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October 08, 2021

Isaiah Joe on track to compete for a spot in Sixers rotation

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Isaiah_Joe_2_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers guard Isaiah Joe.

Looking at Isaiah Joe, you might find it hard to believe he can stop anybody at the NBA level. His head coach has jokingly called him 120 pounds (he's listed at 175, thank you very much) and the second-year guard looks the part, rail skinny like so many other 22-year-olds who don't know how good they have it yet. Sweet as his shooting touch may be, sticking on the floor in his second year is going to rely on Joe offering a bit more than that.

Joe knows it, too. If anything, he carries it like a chip on his shoulder, the knowledge that he's going to be hunted on the defensive end because of his frame.

"I always predicate my game on my defense because I'm already undersized," Joe said following Thursday's win over Toronto. "People think they can, you know, abuse me on the defensive end. And so I really got to step up to the plate and really take pride in defense. I think our team as a whole, we get our points from our defense. And I'm not going to come in and be a liability."

Like so many other things for second-year guys, the defense is a work in progress. Joe picked up three fouls in nine first-half minutes, struggling to find the line between good effort and reckless physicality. But looking at how it plays out, it's line-crossing most coaches would be willing to live with, knowing the fouls are coming because their player's heart is in the right place.

Take this foul Joe took matched up on Fred Van Vleet, for example. Up to the point in the possession where he got called for contact, Joe had done just about everything right. He helped down to dissuade a driver, stayed within range of his man and tracked him on a quickly abandoned cut, and remained light on his feet in the process, ultimately ending up in a good position to stop Toronto's point guard. The hard work is let down by his final moment:

The important things are there — Joe is attentive, light on his feet, and interested in competing. You give a coach a player with those three things to start with, and they'll likely believe in their ability to get a guy to at least passable defensive territory, if not better. And in spite of errors like the mistake Joe made to end this play, head coach Doc Rivers can see a noticeable difference between the Joe of last season and the Joe that has arrived for the 2021-22 preseason.

"He's stronger than he was last year. And this is a tough team to judge [him against] because they have a lot of big guards. A lot of guys that post you, a lot of guys that cut through you, a very physical team. I thought overall he held his own. He's crafty, he's tough, he'll fight...he's not going to give in. And that's what I like about him."

"I think if you asked everybody around [here] about Isaiah, they'd have nothing but positive things to say," Tobias Harris added. "He just goes out there and plays his game. Solid as ever, offensively and defensively, as you're seeing. As he continues to play and gain confidence, more things are going to come on the horizon. He's done a great job all throughout training camp and the two games that he's played."

Opening a story on Joe and focusing on the defense might seem like it's missing the point — the Arkansas product scored 15 points in Thursday night's win over Toronto, blending together deep range with some off-the-dribble juice and the early signs of a pull-up game. He wasn't drafted to be a stopper, he was drafted to score, and he has the sort of overwhelming confidence you need in order to be an impact bench player at this level. As soon as he crosses halfcourt, Joe seems to believe he's in range, and looking at how effortless the shots are when they go up, he may not be wrong.

The exciting thing about what Joe has shown in the preseason and a brief run at Summer League are the secondary skills that could help him tie the bigger package together. The step-in jumper has been a point of emphasis on the coaching staff's part, tied to the reality that teams want to run shooters off of the line to make you trade threes for twos. It's a shot guys like Seth Curry and Harris take and make with regularity, and Joe already looks comfortable as a one or two dribble pull-up shooter.

More importantly, Philly has given him the room to run some actions as the initiator over the last few months, with "Point Joe" making occasional appearances at Summer League. Playing on the second unit with Andre Drummond — a willing pick-and-roll partner and a good passer at his size — Joe and the other bench guards will have a big-bodied partner to create a lane for him, and so long as he makes the simple reads in traffic, the Sixers should be able to create more threes this season, pinging the ball around more than in years past.

Increased pick-and-roll volume is to be expected this season, and while Joe shouldn't be expected to get a ton of reps as a lead handler, the Sixers need to be able to spread responsibility amongst the group while they try to either convince Ben Simmons to return or trade him for a lead guard who can do the heavy lifting. Thursday, they looked like a group greater than the sum of their parts on the creative front, and though some of that can be attributed to the Raptors getting too aggressive on defense, the creation by committee approach should work well enough in the interim.

Where Joe fits into the rotation is the hard part to figure out now. He's far ahead of Matisse Thybulle on offense but not in his universe as a defender. Furkan Korkmaz is probably his most natural competition, and while Korkmaz is not exactly prime Scottie Pippen on defense, he has made strides there under this coaching staff and offers a bit more size. He has outplayed both of Korkmaz and Shake Milton to this point in the preseason, it's just finding a role that works for both him and the team that makes sense, which is going to change night-to-night depending on who they're up against.

But Joe's progress year-over-year is pretty obvious from the outside looking in. He has gone from end-of-bench curiosity who can make due in a pinch to a guy who looks ready to play a decent-sized role this season. Betting on progression from their young guys was a key plank in Philadelphia's offseason plan, and though we're a long way away from knowing if it will pay off, a step forward from last year's second-round pick would be a nice boost to the rotation. 

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