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October 05, 2018

Instant observations from Sixers vs. Mavs in China

For some people, a Sixers game in China was a welcome shift in schedule, gifting the early birds some entertainment as they begin their work days. For others, such as your boy right here, it was an existential horror show worse than any scary movie you will watch between now and Halloween.

But the show must go on regardless of how we all feel about waking up in the morning, and whether or not you were able to tune into the game yourself.

We'll be borrowing a format I use for Eagles games during the season rather than the usual style, because the preseason is a time for all of us to test new things and see what does and doesn't work. To the observations!

The Good

• Had everyone on the roster been fully healthy to start the year, I'm not sure Landry Shamet would have gotten a shot at cracking Philadelphia's rotation to start the year. He played mop-up duty in the Sixers' first preseason game, sharing the floor with players who are on the outside looking in.

But injuries to Wilson Chandler and Jerryd Bayless freed up minutes on the wing, and Shamet has been the chief beneficiary of the hole(s) in the rotation.

The loss of Marco Belinelli over the offseason could have had a negative impact on the bench, taking a shooter off the team that replicated a lot of the actions of JJ Redick, if not his efficiency. Shamet has proven up to the task at stepping into that role, and he'll theoretically be able to offer even more than the older, maybe not wiser Belinelli.

Shamet's shooting coming off screens has been excellent so far, and perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise with the amount of work he has put in alongside JJ Redick at the practice facility. He goes through roughly the same cooldown shooting routine as the veteran after practices, and the work appears to be paying off.

He has more tricks in the bag beyond his jumper, too, and is using the threat of his shot nicely to show those off:

It's early, but Shamet looks like he might be a legitimate rotation piece, and a player whose weaknesses as a prospect may be best hidden on a team with big guards like Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. That would be a point on the scoreboard for the new look front office.

• JJ Redick, as it turns out, is also a very good shooter. Despite hearing boos from the Chinese crowd following an incident he had while recording a message for overseas fans last season, Redick came out locked and loaded for the Sixers, pouring in 19 points in the first half on an immaculate 7/7 shooting (4/4 from three) from the field.

The trend continued in the second half, and Redick finished his night perfect from the field for a game-high 25 points (if the lone box score I could find is to be believed). I'm sure Redick would rather be playing starter minutes, but if the Sixers can get even 75 percent of that firepower off the bench this season, the move to the bench could be a massive boost for this team.

• It was a tough day at the office for Markelle Fultz, but one thing his coach will have been happy to see was his disruptiveness on the defensive end. Fultz used his length to cut off passing lanes and come up with some nice recovery blocks, and the better he looks matching up with other guards, the more the Sixers can use Simmons as sort of an off-ball rover a la Robert Covington.

 Easier said than done, because Fultz is still getting lost on pick-and-rolls and has a lot to clean up. But getting another athlete on the floor will help the Sixers create more turnovers, and on a team that's looking to get out and run that can produce a lot of transition buckets.

• I suppose we'll have to wait for an explanation on this one, but this is why Embiid will likely never find himself with a shortage of fans around the world. He's a man of the people.

• Scrutinizing preseason results is not something we do around here, but worth noting the Sixers have consistently been outpacing their preseason opponents when the actual rotation players are out there. It's hard to make heads or tails of whatever happens in the fourth quarter, but the Sixers have been building leads before those extended garbage time minutes happen.

That's how they should look, given how many members of the rotation have returned. Sometimes it's enough just to do what you're expected to do.

• Joel Embiid had a mixed night at the office against Dallas, but I have been encouraged by several things so far in the preseason. His footwork in the post looks more consistently good than it did in the past, despite Embiid often having flashes of brilliance on the block. Passing out of the post needs work, but he has been excellent at ducking under defenses and using the rim as separation from potential shot blockers.

The chemistry between Fultz and Embiid on offense has been instant, and that's encouraging despite how long it will take to turn this group into the elite unit the Sixers hope he can be. Fultz has a knack for getting Embiid the ball in deep post positions, minimizing the amount of work the big man has to do in order to score from the block.

