On Sunday, the 76ers traveled to Milwaukee to take on the league leading Bucks for the marquee matchup in the NBA’s weekend schedule. The Sixers were able to withstand a 52 point pummeling from Giannis Antetokounmpo and win a game that secured a second straight playoff berth.
Joel Embiid had a truly monster game with 40 points, 15 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals to lead the Sixers in a close-fought victory. In a season where Elton Brand, the Sixers General Manager, has seemingly pushed all of his chips into the center of the table to win now, it is easy to overlook the connections being formed to continue a talent pipeline that began in earnest in 2014.
The Blue Route
On Saturday night in Wilmington, Delaware, that pipeline was on full display as Zhaire Smith, the Sixers’ 1st round pick last June, played his 7th game since returning from Jones fracture surgery and complications from an allergic reaction.
Also on display was Shake Milton, the Sixers’ second round selection in 2018, as well as Justin Patton and Haywood Highsmith. These four young players represent the ever deepening connections being formed in the Sixers’ talent development program.
“I really give Connor Johnson and Tyler Lashbrook, the liason for Zhaire’s return… an awful lot of credit for the work that they have done” – Brett Brown on Zhaire Smith’s road to recovery
Connor Johnson was an assistant to Brett Brown for 4 years, first as his personal assistant and then as his video coordinator. “It has given me a sense of how he would operate things,” said Johnson who is in his first year as Blue Coats head coach. The mission from the start has been to develop talent, win games, and implement and experiment a scheme that mirrors as much as possible the concepts used in Philadelphia.
These pillars are often at odds with each other. The Blue Coats operate with a very different talent pool than the Sixers do. Not just in quality but stylistically players in the G-League tend to be different in their skillsets.
“Our goal is to work closely under them the best we can, facilitate what they need,” said Johnson when reflecting on the connection to the 76ers before Saturday night’s game against the 905 Raptors.
“It can be hard to balance them. Sometimes they naturally conflict with each other, but maybe not as much as one might think,” said Blue Coats General Manager, Matt Lilly. “The development and winning can go hand in hand. If you develop great habits, wins will follow.”
Lilly went on to say, “I think Connor has done a great job sort of balancing those ideologies.” He also noted how seamlessly the assignment and two way players have been able to move between Philadelphia and Delaware.
“I think Connor deserves a lot of credit for the attitude and energy that he comes into the gym with everyday. This league is really hard. I have a lot of sympathy for the players, it can be a hard existence sometimes.”
“Connor has a great way about him that makes players forget about that, keep working and keep getting into the gym to get better.”Matt Lilly on Connor Johnson’s energy
The Blue Coats roster is objectively viewed as one of the G-League’s most talented, but those individual skillsets may not fit the switching 1-4 scheme that the Sixers believe in. In some cases, offensively the fit is pretty clean.
Well Tailored Coats
Jared Brownridge, for example, fits very much into the JJ Redick package. His shot is elite and he can make threes from a variety of locations, off the catch, off the dribble, and DHO (Dribble Hand Off). At 6’3″ and with a calm professional demeanor, the 24 year old Brownridge fits the scheme like a glove.
Haywood Highsmith, a 22 year old rookie out of Wheeling Jesuit, is a 6’7″ swiss army knife defensively. Like Robert Covington, Highsmith was a power forward in college and has taken on a larger and larger role defensively for the Blue Coats as the season has worn on. “I feel great, they have me defending 1-5,” said Highsmith about his rookie season. As Highsmith improves the consistency of his three point stroke, he looks more and more like a 3 and D versatile wing in the mold of a Covington.
Shake Milton is a smooth 6’6″ sharpshooting guard who can put the ball on the floor and score at three levels. The analog for Shake right now is probably Furkan Korkmaz. Milton’s potential as a scorer is obvious, but what role he can play defensively and as a creator are a bit murkier.
“I think they do a really good job… The transition from down here to up there (in Philadelphia) isn’t hard at all, between Coach Connor, Coach Buford, and Coach Peters. They all do a really good job at highlighting where I can get shots at…. it all comes together to make the transition smooth.”Shake Milton
Off The Rack Talent
But there is no Ben Simmons or Tobias Harris type player on this team. Watching the Sixers and Blue Coats often on back-to-back nights, it’s hard to ignore the stark difference at the point guard position as well as some others that don’t quite fit into what the 76ers like to do.
Matt Farrell, Kyle Randall, and Keenan Evans are talented players, but lack the size and explosion of Simmons. These players, unlike Simmons are probably best operating in halfcourt sets at a slower pace, but they are called on to push the pace and run the floor.
Rashad Vaughn is a scorer at the wing but probably doesn’t quite match the philosophy of ball movement and “good-to-great” passing that Brett Brown believes in. This can make his stats somewhat misleading.
Norvel Pelle is among the world’s best rim protectors, full stop. His timing, anticipation, and length are all elite. On the defensive end, he plays the “Batman” role very well.
Ryan Anderson is a veteran presence who is a leader off the court. His role is typically limited to backup 4/5 minutes.
Justin Patton is a young, gifted 7’0″ center with good feel for the game. His passing is above average, and his jumper and ability to stay vertical defensively make him an intriguing two way prospect for the organization. An upcoming UFA, the 22 year old should be picked up heading into next NBA season. Like Joel Embiid, Patton has fought back after two foot surgeries to start his professional career.
Brett Brown has stated that this is the most integrated the two programs have been in his time in Philadelphia. A lot of that credit goes to Connor Johnson according to Brett Brown and Elton Brand. Johnson has been the steward of a team that is rounding out its first season in Wilmington, Delaware. The team played a road heavy schedule before moving into the new 76ers Fieldhouse in January.
The season from a wins and losses standpoint has been difficult. At 19-27, the Coats will miss the postseason. Perhaps no one understands the emotional toll that losing and roster churn takes on a coach better than Brett Brown. Like Brown, Coach Johnson has remained positive and constructive. There is little to enjoy about a postgame interview of a coach after a loss, but Johnson remains optimistic and focused each game.
Moving closer to Philadelphia and Camden, the Fieldhouse has become an attractive place to play and watch a game. Amir Johnson has come down to get extra burn twice this season and has said he enjoyed his experience both times.
But perhaps the biggest compliment you can give to Coach Johnson is that when the players from the Blue Coats are called up to play in Philadelphia, they enter the games ready. They know where to be on the floor; they do not look confused or lost. The fit has seemed smooth, and generally those players have provided the team competent play.
What we are seeing is the foundation of a real connection between two programs that provides actual value for the 76ers. Much of that credit goes to Connor Johnson.
“As the season is coming to an end, we can look back and say we’ve done a good job,” said Johnson when talking about preparing the players who have spent time in Philadelphia and Delaware.
The location is great. Being so close, we can go up to Camden or Philadelphia sometimes and the players can see how close it it. Also the credibility of a Kelly Peters or Chase Buford who have worked in the NBA helps players listen when they get instruction.Matt Lilly
As the 76ers’ season marches towards the postseason, the Blue Coats’ season is coming to an end next week. The win-now mentality will consume all of the Philadelphia metropolitan area for the next month (or two). But as the 76ers enjoy the fruits of the deep investment in talent development manifested in the play of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and others, let’s not lose sight of the continuing process in Delaware.