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April 04, 2018

Sixers offer preview of Ben Simmons & Markelle Fultz show in win over Brooklyn Nets

Three minutes and twenty-seven seconds was the extent of Markelle Fultz's action alongside Ben Simmons on Tuesday night, a sample size from which you can conclude almost nothing. Add the opponent into that equation, a Brooklyn Nets team with nothing left to play for, and you need to remind yourself that it's really only the wins that matter this late in the season.

But for that brief, blinding stretch in the third quarter of a 121-95 victory on Tuesday night, Sixers fans got a glimpse of the duo who is supposed to lead them forward in the backcourt. And despite a complete absence of practice time to work on their game together, they showed you a vision of what the future might look like when they're able to play heavy minutes together.

Prior to the game, Brett Brown talked up the possibility of the pair playing together but was quick to add qualifiers to his decision-making process. This is not the portion of the season for experimentation, according to the coach, and he sees the opportunity that lies ahead of his team in the home stretch.

"You need shooters with Markelle, and you need shooters with Ben, so the growth of those two guys together has some challenges at this stage," said Brown before the game. "We can try some things, test some things in our remaining games, but not to the detriment of our goal of trying to secure a homecourt advantage and win games ... I'm not in the mood to go bananas on experimenting with stuff. I want to win."

There was plenty of time for Brown to experiment for Brown in the third quarter of Philadelphia's game against Brooklyn, and so with 7:52 remaining in the third and the Sixers up by 21 points, Brown decided it was time to experiment.

The results were predominantly good, with the Sixers ending up a +1 in their minutes despite an unexpected shooting barrage from former teammate Nik Stauskas. They were able to strike a good balance between attacking and deferring, and both players raved about their counterpart after the game.

"Just give him the ball and let him do his thing," said Simmons of what his job is when they play together. "I think the way he sees the floor is similar to my court vision. Having somebody who can run the floor, get to the rim, and make plays makes things a lot easier for me."

Fultz did plenty of all that on Tuesday night, in what was probably his best stretch attacking that he has had since returning from a long layoff. What was just as noticeable was Simmons' sense of the moment. 

After Fultz hit a nice pull-up jumper from the baseline, Simmons grabbed the ball to start the next possession following a Brooklyn bucket. But instead of bringing the ball up and initiating the offense himself, as is customary, he got the ball up the floor to Fultz, who used the opportunity to show off some of his scorer's craft around the basket.

That's a small thing, but it's a big reason why the Sixers have been optimistic about pairing two "lead guards" to run the offense together in the future. Simmons' inclination to set up his teammates is a major asset here. He has an understanding of how the team benefits if they can get Fultz going and shows through his actions that he's happy to help facilitate that.

The kid with the scorer's rep on the other side of the equation is happy to take advantage. Fultz insisted he's only focused on doing whatever it takes to help the team win — regardless of whether he's on the floor with or without Simmons — but the dynamic of scorer and table-setter appears natural for them.

"I go in and if I have my shot or if I have a layup, I can do that, if I can get somebody else open or make a better pass, I can do that," said Fultz. "But definitely when he's at the one, it gives me a chance to go score the ball, which I love doing — I think everybody loves scoring."

That's an ingredient the Sixers have been missing for a lot of this year, both in the starting lineup and off the bench, and it's why they were tied to names like Lou Williams and Tyreke Evans in advance of this year's trade deadline. The Sixers are woefully short of guys who can score in isolation, and they can empower that mentality by playing him alongside someone like Simmons.

The increased minutes appeared to help Fultz as well, which is no surprise to anyone who has ever played competitive sports. It's easier to work your way into a game when you're not trying to squeeze the most out of limited minutes, and once Simmons hit the bench, this year's No. 1 overall pick remained in attack mode.

There might not be an overarching conclusion to draw from an April game against the Nets, but building up the reps and familiarity between this duo, even briefly, is worthwhile in the season's final moments.

Fultz wasn't bad as a passer, either

One area where Fultz has perhaps been undersold since leaving college is in the passing/playmaking department. Because he's viewed as a scorer first and foremost, it's only natural to push his ability to create for others into the background.

But he has put that strength on display often during this recent run of play, and continued to do so against the Nets. There are two breeds of guys I would categorize as good passers — players who consistently and instantaneously make the right reads, and players who are capable of seeing plays open up before anyone else can. Great passers are the players who can combine both.

At this stage of his career, I think Fultz might actually be better in the second category, which isn't necessarily common. There are times when he misses an opening and ends up finding the second guy who gets open within a single play. However, he makes up for that with an ability to navigate and create in tight spaces, creating shot opportunities that other players might not see.

The play that stood out in this regard came during Fultz's stretch with Simmons on Tuesday evening, when he floated toward the rim as if to score and then tossed an underhand, off-speed pass into the arms of Richaun Holmes, who quickly deposited it for two.

It's a much more difficult play than he made it look. It takes supreme body control to get any pass off in that situation, let alone one that floats over the outstretched hands of defenders into the waiting arms of a teammate. You'd see most players attempt a wrap pass here.

This is in some ways an extension of his handle, which leaps back and forth between a high, teasing yo-yo and a drum beat found close to the ground. Fultz pulled a nifty escape act at the end of his run with Simmons, setting up what looked to be a high crossover only to use a quick one-two dribble (one-handed, I might add) to evade Caris LeVert's reach and eventually find Holmes in traffic.

When scouts talked about Fultz as one of the most advanced offensive guard prospects we'd seen in some time, this is the sort of thing they were talking about. He has a way of throwing people off their centers of gravity and navigating through tight areas that looks dangerous but rarely exposes him to real danger.

The more he plays, the more Fultz looks like an asset to the rotation right now, future concerns about his jumper and fit with Simmons be damned. If he can continue building on the things he is good at while preparing to go to work in the offseason, good things are on the horizon.

Robert Covington's role in keeping the defense afloat

Strength of opponent has been a big factor in holding down the fort without Joel Embiid, but the Sixers just would not be where they are today without Covington. He had it all on display on the defensive end against Brooklyn, filling the stat sheet in every way you could ask.

Sometimes the numbers say it all: 12 points, six rebounds, four steals, three blocks, and two assists were the haul for Covington on Tuesday, and he earned every last one of them. The highlight of his evening was an emphatic rejection of Joe Harris late in the second quarter, as Covington sprung in from the weak side to close the door.

Less noticeable in the grand scheme of things is the work Covington is doing to help lead the Sixers with his words and his actions away from the ball. The reintroduction of a rookie guard could have easily screwed up what Philadelphia had going on the defensive end given the history of young players on that side of the ball. Add on Embiid's absence, and the recipe for a disaster is there.

Thankfully for Fultz, he has something of a sherpa there to help get him back in the right spot when he veers off the path. When Fultz started to sink toward his man moving into the corner, his buddy Covington was waiting behind him to communicate the switch and nudge him toward his new cover at the top of the perimeter.

Spend any time around Covington, and you will learn quickly that he takes great pride in being a plus-defensive player. With Embiid on the shelf, he has been asked to take more responsibility and adapt as the Sixers have made slight scheme tweaks, including as a voice to organize.

"I've always been a big part of the vocal leadership on this team," Covington said after the game. "I pride myself on defense right now, ever since I made that jump. [Embiid's] the one in the back maintaining things, but I'm also one of the ones kinda guiding guys away as well. That has to be more now that Joel's out because that second voice is not out there the same."

Covington does a damn good job at getting stops against a lot of great NBA players, but being an impactful defender is so much more than that. Pay close attention to his work at that end regardless of whether he's on-ball or not, and you will find a player who is invested in helping everyone around him be part of an elite unit.

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