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October 03, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers coast past Nets behind electric Tyrese Maxey

Tyrese Maxey was the star of the show in Ben Simmons' first game as an opponent of the Sixers, with Philadelphia coasting to a 127-108 win over the Nets despite sitting three starters. 

Here's what I saw in the team's preseason opener:

The Good

• Tyrese Maxey was so good in the first quarter of Philadelphia's preseason opener that I was semi-convinced they should simply stick him on the bench and let the rest of the available players cook. He dominated a Brooklyn team with a lot more available star power, and he did it by building off of where he finished last season.

Within the game's first minute or so, Maxey had already canned a pair of pull-up threes in transition, punishing the Nets for failing to show him proper respect on the break. Once the Nets began to play him as a shooter, Maxey's speed was turned against them, the third-year guard blowing by defenders and getting to the paint to score, dish, or get fouled.

It's the second option in that trio I would say is the biggest deal. Maxey's best pass of the first quarter, funny enough, was flubbed by a cutting Matisse Thybulle. But it was great watching him thread a bounce pass through traffic and actively look to playmake for his guys while still going out and getting buckets of he's own. Balancing the responsibilities is going to be a huge swing factor for the team this year, and he got off to an excellent start there on Monday.

And of course, there were some highlights like these:

We don't have to overreact to preseason play from anybody, let alone a guy who has already proven he's built for this level, but it's hard not to have big dreams for this kid when you watch Maxey absolutely torch the first team they play in the preseason. 20 points in a half, 20 easy points at that, will always be impressive. Savor these moments.

• I'm going to take this with a grain of salt because I have a ton of skepticism about Brooklyn as a defensive team, but the Sixers were able to create open threes basically whenever they wanted. That was true with Maxey leading the first unit, that was true when they turned things over to the bench, and it was even true when someone like Georges Niang was tasked with creating off the dribble.

What really jumped out was less the creation of those shots and more the willingness of Philadelphia's shooters to let them rip. Tobias Harris was a more willing shooter down the stretch last year and talked up the work he put in there this summer, but it was still nice to see him let shots fly with no hesitation. Even when results weren't there for guys like Thybulle, watching the ball swing around the perimeter in the first half was inspiring, and certainly gives you hope they'll have a great offense when all of the stars play.

• There were some highs and lows for the Sixers on defense in this one, but I did think you could see the early stages of their new identity in this game. With more wing-sized players on the roster than they've had in a long time, the Sixers want to switch early and switch often, and they looked fairly committed to that goal with the normal rotation guys in the game.

The Sixers have kinks to work out, to be sure, but there were sequences where they passed off assignments and junked the Nets up that I thought showed signs of who they might be long-term. Can't wait to see what they look like with everybody available.

• Montrezl Harrell committed a billion fouls (all numbers approximate) during a short shift in the first half, but you are already seeing how useful he can be as an offensive contributor when Joel Embiid is on the bench. He's a better self-creator than basically any guy they've had backing up the big man over the years, and often times he can find his way to points without anything complicated being run for him. Harrell is going to beat opponents to spots, get early position on the break, and pull down enough offensive rebounds to make a living in Philly.

He showed off all of that against Brooklyn on Monday night, pinballing into Nets players and earning trips to the line for his hustle. Harrell's teammates already seem to understand that if they throw him a lobbed pass as he's rolling to the rim, he's going to be able to make something happen. He plays bigger than his size, has soft hands, and kept anyone guarding him on their toes on Monday.

Fouling out sort of washes out all of that success, but it's the preseason, so we're not going to worry too much about that. 

• Paul Reed has shown he's beyond capable of beating up on the backups of the world, which is both a good thing and somewhat of a dilemma for the Sixers. Watching him dominate a stretch of the third quarter was terrific, with Reed proving to be too much to handle for a Nets group filled with role players. The problem is that there are basically no more useful development opportunities aside from giving him real NBA minutes in a defined role. He is far beyond the point where G-League and G-League adjacent minutes do anything to help him.

To be clear, it's great that the Sixers seem to have two decent options behind Embiid, each offering a much different set of skills for Philly. Reed's timing on defense was pretty good throughout his time on the floor, and he did a better job of rebounding than the last time we saw him, overwhelmed by the Heat in the second round of the playoffs. As always, he was all around the ball, and save for one funny moment in transition in the first half, he kept the freelancing to a minimum.

I hope that Reed and Harrell have a spirited battle for these minutes all year, because it will be for the best for this group.

• You could make an argument that Furkan Korkmaz was the player of the second half for Philly, a guy who reached deep in the bag on-ball and looked plenty capable as an off-ball threat. His shooting took a massive dip last season, something that had him on poor terms with most Sixers fans, but he remains one of the few guys who might offer credible movement shooting on this roster.

The other is Isaiah Joe, who had some shaky moments on defense but ultimately had a game that was better than I think his line suggests. Critically, Joe was a dangerous shooter throughout the night, and he had a great sequence late in the third quarter, using speed to reach the paint and then find an open Korkmaz in the corner. He remains the frontrunner to secure the final roster spot, and while there's time left for the other guys — Trevelin Queen had some nice moments in the fourth quarter — I think Joe is still the prohibitive favorite.

• Julian Champagnie had an absolutely miserable time at Summer League, but he had a decent go of it to open the preseason. The hope with him is that he can eventually turn into a three-and-D type guy, and he got off to a good start on both fronts in Brooklyn.

The Bad

• Matisse Thybulle got the Sixers sales pitch heading into training camp, with plenty of talk about the work he put in and potential improvements that could be in store. Not sure I see much of a difference yet. Thybulle committed silly fouls closing out on shooters, still can't dribble more than once or twice without fumbling the ball, and watches his active hands turn into stone hands when they switch from defense to offense.

The last bit was especially dispiriting, as Maxey and De'Anthony Melton both hit him with beautiful passes on cuts that Thybulle ultimately squandered. His off-ball utility will largely come down to his shooting, but being a useful cutter should be at least some part of his game. Unfortunately, you have to catch passes in order to be useful as a cutter.

Consider me a skeptic, in other words. An ideal outcome for the Sixers would be not having to rely on him too much this season.

• It was not exactly a sparkling debut for Melton, who showed you some of the limitations we discussed with his game this summer. When you keep him in a simplified role that asks him to attack on straight-line drives and knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers, you're cooking with gas. Once he becomes one of your primary creative forces, you're going to get in a bit of trouble.

The Sixers got in a lot of trouble with Melton at the controls on Monday. There were silly turnovers in transition, forced-up jumpers from three and from midrange, just too many errors from a guy who needs to be one of your more trusted ball-handlers.

I'm not especially worried about Melton shooting this poorly on an average night, but I do worry a bit about his shot selection and how they can structure units so that he slides into a role that works for him. With the full lineup available, those concerns aren't as prominent, so perhaps that's all it will take for Melton to look like the guy they expect him to be.

(And to be fair to Melton, there were some strong defensive moments for him in this one. Off-ball disruption is going to be his calling card, and he came up with three steals in just 17 minutes. Not too shabby.)

The Ugly

• I feel completely confident saying Ben Simmons is not going to play any different than he did in Philadelphia. He's not looking at the rim beyond eight feet, picking up his dribble in no man's land, doing his damage away from the ball and in transition. That may end up working in this team context, but anybody expecting a reinvention because he took time off is in for a rude awakening.

The Sixers defended this dude with Georges Niang for an extended stretch of the first half, and he did absolutely nothing. I can't believe we spent years arguing about this guy who never changes. 

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