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October 15, 2019

Instant observations: Joel Embiid leads Sixers to easy preseason win over Detroit

Sixers NBA

Ben Simmons, Al Horford, and James Ennis all sat out for the Sixers' preseason game against the Pistons, but they were able to coast past the Pistons anyway thanks to a big night from Joel Embiid, earning a 106-86 win to move to 4-0 during the exhibition season.

Here's what I saw on Tuesday night.

The Good

• Without Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin in the lineup, the Pistons were forced to trot out a frontcourt rotation that had absolutely no chance of stopping Joel Embiid. And so the big fella got to work early, going right into the chests of Thon Maker and Christian Wood, cleaning up against Detroit for most of the first half. 20 points and seven rebounds in a single half is nothing to sneeze at regardless of the competition.

He had the full arsenal going, dropping in an assortment of mid-range jumpers, willing himself to the free-throw line, and drawing a ton of attention to free up Philadelphia's less-qualified scorers on the perimeter. Maker didn't lose every individual matchup, but it was close, and I'd expect to see a lot more of these sort of efforts from Embiid as the league goes smaller and smaller. 

We haven't really seen Embiid go into total domination mode this preseason, partially because he hasn't had to, partially because he's simply not playing many minutes at this stage of the game. With their elite starting five, the Sixers are going to have the luxury of attacking different individual advantages this season. Embiid had the obvious mismatch on Tuesday, and he feasted.

• What a difference a role change can make. Playing as more of a pure point in Summer League, Shake Milton was a mess and looked like he had earned himself a spot deep on Brett Brown's bench. But with Milton playing more of an off-ball role during the preseason, he has looked a lot more like an NBA rotation player, and he may end up being a factor before the end of the season.

He already seems to have plus-instincts in this sort of role, and with the Sixers likely to run a decent amount of offense through bigs in the high post, having guys who can time cuts well and space the floor properly would be a godsend. Milton already does the first thing, and I think his shooting is better than the numbers have shown so far.

• Here's your obligatory nightly mention of Matisse Thybulle's defense, which shined once again on Tuesday night. But we had a surprise victim of his exploits this time — Thon Maker, who I almost felt bad for watching him get bullied on both ends.

Thybulle came up with an emphatic block of the tall, gangly Maker in the first quarter, which is always tough to come back for as a big man.

Thybulle certainly wasn't done, coming up with another block and a pair of steals before the first half was even over. You can see from an observer's perspective when he's about to hunt for a steal in the backcourt or envelop someone's shot on a chasedown attempt, but the offensive players never see him coming.

His emergence as an impactful defender this early is a great sign for the future, and it gives the Sixers a lot of lineup flexibility when the games really start to matter. Brett Brown will be able to go smaller and sleeker when the Sixers need to spark a run and gamble more to force turnovers, and Thybulle will be an integral part of that.

• This was probably Furkan Korkmaz's best game of the preseason so far, and it was as simple as the third-year player knocking down some shots. He's never going to be a plus defender — even average might be stretching it — but he competes and puts himself in the right places a lot of the time, which helps him earn some trust for the head coach.

Turning his shooting "potential" into results has been the issue for Korkmaz up to this point in his career, and his percentages were awful coming into this one, so don't start penciling him in yet.

• I think I am officially planting my flag on Raul Neto Island in the backup point guard battle. There has not been a lot of separation between he and Trey Burke on offense, where the battle is supposed to tilt in Burke's favor, and Neto is a more reliable defender who has come up with more 50/50 plays through the preseason to date.

That being said, Brown said before the game he was not in a position to decide yet and would wait until he absolutely had to, and I think it might be worth letting this play out over the opening stretch of the regular season. Neither guy has been exceptional, and it might be a case where they need to switch it up nightly depending on the matchup.

• Brett Brown made a coach's challenge on Tuesday night, and it was successful, overturning a defensive foul. While I initially tweeted that he was one for one, I was told by Sixers PR that Brown made a successful challenge in Sunday's game in Orlando, which no one saw because NBC Sports is run by a bunch of cheapskates, bringing his preseason total to two for two.

I'm sure all it will take is one challenge fail for everyone to lose their minds about it, of course.

• I can't imagine a scenario where Norvel Pelle gets minutes for this Sixers team that isn't a complete disaster scenario, but he is super fun to watch in garbage time. Came up with several absolutely sensational blocks in the fourth quarter. Pelle finished with 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting, four rebounds and five blocks in 12 minutes of action.

The Bad

• We're a long way away from a playoff setting, but Tuesday's game was an illustration of one of the concerns I have with the Sixers long-term. There just wasn't a whole lot of dribble penetration from Philadelphia, and while they were able to survive that in the first half thanks to Embiid hitting absolutely everything from 15 feet and in, that's not a reliable long-term strategy.

Josh Richardson brings a lot to the table for this team, but there were some issues stemming from playing him at point against the Pistons. With Richardson running the offense against an undermanned Detroit team, the Sixers played a lot of hot potato around the three-point line, ending in a lot of stalled possessions.

(I don't want this to sound like Richardson had a bad game. He was a pain-in-the-ass on defense as always, and he did have some success attacking smaller guys in one-on-one matchups. That last part is his most pivotal role on this team, because he's going to get a lot of favorable size mismatches this season.)

But suffice it to say I think Ben Simmons has a lot of responsibility on his plate this season, which is why the questions about his jumper are always looming in the background.

• Not the best night at the office for Kyle O'Quinn, who otherwise has been solid during the preseason. Detroit's more athletic bigs gave him some problems, which is something to keep an eye on once the season gets started.

• I know it's only preseason, but there has not been an extended period since he joined the Sixers where Tobias Harris has gone on a run as a shooter. In fact, for most of his time in Philadelphia, he has been below average in that department, and that is not a small detail for a guy who got paid as if he could deliver elite shooting for the Sixers.

It hasn't been a function of the looks he's getting, either, in many cases Harris is just straight up missing shots. He's not going to live up to his megadeal as a defensive ace barring a complete transformation of his game, so the Sixers need to find a way to get him on track. 

The Ugly

• Joel Embiid has, for whatever reason, added wedgie-picking to his free-throw routine. The very definition of "The Ugly."

• For those of you who are Eagles fans (and I would assume it's a lot of you), the Jalen Ramsey news is obviously a pretty big bummer. My thoughts are with you during this trying time.

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