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September 19, 2022

Sixers bubble watch: Handicapping end of roster battle before training camp

Sixers NBA
Paul-Reed-Sixers Kyle Ross/USA Today Sports

Paul Reed.

The most common question we've received about the Sixers at PhillyVoice this offseason is not whether I think they can win a title, whether James Harden will return to form, or whether I think Doc Rivers should be replaced as head coach, even if I've been asked those things 100 times. The subject on everyone's mind is much smaller than that — who's going to make this roster when preseason is over, and who's about to be on the chopping block?

Philadelphia has the luxury of a deeper group this year, and their actual roster count keeps on climbing the closer we get to the start of the year. Montrezl Harrell was the latest addition to the group a couple of weeks back, and it's fair to say he's basically nailed onto the roster. Harrell's arrival, though, means the Sixers are now up to 13 players with guaranteed contracts, as well as four more players with either non-guaranteed or partially-guaranteed deals. To get to the regular season roster limit of 15 players, the Sixers will have to send at least two guys packing.

Between now and the end of the preseason, we'll do some regular check-ins to see how each of these guys is doing, but I wanted to get a primer out there to refresh everyone on who they have, what they did/didn't do this summer, and where they fit into the race for the final two roster spots.

Isaiah Joe

Contract: Non-guaranteed (guaranteed if on roster 10/23) 

What he did last season: Joe had a small, inconsequential role on the 2021-22 Sixers, struggling to get playing time even with the Sixers shorthanded and in need of shooting throughout last year. With Doc Rivers opting to play slightly older players who also performed poorly (e.g. Furkan Korkmaz), Joe failed to impress in the small bursts of action he saw. His three-point percentage (33.3 percent) dipped after a decent rookie year, and most of his other stats stayed flat with Joe playing a lot of his minutes in garbage time.

What he did this summer: Once Paul Reed took a seat on the sidelines, Joe established himself as Philadelphia's best player in Vegas Summer League, showing off the shooter's touch they drafted him hoping to take advantage of. After hitting a game-winner against the Thunder during the Utah edition of Summer League, Joe carried the momentum of that performance to Nevada, once again looking like a committed two-way guy against a lower-level of competition.

Outlook

Heading into the summer, I was unconvinced Joe was going to stick on this roster, and I still wouldn't call him anything like a "lock" to be on the team by the time preseason is over. If Summer League performances were better indicators of pro success, Joe may have already broken through to Philadelphia's rotation. Heck, he had a strong preseason last year, and it still didn't end up meaning much once the year got rolling.

But of all the players truly on the bubble, Joe undoubtedly helped himself the most this offseason. Looking a cut above most of your peers is what a third-year player at Summer League needs to do, and Joe supplemented hot shooting with some nice defensive moments, bodying up some bigger players and continuing to show he's a willing defender, even if the "able" half of willing and able has been questionable at the pro level. Provided he actually makes shots, his movement shooting is unique among players on this roster, and that includes the guys who are nailed on starters and rotation players.

It doesn't seem likely that Joe is going to get the regular minutes and role a lot of his biggest supporters believe he needs to establish himself. Still, there are worse fliers they could take on end-of-roster type guys, and their primary stars can always use more shooting around them. 

Projection: Relatively safe

Jaden Springer

Contract: Guaranteed (2023-24 option has to be picked up by Halloween)

What he did last season: Not much to speak of, at least at the NBA level. Springer appeared in just two games for six total minutes last year, most of his time and energy spent with Philadelphia's G-League affiliate in Delaware. The numbers weren't especially pretty in Delaware, either, with Springer shooting 24.1 percent from three (albeit in just 19 games) for the Blue Coats during the regular season, heightening concerns about what his role can or cannot be for the big ballclub.

What he did this summer: You would have been forgiven for thinking Springer's second stint at Summer League looked like a mirror image of the first a year prior. Springer has shown the ability to play through contact and put himself on the free-throw line, both of which are to the good, but getting to spots and providing value in an off-ball role were both trouble spots for him once again this summer. On top of that, Springer made semi-frequent errors as an off-ball defender in Vegas, which helps cut into the value he provided as an on-ball nuisance.

Outlook

For this writer, Springer was Philadelphia's biggest disappointment at Summer League. On the shooting front, Springer's biggest issue in Las Vegas was less about his actual shooting ability and more about his desire to let shots go in the first place. Like many current and former Sixers, hesitation to shoot is a real problem for Springer, and that will make it tough for him to succeed in an offense where the secondary players need to be locked and loaded when the ball swings their way.

If Springer was a more dynamic ball-handler, the shooting would be something you might be able to focus less on in the immediate term, but defenders disrupted his drives frequently in Summer League and he often conceded advantages he created as a result of his tendency to leap off of two feet. The guards projected to play in the rotation right now can all either handle, shoot, or ideally do both, while Springer basically does neither well at this stage.

He's likely not headed anywhere and he's too young to hit the panic button yet, but it would be nice to see him put together a strong preseason and quell some concerns.

Projection: Safe unless traded

Charles Bassey

Contract: Partial guarantee of roughly $75K this season, which becomes guaranteed if Bassey is still on the roster on January 10. Has a non-guaranteed year in 2023-24.

What he did last season: During an early season period with Joel Embiid out due to COVID, Bassey came out of cold storage and provided Philadelphia with a real lift off the bench. But with Andre Drummond settled into Philadelphia's backup center role, more vets joining the team at the deadline, and Bassey picking up a knock down the stretch, he ultimately fell out of contention for a role as the Sixers moved toward the playoffs. 

