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July 05, 2019

Sixers Summer League notebook: What to expect from young Sixers out in Las Vegas

The 2018-19 NBA season didn't end all that long ago, so you might think it's crazy that basketball is already back again in early July. You would be right, but I am very grateful Summer League is here to give us a break from the baseball-heavy portion of the sports calendar. Bring on the bricks and turnovers and let's talk about some Las Vegas basketball, baby.

In lieu of giving you an intense, player-by-player breakdown of what to expect from Summer League, we're going to take a quick look at the Summer Sixers' three most prominent players, what we've heard from/about them coming into Vegas, and what to hope for if you're settling in to watch them.

Without further adieu... 

Shake Milton

Blue Coats coach Connor Johnson was clear all throughout minicamp about what the team wants to see from Milton. Before he was signed to a four-year deal by the big club this week, the team was still hoping their second-year guard would be one of the leaders of the team out in Las Vegas.

"I think he's going to be one of the leaders of this team," Johnson said. "He's been around, understands our program, understands our system, looks confident out there, it's good to see him embrace that role as a leader."

He's not a naturally loud kid, though Milton says he's working more on speaking up. Even if that doesn't come naturally, he's in a position where he will likely lead mostly by example either way. Everything should come easier for him after a full year in the program, from the reads he's expected to make on defense to getting the offense running. Milton was the leading scorer for the Blue Coats last season and played with the ball in his hands a ton, so he'll leave his imprint on this group even if he doesn't suddenly turn into a floor general.

This is a good proving ground for Milton before he has a chance to impact the big club this season. Both sides are still sort of in the process of figuring out what exactly his role will be at the next level. Can he make the advanced reads necessary to be a backup point guard, or is he better suited for a combo role, where he gets the ball in his hands to score but isn't expected to be a big table setter?

I would imagine you'll see him play both roles in Las Vegas, though if it were up to me, he should be running the offense a ton. These games are meaningless beyond getting some early developmental time in for young players, and it will be a good test for him to see how far away he is from competing for the backup point role with new signee Raul Neto.

Zhaire Smith

Few players are more excited about the prospect of a second appearance in Summer League than Zhaire Smith. Whereas a lot of second-year players are happy to get their July to themselves, Smith is just happy to be back out and playing basketball again after a tough rookie season.

He has been putting in a lot of work in the meantime. When he has been away from the team, Smith has spent time in California with the same trainer he worked out with during the pre-draft process to continue improving his jumper. That is the skill that may define Smith's time with the Sixers. As long as he knocks down threes at an average or above-average rate, he will get minutes.

Say this for the Texas Tech product — he's not lacking in confidence in his shot. His hurdles have been so severe elsewhere that perhaps it's easy to think he can just will himself into being a good shooter. 

"[My body] went through a whole lot, it took my athleticism," Smith said of his recovery from a severe allergic reaction last fall. "When I first came back, I tried to dunk, and that didn't work very well, so I had to rebuild all of that again. Now I'm all good."

Smith has worked on an assortment of skills during his time off — ball-handling, shooting, even some prep work fighting through screens on defense — and this brief stint in Vegas will show us how much he was actually able to accomplish from last July to this July. He looked super raw last summer, and while some of that is on him, that was also a Summer League roster without a lot of talent or pieces that would help him play his best role.

Flanked by Milton and a guy we'll get to below, I'd expect Smith to look a lot more comfortable this summer.

Matisse Thybulle

All week at minicamp, the reviews on Thybulle's defense have been just as glowing as they were for him when he was breaking PAC-12 steals records. If nothing else, I would bet you'll see him start a lot of fast breaks in Las Vegas.

"Somehow, he always finds a way to get his hands on the ball, so that's good," Smith said on Monday. "I think we're going to have a pretty good defensive team."

"Man, he gets into passing lanes like crazy," Milton added. "You got to be careful, you can't be loose with the ball around him. Quick to the ball, he's long, he's active, he makes it tough on you."

The question for Thybulle is the same as it is for Smith — will he shoot well enough to get and stay on the floor? We didn't get to see any live action of these guys during minicamp, and trying to judge what a guy will look like in game based on post-practice shooting drills would be an absolutely insane exercise.

That said, the Sixers are not putting pressure on Thybulle to be an elite shooter during his first action for the team. As Johnson noted throughout the week, they only get a few days to work with these guys before going out to Vegas, so the prep is more about broader concepts than honing in on a specific skill. For now, they just want him to be the disruptor they know he can be on defense.

"For Matisse, the big thing we've given him a goal of is just having a defensive presence every time. Summer League is not a long venture," Johnson said. "It's just building that base, building that foundation for when we get to September."

In due time, the rest of his game will matter more. But as long as Thybulle can continue to be a defensive playmaker outside of the constraints of a zone defense, the Sixers will be happy to wait on his development elsewhere.

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