• Continuing a theme we saw in Philadelphia's first two preseason games, Simmons spent a decent amount of time operating out of quick posts. The Sixers are slowly adjusting to a reality where Simmons gets more reps as a nominal power forward, and he often looks at home in that setting.

The Sixers are running a lot of high-low sets with Embiid drifting toward the perimeter, and smaller defenders have no chance against Simmons once he catches the ball deep.

The Bad

• Markelle Fultz: increasingly less shy about letting the ball fly from different areas of the court, but still searching for the range. He had an ugly first half as a scorer, managing to go just 1/6 from the field.

It wasn't all terrible for the second-year guard, who did a lot of productive work as a playmaker for the Sixers. His head always remains up on his way to the basket, and on several occasions drive-and-kicks from Fultz turned into open threes for his teammates, even if he didn't end up getting the assist at the end of the play.

Foul trouble was another major issue for Fultz against the Mavs, as he had to get yanked with almost nine minutes left in the third quarter and five fouls already to his credit. Players around the league are trying to figure out a balance between playing as they always have and adjusting to the NBA's "points of education," but Fultz is leaving himself with a little too much work to do on defense at the moment. Pick-and-rolls are eating him alive at the moment, and the Sixers can't afford to have him constantly battling foul trouble or letting his man turn the corner.

I look forward to the day when we don't have to overreact to Fultz's performances either way and we have a better understanding of his baseline. A lot of up and down for the young guard so far.

• A trend to watch connected to Fultz's inclusion in the starting lineup is the poor play of Dario Saric to open the preseason. He has been almost completely ineffective on the offensive end of the floor and is never going to be a plus piece on defense to offset that part of his game.

Rhythm is a big part of success for any basketball player, and with another ballhandler/playmaker on the floor, Saric will presumably be asked to do a lot less playmaking than he has in years past. If Saric is impacting the game less as a passer, shooting and scoring is how he'll have to make his mark on the floor.

Given how he performed from beyond the arc last season — and his production in Philadelphia's do-or-die Game 5 on the road in Boston — Saric deserves benefit of the doubt that he may figure things out with time. He certainly did after rejoining the starting lineup against this very Mavs team last season. But a trend to keep an eye on nonetheless.

• I truthfully don't know who the announcers were for this game, but please shut the hell up about whether Ben Simmons was or was not a rookie last year. In the words of the great Ja Rule...

• Embiid's shooting, much like Saric's, is another thing we should be keeping an eye on this season. It flew a little under the radar that he shot under 31 percent from three last season, and that will now matter more than ever with Fultz joining the starting group.

When Embiid was a smaller piece of the shooting puzzle for their starting group, living with below-average shooting from their franchise center was one thing. But with Redick now a member of the bench unit, Embiid has to be part of the trio that can be counted on to stretch the floor with Simmons a non-entity and Fultz remaining a mystery.

Some of this is for the sake of his own effectiveness, too. Embiid loves to use the pump-and-go move from the top of the key, and if teams just decide to concede the jumper to him over time, he could end up barreling into traffic and picking up offensive fouls on drives if he's not careful.

This is a smaller concern than the shooting is for Saric, but a concern nonetheless.

The Ugly

• You can categorize a lot of Philadelphia's first-quarter performance under this category. The Sixers came out looking sloppier than they have the rest of the preseason, which you can chalk up to any number of factors. The effects of travel to the far East could be real, or the Sixers might have just been having a bad game with no underlying cause for the group.

Whatever the reason, they were dreadful out of the gate. Philadelphia turned the ball over far too often, flashing some of the same tendencies that saw them give up big leads early and often last season. They came from all angles and players, from Embiid in the post to Dario Saric failing to catch a pretty simple pass. There was even a play where a Mavericks player airballed a jumper, and instead of letting the ball fall harmlessly out of bounds, Robert Covington attempted to rebound the ball and ended up running out of bounds with it.

The synapses were not all firing early, to say the least. Blame it on whatever you want, it wasn't good enough with just one preseason game remaining after this one.

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