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September 22, 2018

The biggest Sixers stories to watch heading into training camp

The usual highlights of the Sixers' first week back to work in September are a few stray quotes and jokes from the players on media day. It's an admittedly slow time of year, and without any new games to analyze following a long offseason, training camp ends up being a bit of a waiting game.

But this year, the Sixers decided to pack a lot of excitement into their first week back. The surprise hiring of former player Elton Brand was the biggest story of the week, with Philadelphia finally deciding on a long-term direction for the franchise. That shoved to the side a whole lot of important details from Brett Brown's annual luncheon, updates from the players on their summer vacations, and just about anything else you can think of in Sixers world.

It's go time down at the practice facility, and the Sixers are all set to put some work in before they embark on an extended preseason trip to China. Before things get going on Saturday afternoon, we're here to take you through some of the biggest storylines to watch as things kick off, with quotes and thoughts from the players and coaching staff on the road ahead.

And away we go...

What will Markelle Fultz's jumper look like this season?

It was telling, I thought, that Markelle Fultz's response to a question about his goals this season started with his own personal satisfaction, and not a series of benchmarks he's striving to hit in year two.

"I think for me, a successful season for me is just being happy first and foremost. Being happy with how I'm playing, not really worrying about what other people think," Fultz told reporters at media day. "And then just contributing to my team in any way. Being myself, my personality, and then the way I play on the court and just being able to showcase that. Everything else will take care of itself."

It's an understandable approach for a kid in his shoes to take. Fultz insisted once again that his problems last season all stemmed from a physical issue, though he was forthcoming about the mental strain of having basketball slip through his fingers while dealing with the accompanying media circus. At the end of the day he's a kid who loves to play basketball, and finding the joy in his profession will help everything else slide into place.

The question of whether everything will slide into place around him is still fair to question. Philadelphia is already built around a player who isn't a threat to shoot, and can hardly afford for Fultz to come in and lack an outside game altogether. Their future is riding on his development on some level.

No one can question the amount of work he has put in to get back into top form as a shooter. Brett Brown told reporters at his luncheon that Fultz had put up upwards of 150,000 shots this summer, and Fultz told reporters at media day that the majority of his days this summer were spent in three-a-day sessions in the gym, working to get himself right.

Even still, the people around him can't help but hedge when asked about what he'll bring to the table. Brown spoke to some inconsistency he sees when offering a longer answer on Tuesday.

When I look at the actual form, there are times from a posture standpoint he's a little bit backwards. When you look at him rising up or getting the ball in his shot pocket, sometimes his head [is] a little back and he'll play out of a fade type environment, a fade type fundamental that we want to try to correct. I think Drew Hanlen has been incredibly caring, he truly has connected with Markelle. The work he's put in, I give him credit for it, we've seen an improved shot as he's come back, and I especially respect his ability to just look to shoot.

Fultz is said to be seeking out shots, which is progress in itself, but the empty gym videos will only satiate the public for so long. Teammate Joel Embiid believes Fultz can be a high-level contributor no matter what the state of his jumper is. Formidable as his skill package may be, Fultz's jumper is the key to unlocking the potential of Philadelphia's long-term core.

What changes to Ben Simmons' game are coming in year two?

If you're the sort of person who spent the summer yelling about Kendall Jenner's impact on Simmons' life and career, a quip he made to open media day couldn't have sat well.

"It's really one of those things where I want to keep getting better and keep working towards being great. It's going to take a lot of time, I'm not going to come in and hit threes this season, that's not what I'm going to do, but I'm going to get better," said Simmons.

Shutting the door on expectations for a three-point shot will be disappointing to some, but setting realistic expectations for the season is probably a good thing. As Embiid was happy to note during his own availability, Simmons dominated in the paint last season despite teams knowing that's the only place he was a major offensive threat. That says something about both his talent and recognition of his limitations.

Simmons ran through a laundry list of things — touch around the basket, defensive work, shooting — that he worked on this summer, telling reporters his routine changed depending on the day. This tracks with what he and his coach have insisted from the very beginning: Simmons will be defined by much more than his jump shot.

