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May 02, 2023

Paul Reed is earning trust from Sixers one day, one play at a time

With Joel Embiid sidelined, the Sixers finally have a backup big man who's stepping up in the playoffs with Paul Reed.

When the Sixers hit the huddle down three with less than two minutes to go in Game 1, Doc Rivers lost track of his players for a moment, huddling with his assistants on what to do. Once his players came back into view, Rivers noticed Paul Reed was under particularly heavy fire after the Celtics had pulled in multiple offensive rebounds. 

"A couple of guys really got into him, and it was close to excessive. And I kept him in and I said hey, go win the game, go do something for us. It was pretty harsh, we've got to get better with that probably with him," Rivers said Monday. "When I turned around, those four or five rebounds our guys lost our minds. And I kept saying guys, it's a three-point game, can you just relax? But last year, young guy like Paul, that could have gone the other way with him. And he just hung in there and made plays for us, and made free throws. Just really proud of him.

"I literally thought [P.J. Tucker] was going to grab [Reed's] jersey," Tyrese Maxey added at the podium. "He said, if you don't get the next two rebounds, then we're going to have a conversation."

This, in so many ways, is life as a young role player in the NBA. You are always to blame when things go off the rails, even when you're not actually to blame on a given play or sequence because that's how the hierarchy is maintained. It is a rough transition for guys who ruled the roost at all of their previous stops, as they have to figure out a way to transition from center-of-the-universe star to, well, just another guy on an NBA roster.

Reed — who has made enough mistakes to earn repeated tongue-lashings from teammates in the middle of games — has had a better perspective on that dynamic than maybe any guy in recent Sixers history. He has not just taken his criticism from his coaches and teammates, he has worn it as a badge of honor, declaring so after the Sixers closed out the Nets in round one.

"I've been getting coached hard my whole life," Reed said last week. "In my mind, I feel like I have to set an example for the rest of my teammates. Show them how to take constructive criticism. When they're all getting on me, I shouldn't be one of them dudes to retaliate and get mad, and get attitude. I got to just take it. And so I feel like now, when other dudes get yelled at, they should kind of react the same way, so I'm just glad I was able to set a good example."

The spirit of that message lived in Reed's play to end Game 1 — Reed walked out of the huddle and scored four important points in the final 90 seconds of the game, going a perfect 4/4 at the free-throw line to keep the score close and eventually put Philadelphia over the top. There was no time to fret about hard feelings when there was work to be done.

Since being drafted by Philadelphia in 2021, Reed has slowly evolved from a human meme ("Can you believe his nickname is Bball Paul!") to a curious bench option ("They should give Paul Reed a shot!") to a representation of all that is right to the fanbase ("Rivers not playing Reed is literally throwing"). It has been hard to pin down how much you could hold onto from the positive and negative columns, with some nasty on/off splits suggesting he was not as good as perhaps many thought.

Throughout that evolution, the one underlying constant has been admiration for Reed's work ethic. He has been the only player staffers have noted as a challenger to Maxey's throne as the busy bee of the Sixers' practice facility. Even in the momentary glimpses we get on the media side of things, Reed is always one of the last men out on the floor getting extra shots up, and he does not strike one as a guy playing up his reps for the sake of the cameras.

The work, if anything, has been Reed's life raft over these past two years. Before being banished from the rotation for the middle portion of this season, Reed had some noteworthy dust-ups with teammates on the floor, most notably with Georges Niang, who chewed Reed out on a couple of occasions this season on rebounds the team lost because the two men unwittingly fought each other for possession. Last season, it was foul trouble and a lack of discipline that prevented Reed from getting regular burn on the floor. But teammates, including Niang, say that their appreciation for Reed's effort helps them see past any youthful mistakes he might make on the floor.

"I think with Paul when you play that hard — someone told me hard work creates good luck. Paul works so hard that he puts himself in positions to be successful, so you can almost look past some of the mental mistakes that he makes,” Niang said recently. “He's in here all the time working on his craft, so that he knows what he's supposed to be doing and what he's not supposed to be doing. And if he does, he's not making compounding mistakes. I think that's what people were frustrated with him before is he'd make the same mistake over and over again. Now it's more or less, okay, I messed up, we can live with it, I'm not going to let that happen. And then he plays so hard that he does like five good things that outweigh the bad thing."

Earning that trust from his teammates has been a steady process, and certainly one that has impacted Reed's playing time. Though one could credibly argue he should have played last season over the washed-up veterans who got chances in his place, it was clear even early this season that some of the team's best players were still reluctant to trust Reed. 

In many ways, Doc Rivers told PhillyVoice recently, that belief from his teammates was one of the final and most important hurdles for Reed.

"It's not only just ready by our vision, they have to be ready for their teammates, and their teammates to trust him. If you don't have that, you can't play guys," Rivers said at recent practice. "What Paul's done way better this year is understood that. Getting him to buy in and do the right things last year was difficult. But he had his stretches where he did, and he had his stretches where he didn't, and this year he has cut those stretches by 75 percent. He's the hardest worker on the team, him and Tyrese I put in the same category. I don't think any two people work harder, I don't know if I've ever seen anyone work harder than those two guys. But you still got to work on the right things and do the right things."

So what are the right things, within the context of a Game 1 win over Boston? It isn't just playing hard and crashing the glass, it's knowing what has to happen once you come down with that rebound. One of Reed's major points of emphasis has been looking for shooters after pulling down an extra opportunity for Philadelphia. Even when he isn't the guy getting an assist, his search for a teammate will lead to a quality opportunity for the Sixers.

On Boston's final real possession of the game, down two with 8.4 seconds on the clock, it was Reed who was called into action at the rim, Marcus Smart having turned the corner on James Harden after the inbounds. A year ago, Reed might have launched himself at the driving Smart and put him on the line with a chance to tie. This version of Reed got into the play and never put himself or the team at risk, hanging in the air long enough to force a Smart turnover and lock in the win.

There may not be a better indicator of the faith growing in Reed than the dynamic with James Harden. During a game, Harden can be demonstrative with the role players who don't get to their spots or set up properly to allow Harden to get a possession moving. Reed has been the recipient of Harden's shouts, waves, and bugged-out eyes, urging the Apopka native to get his ass in gear. But in one of the biggest sequences of the Sixers' Game 1 win, Harden responded to pressure defense from Boston by hitting Reed on the roll, trusting him to make a play with the whole lane in front of him.

Late convert though he may be, Harden can see the vision for Bball Paul: Impact Rotation Guy.

"He's running the floor, he's getting us extra possessions, he's switching defensively, he's done a really good job," Harden said earlier this week. "In the postseason, when you get extra possessions, you give yourself more opportunities to score the basketball, you got a better chance of winning."

For five consecutive postseason runs, the Sixers have had to worry about what happens if Embiid hits the bench for any period of time. With Embiid courtside in a Balenciaga hoodie, Reed ate 37 minutes for Philly's star big man, posting a +8 in a four-point win. No statement could be louder than that.

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