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September 24, 2018

Sixers training camp notes: Markelle Fultz has a ton of confidence and support around him

The Sixers took a lot of washed-up hoopers on the sidelines on a trip back through time on Monday, running an end-of-practice drill that too many reporters had suffered through in their youth. In a nutshell: five Sixers players had to make a pair of free throws from the stripe. Any misses would be punished with a full-court sprint for the entire team, so the group was incentivized to cheer for their teammates.

Most of the group who ended up making their two — Landry Shamet, Robert Covington, Mike Muscala, and Jonah Bolden — went through their routines pretty uneventfully. Markelle Fultz's journey to the line obviously had a bit more significance for everybody in the gym. The reporters on the sideline are watching his form much closer, and his teammates are hyperaware of the circus that followed Fultz during his rookie season.

So once he knocked down his pair, Fultz received a ton of love from his teammates along the baseline, with T.J. McConnell, in particular, making a point to go over and high five his fellow guard (unfortunately yours truly is a dumb ass who stopped recording before this happened):

The culture in the Sixers' locker room is a point of pride generally, with Brett Brown having put in years of work with many players who aren't here anymore to help get the team where they are today. With star players who double as hard workers, the Sixers believe their success to this point will breed more success down the line.

But the human side matters just as much as the basketball side, to hear them tell it. And to see the amount of time and thought Ben Simmons will give a question about Fultz, considering how stoic and silent the Aussie tends to be otherwise, says a lot about the admiration for Fultz in their gym.

"He's not worrying about what people say," Simmons told reporters after practice, discussing Fultz's chaotic first year in the league. "He's a great player who wants to work hard, and he knows greatness doesn't take a week or a month or a year, it's a long period of time...everybody goes through struggles, nobody is perfect, no one on this team has really had a perfect transition to the NBA in their first year. Unfortunately he had to go through that, at the same time he learned from it, hopefully he comes back better. He's already playing great ball right now."

We haven't seen much more at camp thus far than you guys have been able to see from home on the Fultz front. The footage from his workouts in Los Angeles remains the most we've seen of his revamped jumper, as Fultz continues to spend time working with Drew Hanlen on his game at the Sixers practice facility. When we're let in for the end of camp sessions, Fultz often retreats with Hanlen to work on mechanics on a hoop tucked away in the back, as other teammates go through their own various cooldown activities.

That makes Tuesday's open practice — where I'd expect there to be some extended five-on-five action — a really intriguing moment for Fultz and this Sixers team. How much will we see him shoot? How much pick-and-roll with Fultz and Joel Embiid or Fultz and Simmons will we see run? His return to play this year will force the Sixers to consider decent-sized changes to what they run, and this could be the first glimpse we have at how that will play out.

Frankly, though, that's only the primary interest for the people outside the Sixers' building. Internally, the people around Fultz seemed to be concerned with supporting him and letting him do what he does best, even when it comes at the potential cost of their own spot in the rotation.

"Anybody in the NBA wants to play and contribute, but that's not going to change the teammate or friend I am to anyone. Markelle gives us a really good chance to win, and that's why he's going to play," McConnell told PhillyVoice at media day. "I'll be the first one off the bench rooting for him and cheering for him every step of the way."

More notes from practice

• Stop me if you've heard this before — Joel Embiid got a chance to rest on Monday morning, as the Sixers held him out of a practice session for the first time in camp. In previous years this may have set off alarm bells, but Brown insisted this was just a matter of giving Embiid a little downtime with the team going at it day after day during camp.

"We had two great days and so did he, and tomorrow you come in and it's sort of a game day for us," said Brown. "You go to the Palestra and you play in front of, I think it's going to be a fantastic crowd. We just felt like it'd be good to let him have today and get some rest, and let him jump back into it tomorrow."

Embiid absolutely used the excuse to sit out of the aforementioned conditioning drills, but suffice it to say this wasn't a basketball free day for the young center. He began warming up and going through some light drills with Dario Saric as the media was wrapping up interviews on the baseline, and PhillyVoice learned Embiid went through an individualized workout with Hanlen in the practice facility once the doors closed for the afternoon.

That last bit isn't some top-secret info, but rather something to help differentiate Embiid's "rest" days now vs. what they may have looked like in the past. The Sixers aren't dealing with a talented player coming off major injury that they feel inclined to treat with kid gloves, they're simply picking and choosing their spots to have him best prepared for the long season ahead.

Things have changed at the practice facility, and I would expect Embiid to come out of the gate sharp from everything we know up until this point.

• Jimmy Butler remains the biggest fish on the trade market at the moment, and the Sixers have reportedly inquired about Butler's cost and availability with the Minnesota brain trust. It's a move members of the front office sound wary of, as I reported last week, and I still believe there are low odds of Philadelphia pushing their chips in for the disgruntled star.

However, Brown gave a very interesting answer to a question I asked about getting intel from teams on locker-room issues and player character on Monday. Brown answered a question shortly beforehand on making moves in the preseason, and he said he was personally focused on who was in the gym at present but that of course the Sixers would not turn down opportunities to make the team better when they arise.

Since I knew he wouldn't answer a question about Butler specifically, I asked him about the process of gathering that data, and whether the data you can gather from the outside is always reliable when it comes to matters of chemistry. Brown didn't dive too deep in the weeds there, but he seems confident their team has a wide base of connections from which to draw information and insisted the Sixers' culture is at the point where they can credibly absorb a strong-willed player.

I think that in today's day and age with the intel everybody has and the network everybody has — this is my 18th and 19th year doing this. We all have our pipeline of people and coaches and teammates and with all of it you learn. You'd better learn. It does influence things that you do, and you can't be intimidated at times by things. Like, I feel like this program — the culture is almost there where it's strong enough to invite somebody in and show them this is how we try to do things. Whoever they might be. 

It's all on the table, but it's certainly I suppose in some ways like analytics, it doesn't always force decisions.

The head coach sounds like he believes he and the team around him can incorporate any number of pieces into their culture, with the subtext being that they have to be talented enough to warrant taking the risk. It's hard for the mind to not drift toward Butler.

Are they interested enough to beat out other bidders here? Probably not. But it's a quote and a philosophy worth remembering, because it suggests the Sixers may be more willing to go out on a limb than you'd think.

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