the top-15 in the NBA in Clutch Time Stats (during the 4th quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points). For a guy with such high usage rates at the end of games, this is definitely an area that needs improvement for Embiid if he wants to win the Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year awards.  Embiid was third in the NBA behind Harden and Westbrook in Usage Percentage at 33.4%. With minute restrictions gone, Embiid will continue to be a major focal point of the Sixers offense this year.

In an interview with Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports, Embiid told Lee, “This is the first summer where I’m actually healthy and able to play basketball. I was pretty excited. I’ve already gotten so much better. It’s just about working on everything, perfecting everything. Like when it comes to my three-point shot or the ball-handling, which was a problem. The Sixers need Joel Embiid to be the man this year in the 4th quarter. Watching Embiid in the 4th quarter lose the ball after putting it on the floor became extremely frustrating as the season progressed.  In my opinion, this is THE difference maker between Embiid being an All-NBA talent vs MVP candidate. How much Joel Embiid as improved in this area should become more clear very quickly.

#4: Can Dario Saric shut up the critics and continue to improve on last season’s success?

Over the past month, Dario Saric has been playing with Team Croatia in the second round of the FIBA Qualifiers.  In the second round, Dario Saric has averaged 18 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in 31.4 minutes per game. In the two losses, Dario was a positive on the court, a +2 vs Lithuania and a +4 vs Poland. Last season, Dario struggled at times with a flat shot from three point range. In his two games in the second round, Dario’s three point shot has been very promising, showing a nice arc. In two games this Summer, Dario shot 40% from beyond the arc on 10 attempts in the FIBA Qualifiers.

Dario’s phenomenal 2017-2018 campaign established him as a premiere stretch 4 in the NBA. Last season, his numbers increased across the board.  Saric increased his shooting numbers from 41% on 4.2 attempts per game in 16-17’ to 39.3% on 5.2 attempts per game in 17-18’.  Dario’s points per game increased from 12.8 to 14.6 despite a decreasing usage rate (24.6% in 16/17’ to 20.9%.  Better yet, he showed better control of the ball, reducing his turnover rate from 15.2% to 13.1%. However, there is a common belief that Dario Saric has maxed out as a power forward in the NBA.

How can Dario improve on last season? For one, he is already a leader on the team and widely considered to be one of the most underrated players in the NBA. We’re nitpicking here, but Dario’s mid-range game could show some improvement.  Dario shot 31.7% from 10-16 feet and 34.3% from 16 feet and the three-point line. I’d like to see these numbers increase and Dario comes into this season with a defined role, which is something that has escaped him throughout the years in the Euro league. Overall, Saric is a winner and I expect him to continue to improve upon his mid-range shooting this season.

How can you not love this guy?

#5: Can the Sixers hit the ground running with their current depth off the bench?

What I’m looking for this preseason is for Markelle Fultz, Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala to gel quickly with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The Sixers starting lineup became one of the strongest in the NBA last season. However, how soon we forget how weak our depth was early last year. The fact that the Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli signings were such an upgrade off the bench tells you everything you need to know regarding the Sixers depth in October, November and December. Think about this for a second: Jerryd Bayless averaged 31.4 minutes per game in October, 25.1 minutes per game in November and 23.3 minutes per game in December last year. Timothe Luwawu-Cabrott averaged 13 minutes per game in October, 17.9 minutes per game in November and 16.3 minutes per game in December. I just vomited in my mouth a little bit.

The lack of depth and defense on the bench was extremely noticeable at the jump last season. While the Ersan and Marco signings helped, they were not able to keep up with Boston’s young wings.  With Fultz not being ready and Covington shooting himself out of the rotation, the Sixers’ depth simply got exposed, especially defensively.  Listen, I love TJ McConnell more than the next person, but any team with aspirations to reach the NBA Finals should never need to rely on Teej getting nearly 40 minutes per night (games 4 and 5 in the Eastern Conference Semis).  To fix this, the Sixers added some key pieces in the draft and during free agency.

In June, the Sixers traded back and selected Zhaire Smith, an uber athletic guard/forward that will find his niche in the NBA as an elite defender and above the rim finisher. In July, the Sixers traded for all around vet Wilson Chandler and stretch 4/5 Mike Muscala to replace Marco and Ersan.  A rebuilt (fingers crossed) Markelle Fultz looks to get significant minutes off the bench. There is no doubt that the combination of Zhaire Smith, Markelle Fultz, Mike Muscala and Wilson Chandler is an improvement compared to where the roster was at this time last season. I want to see our depth be a major part of the reason the Sixers push for 56-58 wins this year.

#6: Will Robert Covington improve his handle and finishing around the rim?

I am a Roco stan, forever. And first things first, let’s get this out of the way. Robert Covington had a great season last year. Yea I said it. In November 2017, our boy signed a four-year, $62 million dollar extension. In May 2018, RoCo was named to the All-Defensive First Team, finishing with 90 points between 27 first-team 36 second-team votes.

However, this is a new season and let’s talk about some things. Covington is an elite team defender and made 203 threes at a 37% rate. However, there is no denying that Rob is laughable when it comes to finishing around the rim. For someone with his size and length, it is absurd how poor Robert Covington struggles at finishing through contact at the rim. There is also no denying how insanely streaky RoCo is from beyond the arc. As the season progressed last year, the majority of Covington’s three-point percentage dropped month-to-month. Due to his streakiness, Robert was also darn near unplayable in the Celtics series, with the exception of  Game 2, where he was excellent.

What Robert Covington needs to improve most upon is his dribble drives. In early September, he made it publicly known that he was working hard on his handle and passing this offseason. But can I go one a short rant for just one second? If you’re one of the people that complain about Robert Covington, then do me a favor and unfollow me please. The critics love to harp on the misses, falsely say he’s getting overpaid (he’s not) and blame him for the majority of Sixers losses. In reality, Covington was 5th on the team in usage rate and will NEVER be considered a go-to option on offense. Covington should never be expected to create off the dribble or make a play with the shot clock winding down. Moving forward, Markelle Fultz’s rise as a legit scorer on this team will do wonders for Covington this season. 200+ three pointers at 40% on the season, great team defense and huge chunks of blame for Sixers L’s is laissez-faire for the casual Sixers fan in this town. Nothing in Philly sports makes me more violently sick.

(Here are my top 15 defensive plays from Robert Covington last season)

Hope you enjoyed it! Trust the process baby!