What he did this summer: Bassey had an up-and-down run for the Summer Sixers, understandably so given the state of the guards he was playing with. The easy finishes around the basket he'd be afforded next to someone like James Harden were not there in Vegas, so Bassey was forced to self-create a bit too much. Defense was similarly uneven, with Bassey swinging back and forth between the spectacular and the cringeworthy.

Outlook

It is no personal failing of Charles Bassey's that he looks like a garden-variety developing big at 21 years old. You can see the outline of an interesting player in there thanks to his hops, his length, and the early stages of a spot-up jumper, but he is ultimately reliant on what's around him to succeed. That's okay from an offensive standpoint — only rare centers like Embiid have structure built around them in 2022 — but his defense is still too much flash and not enough function, his highlights masking a lot of mental mistakes and bouts of overaggressiveness.

The optimist's case rests on the idea that better personnel in front of/around him will simplify things for Bassey on the back end, allowing him to get as much out of his strengths as possible while cutting back on the number of possessions per game where he has to fly out of position to contest a shot, surrendering an offensive rebound in the process. That may indeed be true, but Bassey is fighting an uphill battle with the state of the center spot on the current roster. Harrell is an established, high-level roller on offense to pair with Harden on backup units, and Reed seems pretty clearly ahead of Bassey in multiple respects, having already played playoff minutes and with a bit more positional flexibility than Bassey to boot.

If the Sixers hadn't signed Harrell, I would have been interested to see a season (or at least a half-season) play out where Reed and Bassey trade-off at the backup center spot and figure things out on the fly. But with the Sixers adding a bit more punch to the second unit (and adding a guy Rivers loved during his time in L.A.), even a third big will struggle to find regular PT this year. Bassey seems like the first logical guy to put on bubble watch.

Projection: In danger

Trevelin Queen

Contract: Partial guarantee of $300K this season, non-guaranteed year in 2023-24.

What he did last season: Appeared in just 10 games for the Houston Rockets, but made a major impression in the G-League as the do-it-all leader of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The G-League MVP and Finals MVP posted a stat line of roughly 25/7/5 en route to a championship. Not bad.

What he did this summer: Queen showed off some of the flashiest passing I think I have ever seen in Summer League, and combined that with some of the craziest turnovers and ill-advised jumpers you could hope to see on a basketball court. A couple of moments of hot shooting rewarded his seemingly endless confidence from deep, though his time was ultimately defined more by his inability to make shots — Queen shot a combined 11/44 from distance and 27/81 from the field in Utah and Vegas. Not great.

Outlook

I made the comparison earlier this summer, but Queen has some pretty heavy Tony Wroten vibes watching him play. What he pulls off looks absolutely spectacular, but the path to getting there is going to feature a lot of crazy attempts that make you laugh and send the opponent running the other way. There's no shortage of confidence, and you have to respect that, but at 25 you would hope he would have a better understanding of his limitations by now.

(You could explain away that awareness deficit through Queen's remarkable story on his way to the NBA, which is worth a refresher if you're not familiar. Getting to this point at all is pretty remarkable for him.)

Queen's partial guarantee is the only thing that gives me pause about his future, as there are some guys who can be cut a bit more painlessly thanks to smaller or non-existent guarantees. He's also a more confident shooter than most of the players they've had on this roster in recent memory, though the accuracy still leaves something to be desired.

For a team with more developmental minutes to offer or without real aspirations to contend, I think Queen would be a fun flier who helps liven up a long season. Just not sure I see a way to fit him into the picture here.

Projection: In danger

Paul Reed

Contract: Non-guaranteed this season.

What he did last season: Reed did not get to have an official victory tour, but the young big did manage to show flashes in a backup role that fluctuated throughout the season. Earning the backup center role in the playoffs — and possessing a superior case over DeAndre Jordan for the starting gig when Joel Embiid was out injured — Reed was foul-prone but plenty active whenever he hit the floor. Though we didn't see much of it, an ultra-long frontcourt partnership with Embiid was also a small point of intrigue during a long season.

What he did this summer: Ultimately showed he was too good for Summer League. Best possible outcome for the man known as Bball Paul.

Outlook

The only reason Reed is even getting a mention here is because of his contract. Of the group of players listed here, he's the only guy who has established any sort of semi-regular presence in the rotation, and Reed played legitimate playoff minutes last season. The only way he's leaving this roster before the regular season is if a team wants to take a flier on him in a trade and the Sixers trim the roster down in that way.

I will say, however, I don't share the optimism some of Reed's biggest boosters do, at least as it pertains to his ability to get non-center minutes. Though I think he's plenty capable defensively as a forward and has posted good shooting numbers in the G-League, it's going to take a long time for him to convince opponents he's an actual threat to make threes. Reed would need a sustained run of shooting success to bait teams into guarding him like an outside threat, and even then, the choice would still likely be to let him cook and shrink the floor for everyone else. That being the case, it's a tough sell to use him as a forward in anything more than change-of-pace lineups.

Reed has bought into whatever role the team has asked him to play and shown improvement during the time he has been here. Given Harrell's defensive issues in previous playoff runs, having Reed around as a different sort of option is a good thing for the Sixers, and the victory tour may eventually commence.

Projection: Safe unless traded


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