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December 11, 2018

Sixers bench steps up vs. Pistons following injury exit for Jimmy Butler

Any time a player is ruled out of a game before the second quarter is even halfway done, it sends a bad feeling across the gym. The Sixers aren't being especially forthcoming on Jimmy Butler news after a groin strain ended his night on Monday, and it would have been understandable if the Sixers went off the rails against Detroit in his absence.

But the 116-102 win against Detroit on Monday night was a reflection of a few things. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are still really freaking good at basketball, and they impacted the game all over the floor. That's where you can start. Blake Griffin missed the game for the Pistons, so that helped big time.

Still, the biggest takeaway from the game may be how much the Sixers were able to squeeze out of their bench. It's a thin group, and they were asked to do even more heavy lifting without Butler in the mix. And between guys like Furkan Korkmaz, Landry Shamet, and T.J. McConnell, the second-unit stepped up in a big way.

Last season around this time, the Sixers were force-feeding Trevor Booker alongside Embiid in bench lineups, often to their own detriment. While the Sixers will need to add some more contributors between now and the playoffs, the early production from the bench has been encouraging and will be necessary if they expect to maintain their current pace of 55+ wins.

(Yeah, that's not a misprint. The Sixers, despite a lot of hemming and hawing about how they looked early on, are chugging along at a sub-elite pace. Anyway, back to the notes.)

Furkan Korkmaz's best game as a pro?

If you believed in your heart of hearts that Furkan Korkmaz and Joel Embiid would share a podium at some point this season, congratulations, you're either a wizard or a member of Korkmaz's family.

I'm only half kidding because members of the Korkmaz clan were actually at the game on Monday night. Lo and behold, their guy stepped up when it mattered and got the honorary bell-ringer duties after the game. Talk about delivering for your biggest fans.

Since the Sixers declined his third-year option earlier this year, all Furkan Korkmaz has done is prove that he deserved the bigger opportunity he wanted all along. Consistency is all that really eludes him.

Still, Korkmaz brings another dimension to the Sixers that they're not really getting from their other role players. JJ Redick and Landry Shamet offer great value as shooters, but Korkmaz fits more into the scorer's mold than anything else. It all permeates from how he carries himself.

"He’s not intimidated by NBA basketball. He’s not intimidated by the moment," Brett Brown said after the game. "He’s got a bounce, he has an inner belief, there is a swagger that he has when he is going to make a play. He may miss a lot of shots, he may make a lot of shots, but there really isn’t any sort of trepidation, there is not a back down in Furkan."

I'll agree with the coach on at least one thing: trepidation is not in Korkmaz's vocabulary when it comes to shooting the ball. He has a quick trigger, and he can get shots up in any number of situations.

I'll be the first to admit that the overall numbers are not there for Korkmaz, but I think some context is necessary there. His numbers are artificially depressed by his play in garbage time, where he has gotten a ton of his minutes this season. On three-point attempts in the first three quarters of the game, Korkmaz is shooting better than 42 percent from three, while he's just 1/15 in the game's final period.

With most players, you'd assume that means they're not fit to close games. In Korkmaz's case, I think it's more about him playing hero ball with games out of reach. He deserves more opportunities to prove he can put in work with real opportunities.

Landry Shamet, doing the dirty work

By now, you've all seen Shamet go through his paces as a shooter, mimicking a lot of what the Sixers run for JJ Redick. It's a joy to watch him work quick give-and-go's with Philadelphia's bigs or use simple sidesteps to get himself free, and you can see how he might grow as an offensive weapon over time.

But Shamet's most impressive trait as a rookie has been his knack for getting involved even when it seems like something is not necessarily in his wheelhouse. Make or miss, Shamet finds little ways to contribute, and that's a good sign for a player still trying to find his way.

Ask Brett Brown, and he'll tell you the Sixers saw this in him all along, long before he donned a Sixers uniform. 

"You see it more dramatically when it's under your own roof and it's under your own nose, but you could see how he just had a knack for doing things," said Brown. "I think defensively and doing some sneaky things, subtle things, he does those from time to time, and he really can surprise you...he's an intelligent young man, and he certainly can play the game." 

Late in the game against Detroit, Shamet came up with a couple all-effort plays that got the crowd going. The first was an offensive rebound that he snagged off a missed free throw from Simmons, the second an opportunistic play along the baseline that resulted in a Wilson Chandler three.

Want to know how to stay in your coach's good graces as a rookie? Make plays like these. Young players tend to suffer for playing time because they slip up on the details, miss defensive assignments, and otherwise show their age. But Shamet has made Brown's thought process clearer. When Butler left the game Tuesday, it was only fair to give his rookie an opportunity to step up.

And the best is probably still to come.

"I think as he gets older and starts filling out," said Brown, "we're going to see even more from him."

T.J. McConnell, leading on and off the court

Controversial opinion: I think McConnell's contributions are a bit overrated on the court but underrated in what they inspire around him. He is a good guy to have on the team — plays hard, demands accountability from his teammates, but ultimately he's a good guy who helps keep the locker room together.

He did his usual thing against the Pistons, coming up with 14 points and six assists and a whole bunch of scrappy plays on both ends. This sort of thing is McConnell's calling card:

When you have a teammate willing to hit the floor to keep possessions alive, that tends to lift up the rest of the team. But more importantly, McConnell has taken it into his own hands to keep the spirit of the Sixers' Frosty Freeze Out promotion alive.

For those unaware: when an opposing player misses two consecutive free throws in the second half of a Sixers home game, the crowd is rewarded with a free Frosty from a local Wendy's the next day. Robert Covington used to get really into this, pumping the crowd up by waving his arms like a madman.

With Covington gone, someone else needed to step up, and that man has been two-way player Shake Milton. Prompted by McConnell, Milton got into the act during Monday's game, and he had a very amusing dance when everything came up Frostys late in the game.

So obviously, I had to ask McConnell about this after the game. He did not disappoint.

PhillyVoice: T.J., I saw you — we'll call it mentoring — Shake on the sideline during the Frosty Freeze Out tonight. What went into that, wanted to live up to Rob's legacy as the Frosty guy?

McConnell: Yeah. Cov did a great job of getting the crowd going and getting the fans free Frostys, and unfortunately he got traded, so it's the next man up mentality in that aspect. So we gave Shake the promotion, and he has done a great job.

PV: Does any of that have to do with the fact that his name is Shake, or is it not that deep?

McConnell: Yeah, we can go with that. That probably went into the decision. He was a little slow in his delivery today, so he has to be quicker.

Jokes aside, that's what building a cultural foundation looks like. For as something as small as a giveaway on game day, the Sixers' players turn it into something fun. These are the moments that help you survive the agony of an 82-game schedule.

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