But as with Fultz, this can only be true to a certain extent. Yes, Simmons is capable of a long and successful career regardless of what happens with his jumper, but when push comes to shove in the playoffs, the more capable defensive teams are going to force him out of his comfort zones. Being able to limit opponents as they do that will be the difference between being a supreme talent and turning into a legitimate star.

The free-throw line is Simmons' best chance to increase his production in year two without a significant jump as a three-point shooter. The problem on that front, however, is that we don't know if Simmons will initiate contact enough to show if improvements at the free-throw line are within reach. There's a bit of chicken or the egg here, and perhaps increased confidence from work over the summer will translate to an attacking mindset once the lights go on.

Oddly enough, it's a change in role that might serve Simmons best there. Playing more as a forward at LSU, Simmons averaged a whopping nine free throws per game, more than double what he managed as a rookie last season. Now that the Sixers have another guard who can run the offense in Fultz, it's possible Simmons' distribution of touches could impact his ability to get to the line.

There's just one catch — the effectiveness of Simmons playing off-ball with Fultz will hinge on how much teams respect the latter's jumper. If teams can simply sag off both players, Philadelphia's offense may grind to a halt quickly. But Simmons sounds excited to play with Fultz either way, and isn't concerned about potential chemistry woes.

"As long as you have guys who know the game and play the right way, sky's the limit," Simmons said. "He's a great player, he knows how to score the ball, facilitate, and reads the plays well, so it's not going to be a problem."

How will a full offseason benefit Joel Embiid's progression?

Leave it to Embiid to christen his new GM's hiring by giving him a gentle reminder that he made him look silly in practice two years ago:

But it was a summer of work for Embiid, who for once was able to focus on improving his game rather than making a comeback from a major injury. His head coach claimed to be "blown away" by the workouts he witnessed Embiid go through this summer, and expects a "dominant" year from a player who is already knocking on the door of the All-NBA First Team.

To hear the big man tell it, the primary point of emphasis this summer was not necessarily on any one skill, instead focused on making sure his body is in tip-top shape for opening night.

"This whole summer was more about working on my body and I feel like I'm a complete player. So it was always about perfecting everything and working on everything because I'm not perfect, I still make a lot of mistakes and I'm still kind of young to basketball," said Embiid.

It's easy to forget when he's at the top of his game, but Embiid is still a relative novice to the sport he often dominates. The downside of his relative newness to basketball has been amplified by the injury problems he has gone through to start his career — summertime is the best time for players to add bits and pieces to their games, and Embiid is only now getting his first opportunity to spend the offseason focusing on craft.

Even when he wasn't in the midst of serious workout sessions, basketball was at the forefront of Embiid's life — his dunking on random Philadelphians became something of an urban legend this summer. His NBA peers will offer stiffer competition starting soon, but Embiid believes his comfort level in early scrimmage sessions with the team bodes well for the season.

And that pesky turnover problem that has dogged him so far? That's absolutely on his mind.

"Just looking at myself and the way I've been playing against all the guys since we've all been back, I feel like I've gotten so much better," said Embiid. "One of the main emphasises has been turnovers. I'm not going to average zero turnovers the whole season, you're going to make a couple mistakes here and there, but it's all about making the right decisions. At times last season, I made a lot of bad decisions, so it's just about simplifying the game [and] letting the game come to me."

The improvement hasn't been lost on his teammates. Amir Johnson told reporters Embiid feels much stronger when he's guarded him in the post, and that Embiid has played much more under control when pressured by his teammates. It may just be scrimmaging, but Embiid has been such a problem that Johnson said the Sixers have had to resort to sending double teams in a pickup game.

The talent and drive has always been there. Now that Embiid's body has cooperated for an extended period of time — yes, I just knocked on wood — we could be talking about another big leap from the young center.

What can the new-look bench offer the Sixers out of the gate?

