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August 08, 2022

Best case, worst case: Paul Reed has a chance to win a full-time role with Sixers

It's mid-August, the Eagles are set to begin preseason, and I know all of you only have one thing on your minds — what can I expect from Paul Reed over the next year?

On the heels of discussing Joel Embiid's potential paths on Monday morning, we take a look at Mr. Reed, who (as things stand) is a much more important piece than he was last season.

Best case

The good news for Paul Reed is it feels like he has two paths toward a potential role on this team. One seems a heck of a lot more likely than the other, but we’re dreaming over here, so we can entertain both options.

From Philadelphia’s perspective, nothing would be more meaningful than Reed marching into the start of the season and being the undisputed backup for Embiid. Given Charles Bassey’s up and down Summer League, it’s more likely than not that he gets first crack at the gig, but there are some obvious doubts about his viability in an every-day, every-game role.

To earn that job, Reed mostly just needs to cut down on fouling, which is a problem for many big men in their early years. With the experience of a playoff run under his belt, Reed should come back with more discipline, allowing his best strengths as a defender to shine through. He’ll never have Embiid’s size, but Reed’s combination of length and athleticism gives him the chance to be disruptive, opening up options for the second unit.

One of the great points of intrigue for me with the second unit — will they embrace a more switch-heavy style once Embiid is off of the floor? Reed would be a huge part of that. He’s got the makings of a guy who can stick with a pretty wide spectrum of players at the 3-5 spots, at least situationally, and he can erase some slippage and mistakes from others as a weakside helper. If he can reliably protect the rim without being a foul magnet, they are off to the races with the second group. Think about how chaotic it could be for a team to deal with Reed, Thybulle and De’Anthony Melton all at the same time, the three diving into passing lanes and sending the Sixers the other way (try not to think about either of the first two dribbling a basketball after causing the turnovers).

A reasonable ask for Reed is to become a more polished threat as a roller, where he showed flashes playing with Harden but mostly earned his points with activity on the glass and by sinking down to the dunker spot. Consistently making good contact on the screen and flying hard toward the rim is not an outlandish ask for him, and Reed has proven himself willing to stay within/embrace the role that is asked of him. Reed told reporters he wanted to work on his vertical during the offseason, and perhaps that will earn him more chances to throw down with style out of pick-and-rolls.

The pie-in-the-sky outcome? That rests on Reed becoming a reliable outside shooter. The mechanics are clunky, the results haven’t been there, but if Reed does manage to become a credible floor spacer, you can start thinking about using him as a gadget guy, someone who can occasionally play next to Embiid instead of only when he’s off of the floor. It’s in that spot where you can actively mitigate some of his defensive weaknesses and capitalize on his strengths, even if the cursory look we’ve had at said lineups rates as below-average by the numbers.

Something that’s worth including here — Reed has shot over 55 percent from the field in limited minutes across his first two seasons, minimizing shot attempts from anywhere beyond 10 feet. With slightly more opportunity last year, Reed took an even larger share of his shots from within three feet (62.5 percent to be exact). That suggests we’re unlikely to see a range expansion this season, though I would argue it bodes well for Reed in his case for a full-time role. Coaches want buy-in, and Reed has offered it even with a healthy portion of his minutes coming in garbage time his first two seasons.

I don’t think a great Reed year requires him to do much else except to play the way he plays across more minutes, figuring out where the line of physicality is in the process. Youthful energy alone has value across the 82-game slate, and Reed has shown he can translate activity into results.

Worst case

Really, the worst case for Reed is if Doc Rivers convinces Daryl Morey to bring in another bad vet big he’s familiar with before the season starts, with Reed not getting the initial chance to win the job. If Philadelphia arrives at the point where they feel they need more help, fine. But holding multiple young bigs on the roster and continually burying them without giving them a real chance would be a waste of time and resources for the organization.

But let’s just assume that doesn’t happen. For Reed, things don’t have to go horribly wrong for things to go slightly off of the rails. If he is simply the player he has been up to this point, that is probably not going to be enough from what they need at the spot behind Embiid.

Remember, this is a backup gig where the understudy (or understudies, plural) has always had plenty of time to influence the team. Whether it was minutes restrictions and serious injuries, load management and minor issues, or even COVID-related absences, Embiid has needed someone who can start in his place without looking totally out of their depth. No one expects Reed to be an Embiid replacement, but he does need to star in his role if it asks him to spot start throughout the year.

That’s where the fouling, the offensive limitations, and his occasionally chaotic (but often entertaining) habits will end up mattering. Andre Drummond was allowed to get away with some chicanery because he was ultra-productive in his minutes last season, but Reed will quickly go from “fun bench guy most people love” to target of scorn if he can’t figure out exactly how hard, how fast, and how goofy he can be without putting himself and the team in jeopardy.

Of note here — P.J. Tucker was signed with the expectation he’ll play at least some center this season, though it’s unclear whether that will be an occasional exotic look or a regular trick in their bag. Reed’s success manning the backup five spot, therefore, has medium-to-long term consequences for one of their most important acquisitions of the offseason. If they end up playing Tucker more minutes than he should, and more minutes against bigger players at that, they might end up wearing him down and exposing him to additional injury risk to plug a short-term hole.

The keyword for Reed this year is trust. I’m not exposing state secrets when I remind everyone Doc Rivers (like most coaches) can be hesitant to place responsibility on the shoulders of young players. We are not that far removed from the “Paul Reed victory tour” comments. Reed needs to make the head coach feel that he can be counted on to do all of the things a big man must do, from communication to rotations to screen-setting to, of course, defending without fouling. Working through those issues while knowing your PT could be snatched at a moment’s notice is hard for anybody, though I’d argue Reed has a just-play mentality that serves him well.

It would be a shame if a guy like Reed never managed to carve out a role, as I think a player who consistently brings it the way he does is an asset during a long season, if not in the playoffs. They need more players who approach their minutes like Reed does, not fewer. But he has to walk the tightrope in order to stick.

Sixers Best Case, Worst Case

Embiid | Reed | Harris | Tucker | Maxey | Melton | Thybulle | Harden | House | Rivers

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