September 28, 2021
If Doc Rivers wanted to keep a veil of mystery surrounding his plans for Philadelphia's lineup, it only lasted until the very first day of training camp, when reporters got to step in and see a practice for the first time in who knows how long. Standing amongst the four remaining starters (Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Danny Green, and Seth Curry) was last season's beloved rookie, Tyrese Maxey, finishing up a day at the helm of the team. His time there may not last until tomorrow for all we know, but it's the first statement of intent after a season of speculation about the young guard's future.
"It's going to take him some time," Rivers said of Maxey's ability to run the team. "He's not a natural point guard, he's just going to have to learn...Tyrese will bring it up a lot, but if Tobias gets it, I want him to break out with it. If Seth gets it, I don't want him to wait. Last year at least with Ben, you wanted to give it to him every time, because of his ability to get to the paint and make plays. This year, we'll probably see something different."
Unless Simmons returns, things are going to look much different regardless of how they end up setting up. As we've discussed all summer, there are pitfalls to each approach. The most obvious point of concern for this specific group of five is their size in the backcourt, with Maxey-Curry at risk of being exploited on the defensive end. For now, the Sixers seem to believe what they get on offense will be worth the trade-off, and Rivers sounded encouraged by how his second group (Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang, and Andre Drummond) looked during their first day together at camp, even with a couple of new faces in the mix.
But we know the quartet Maxey is with can play and thrive together, having gotten a season's worth of data on that group. There was only one brief window where all five were on the floor together last season, so this is strictly projecting at this stage. Can they make it work with a second-year guard taking a huge share of creation responsibilities?
Rivers' above quote suggests they don't want to ask too much from him too soon, and there is something to be said to democratizing the ballhandling process even if Simmons returns and assimilates in the new version of these Sixers. Restricting Harris' grab-and-go opportunities cuts into some of the value he can provide as a player, even if letting Simmons run their fast-break attack is totally justified. Pick-and-rolls should probably be a steadier part of Embiid's diet, and in our (very) brief window of time in the gym, we saw a Harris-Embiid variation that resulted in an easy bucket for the starting group around the hoop. Having several ballhandlers who can run some form of a two-man game should be to his benefit, so long as opponents are forced to respect the guys running it.
"The biggest thing we were impressing on today and that we'll continue to progress on is just getting the ball moving and getting the ball side-to-side, making the game easier for everyone on the floor," Harris said Tuesday. "I think you're going to see a continued effort from all the guys making that extra pass right now and just living with the results as well."
Still, Maxey has some big shoes to fill here, with Philadelphia's creative juice often coming from Simmons and Simmons alone. Shooters will be waiting on kick-outs or drop-offs in transition, the big guy needs to know he can get the ball whenever he wants it on the block, and as Rivers alluded to on media day, Maxey has to learn how to weigh the demands of the guys around him who want touches.
On the other side of things, the older, more experienced Sixers have to help him find his voice and make the most of his skills, rather than what they might be missing with Simmons away from the program. Embiid let the rookie have it in an animated fashion on a couple of occasions last season, but the big guy seems bought in on helping Maxey and the rest of the young guys along. Harris, always keeping an eye on team unity, is saying all the right things about letting Maxey grow into this role.
"When you're at the point guard spot, playing at the one it's just [about] being patient and being poised," Harris said. "Tyrese's greatest skill is his speed out there on the floor, being able to finish at the rim, so for us it's about being able to use him in positions to get downhill and make plays. He's a young player, but he's continuing to evolve into this game, so I think throughout this training camp we're going to see more and more of him doing different things out there that he feels comfortable with in a halfcourt offense with different guys. He did a great job today, coming in and handling the team and being able to put us in the right spots. The point guard position is a crucial position, and for him, it's going to help him grow his leadership skills as well."
Seeing the work Maxey puts in (and the progress he has made in a short amount of time) has to boost their confidence. The three-point shot will be a critical swing skill for Maxey this season, and we saw him bombing away during a brief stint in Las Vegas that you'd hope is a glimpse at the future. After Tuesday's practice, Maxey spent some time going through a barrage of shooting drills with Curry and Milton, working on both catch-and-shoot looks and off-the-dribble shots, holding his own next to a pair of guys whose jumpers are their bread-and-butter:
Off the dribble shooting reps for Maxey, Milton, Curry pic.twitter.com/Q4yHxprXUR— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) September 28, 2021
Young Maxey is unlikely to ever have that blinding green light, but for now, just getting the early nod to run with the big dogs is enough. Rivers and his staff are on a quest to empower Maxey before the games begin and the pressure to perform mounts, and we'll get to see the real-life impact of that fairly soon. Philly's first preseason game against the Raptors is only six days away, and we'll (likely) get to see a Simmons-less version of the Sixers for the first time that night. The intrigue is palpable.
• The topic of vaccination was a source of considerable controversy during media days around the league, though the Sixers managed to mostly avoid the issue thanks to the focus on Ben Simmons. Doc Rivers would only say Philadelphia was "very, very, very good" in terms of buy-in amongst their team and declined to give a percentage of players who had gotten vaxxed.
That subject might have died altogether if not for an offhand comment from Harris, who smiled as he stared around at the assembled press after Tuesday's practice and noted that he wanted to make sure everybody was wearing their masks properly before we started our presser. That prompted a reporter to ask whether Harris believes there should be a vaccine mandate for the NBA as a whole, and Harris weighed in.
"I don't know. Do I think there should be? I don't know, man," Harris said. "Even if I did, nobody would listen to me, that's how I look at it. Even if I did. So I'm going to do what I do, inform my people and people around me that I'm around day-to-day, and I'm going to mind my business as well. That's what I'm going to do, too."
If you're looking for additional commentary on this one (and I only included this bit because so many reached out asking about this matter yesterday), you'll have to go somewhere/to someone else.
• A heartfelt sorry to Shaq Harrison, who the Sixers agreed to a training camp deal with in the hours before media day kicked off on Monday. I'm not sorry about him getting a training camp deal — hearty congratulations for the opportunity, my guy — but poor Harrison apparently had his bag with basketball shoes in it get stuck in transit on his flight to Philadelphia, which forced him to wear a borrowed pair of shoes that were a bit too big for him on Tuesday (a problem he says he worked around wearing double socks).
Ever the trooper, Harrison was thoughtful about the opportunity in front of him and the mentality one needs to have to break through as a fringe player in the NBA, and I hope he's able to get his kicks in time to make an impression on the staff here. Philadelphia's roster is pretty set in stone, but you never know what a good impression in camp can lead to down the road.
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