One of the most common talking points among Sixers writers and Sixers staffers alike last season was the discrepancy between the first and second unit. Philadelphia's starting five was the best five-man unit in the league for the majority of last season, and the on-off numbers painted a brutal picture of how bad it got whenever their starting five was rotated out of the game.

That changed to a degree once Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova joined the team midseason, as the Sixers finally had a rotation where the pieces and roles all made sense. Those two are gone, but Philadelphia should expect to get much better production from their bench to start this season than they did last season.

The addition of Wilson Chandler wasn't anywhere close to the marquee acquisition Sixers fans wanted, but it will fill a huge void on the wing they struggled to fill last year. With Chandler big and athletic enough to play a number of positions on the wing, the Sixers have some flexibility with their lineups they haven't really had over the last few seasons. Brown hinted at playing more small ball during his luncheon, suggesting either of Chandler or Robert Covington could slide up to the four depending on the situation.

I wouldn't necessarily count on that — Brown plays and thinks basketball in a modern way, but his lineup choices have often been defined by more "old school" positional ideas. The attempted acquisition of Nemanja Bjelica and the eventual pickup of Mike Muscala tip Philadelphia's hand a bit. They want backup options behind Dario Saric who are sure bets to space the floor, and they're willing to sacrifice length and athleticism at times in order to make that happen.

Even without factoring in the new additions, Fultz's return will give the Sixers a lot of what they've been missing. His combination of ballhandling, scoring ability, and playmaking will connect a lot of dots, and like the Chandler signing will allow the Sixers to mix and match lineups in a way they weren't able to last year.

The Sixers might not end up improving on their final record from last season, but they can get to 52 wins or more with a more reasonable trajectory than last year's. They shouldn't have to end the season on a massive winning streak this time around.

How aggressive will new front office be in seeking upgrades?

Questions about the behind-the-scenes balance of power will persist in Philadelphia, but Elton Brand is the new face of basketball operations in any case. And with the team's bench a good deal better than it was to start last season, the only burning question at the moment is whether the Sixers will be aggressive in a push to compete for the Eastern Conference crown.

Embiid's stated goal at media day was to make an appearance in the NBA Finals, and ultimately compete for a championship. That can't be too far off from his head coach's goals, as Brown admitted at Tuesday's media luncheon that the Sixers felt they let a Finals opportunity pass them by when they lost to the Celtics in May.

So the question becomes this: do the Sixers have enough to compete with a Celtics team bringing back Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, or even with a Raptors team led by Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard? If not, how splashy a move do they need to make in order to make it happen?

Jimmy Butler is the hottest name on the trade market at this very moment, and from discussions PhillyVoice conducted with members of the Sixers front office, Philadelphia seems lukewarm at best at the idea of chasing him. That leaves very few (if any) impact players on the radar for this season, at least until we get underway and developments happen closer to the trade deadline.

The looming contract extensions for Ben Simmons and (presumably) Dario Saric place a time limit on Philadelphia's spending power. Major external upgrades will be off the table soon as cap space disappears, and the Sixers are running out of available players to chase if they believe they need one last major piece to be a long-term contender.

Brand spent a lot of his press conference on Thursday stressing that development of their core is priority No. 1 at the moment and that everything else will fall into place. Fultz was drafted with the idea that he would be the third star, and all but one of the front office members who made that draft deal happen remain in place. Perhaps Philadelphia remains conservative unless an obvious, no-brainer opportunity presents itself.

Since Sam Hinkie was effectively booted in 2016, Philadelphia's front office has focused primarily on not rocking the boat. Because they possess two cornerstones in Simmons and Embiid — alongside a strong group of role players left behind by the previous regime — this has served the franchise well over the last couple seasons.

But expectations have changed, and simply making the playoffs is not going to be good enough anymore. Urgency will begin creeping up on the Sixers before they know it, and a GM without a track record to speak of is set to lead them through this period. Brand's willingness to take risks will help define this Sixers era, and it will be fascinating to see what the first major transaction under his regime will be.

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