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September 25, 2017

Sixers players stress cooperation, not competition as training camp opens

T.J. McConnell is the face of the “problem” facing the Sixers entering this season. Asked to start and close games at multiple points during the past couple seasons, he’s now left to wonder whether he even has a spot in the Sixers’ rotation. Any time the team adds two No. 1 picks at your position, that’ll happen.

Despite this, McConnell was unequivocal in highlighting his support for the core pieces expected to start over him this season.

“They’re here for a reason, and I don’t want to look at it as we’re battling, I’m here to help them. Whatever they need from me, I’ll be happy to answer,” said McConnell, “and I’m going to push them as hard as they’ve ever been pushed. I think it will be good for them.”

This was a familiar refrain at the team’s media day, where it seems like Sixers players are embracing the increased challenge they’ll face for minutes this year. It’s not exactly breaking news to say the team’s outlook on Media Day 2017 is a hell of a lot different than it was just one year ago. There’s no longer any doubt over who the franchise center is, the starting lineup is all but solidified, and there is competition for minutes at each and every spot on the roster.

Instead, the players are all faced with one simple question: How can I play a part in getting this team back to the NBA Playoffs?

Different players are coping with increased expectations in their own unique ways. Jahlil Okafor, not quite sure if he’ll even be in Philly when the season starts, has gone vegan, cutting dairy, meats, and yes, even his beloved sausage McGriddles from his diet. Robert Covington, a nailed-on starter and the team’s best wing defender, took his summer deadly serious all the same, holing himself up in Tennessee all offseason, renting a home by his former college to focus exclusively on rehab and basketball.

The young guns will also have some veteran knowledge to lean on this time around, though I’d advise against taking all of it at face value. Amir Johnson, one of the last players to be drafted straight out of high school to the NBA, said a native Philadelphian once told him there was a secret to putting on a few extra pounds.

“When you’re [younger], you want to put so much weight on you. I was 205, 210 entering the league,” said Johnson, “‘Man you need to put weight on.’ I think Rasheed Wallace told me to drink beer.”

Beer don’t lie, I suppose.

They may not share the same diets or workout plans, but the group appears to be completely unified in their response to a new wave of protests around the NFL, sparked by controversial comments from Donald Trump over the weekend. Justin Anderson, who was outspoken about a clash between white supremacists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville earlier this summer, said the team has talked extensively through group messages about their own response, and their major priority is doing something as a unit.

“As far as what we’re going to do to, I guess physically show something or send a message, we haven’t spoke about that yet,” said Anderson. “I think we’re all in agreement in that locker room on the things that are going on, and we’re all looking to do our part to help shine light in the right direction, and that’s to help build unity, to help lift up people in a time that people are being pushed down, and we just want to just make sure that we have each other’s backs. And I think that’s something that’s bringing us together even closer.”

Anderson’s ethos was echoed by two of the team’s veteran guards, Jerryd Bayless and JJ Redick, the latter of whom was a little more forceful in his condemnation of the White House.

In any case, the Sixers sound like they’re ready to attack this year as a cohesive unit, no longer the band of journeyman they appeared to be during the dog days of “The Process.” That will only be worth so much if Joel Embiid can’t stay healthy, or if Ben Simmons can’t get a jumper to drop, but it is something, and it will be something they can fall back on when they hit that rough patch in the season every NBA team hits.

Just don’t expect any of them to back down from the increase in competition up and down the roster.

“Oh it’s fun man,” Richaun Holmes told reporters with a smile. “Competing every day for the time you get…it’s kinda what I live for.”