July 09, 2019
There is one general rule to watching a team you follow in Summer League — do not overreact to guys looking good in that setting, but make sure that you note when they fall flat on their face. While neither end of the spectrum is indicative of a prospect's future, you mostly want to see that the ideas and ability are there, even if the execution isn't.
The Sixers have been up-and-down during their first three games at Summer League, and there have been some individual trends worth keeping an eye on as we project what the young guys will look like on the big club this fall.
Remember — none of these observations are declarations about the sort of players they are or will be, they are simply what I have seen in a miniscule sample of games. With that in mind, some assessments from play in Vegas so far...
Zhaire Smith's ballhandling
A lot of the focus in projecting Smith's ceiling has been focused on his jumper, and rightfully so. If an athlete like him can also make teams respect him from deep, the floor opens up for the entire team and he becomes a much more dangerous player.
There's a case to be made, however, that his ability to create separation with his dribble is just as important. And while Smith didn't come back this summer looking like Kyrie Irving, you can tell that work has been put in to improve his handle in the year between his Summer League appearances.
Last July, you could tell that Smith was a college power forward who was in the midst of a transition to the wing. The Sixers asked him to create more often than he was capable of and it led to plenty of ugly offensive sequences with the ball in his hands. This summer, the reads look as though they're coming easier to him in real-time, and even something as simple as attacking teams in transition has looked more fluid for Smith.
Smith has always had a good feel for the game, as evidenced by his passing at lower levels, but he hasn't necessarily had the ability to put himself in position to show that off because his handle lagged behind. His improvement here in spite of the turbulent year he had should tell you everything you need to know about his work ethic.
Matisse Thybulle's off-ball disruption
If you were expecting Thybulle's transition from zone to man-to-man defense to be super difficult, you can't have paid much attention to what off-ball concepts look like for NBA defenses these days. It's not a one-to-one comparison, but you're making a lot of the same reads in both setups.
Thybulle's ability and effort on the defensive end has been evident even in a Summer League setting. In games where turnovers are piling up at a high rate, he has tracked back to disrupt fast-break opportunities, closed down space on players who thought they had open looks, and generally looked the part of a guy who can help them on D right away.
Is he going to produce several steals per game, as he did during his senior year at Washington? Doubtful. The last player to average at least three steals per game was Alvin Robertson in 1991, and he was a seventh-year vet playing 32 minutes a night. But Thybulle will be a nice weapon away from the ball.
The shooting confidence in Philadelphia's young wings
The jury is out on whether Smith and Thybulle are going to make shots when they're playing against the big boys. If they don't, life is about to get much tougher for the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
So while we're going to have to see whether the results are there or not, I think both players have at least proven themselves willing to let it fly without hesitation. Empowering shooters is an organizational philosophy for Philly, and they no longer have a sharpshooter like JJ Redick to shoulder most of the load. Threes are going to have to come from somewhere, and we've seen these two take (and even make) off-the-dribble threes at Summer League.
Zhaire Smith drilling a pull-up 3 is encouraging pic.twitter.com/5UUql8hkUV— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) July 8, 2019
Barring a Fultz-ian level mystery, we should see plenty of attempts from this duo.
Shake Milton, lob thrower
We will get to some issues with Milton below, but the one thing he has certainly done is to allow their vertical athletes to shine around the rim. At the very least, he's capable of being another guy who can grab a defensive rebound and lead a fast break, taking some pressure off of Ben Simmons to do everything for Philly in transition.
Norvel Pelle bringing violence at the rim
Not all of it ends up being legal, and I'm still not sure using a two-way contract on another big is a wise use of resources for this program, but if you're going to have one around, he might as well be fun for people to watch, I suppose.
For me, this has been one of the standout problems for the Sixers at Summer League. When Thybulle has been asked to create for himself, things have gone off of the rails far too often. It is going to take a little bit for him to be a competent attacker in the halfcourt.
The reason this would concern me more than Smith's problems did last summer? Age. Thybulle is coming in at age 22 as a guy who is supposed to be closer to a finished product. There was no confusion about the position he played at Washington, yet he still seems to lack a lot of basic wing skills guys at his age need to have to be impact players. When he has attempted to take guys off of the dribble at Summer League, the turnovers have come fast and furious.
If he ends up being just a defensive specialist, some will spin that into being a positive outcome for the Sixers, but I doubt that's what they would have been after when they traded up to get him in late June. There's a lot of time before we'll know what Thybulle looks like as an NBA player/prospect, but I have not been encouraged by what I've seen when he has to put it on the deck.
Milton's chance to get backup guard minutes
Even before he went down with an ankle sprain in Monday's Summer League game, Milton was having a rough go of it in Las Vegas. While some fans have chosen to believe he's the guy who will emerge as the leader of the backup point guard job, I just don't see it at this stage.
The problems here are the same as they were for Milton when he left SMU — he's sort of trapped between two positions. His floor reads leave something to be desired, which makes you think he should spend his time as more of a pure two, but as a scorer, he doesn't have ideal levels of craft or explosiveness, and you need both to regularly win one-on-one matchups at the NBA level. His shooting numbers have been absolutely dire in Vegas, and on the whole he has been rather disappointing.
The hope would be that you can stick him next to Simmons and other ball-dominant players and allow him to shine in a smaller role. If he makes shots and can attack closeouts, that will likely be enough to get him in the picture. But you would like to see more out of him as one of the "elder statesmen" at Summer League.
Pelle's ability to stay out of foul trouble
There is a decent amount of Richaun Holmes in Pelle. When he's able to make plays, they are spectacular looking, but his ability to discern when he should time his moves on defense isn't there yet. That leaves him out of position a decent amount, and he either has to rely on a weakside rotation to help him out or try to leap his way back into the play, which often leads to a foul.
This is a typical problem for young bigs, but Pelle is already 26 and will turn 27 during the upcoming season. Betting on him to correct this long-term is probably unwise, so this is something they will probably just have to live with while he's in the organization.
Thybulle's on-ball defense
This has been fairly mediocre in Vegas, but personally, I don't think this should be an actual concern right now. All young players have to come in and adjust to the size and speed of NBA opponents, and Thybulle is no exception to this rule.
There's one major reason this is notable — Ben Simmons is going to have to take the No. 1 defensive assignment pretty much every night moving forward until the Sixers' young, defensive wings grow into the task. Josh Richardson will certainly help here, though he is best served defending players on the lower end of the positional scale, leaving Simmons to defend the bigger wings of the world, as he did in the second round against Kawhi Leonard.
Right now, I don't see Thybulle as a guy who is going to come in and serve as a shutdown player. And that's okay – modern defense is moving away from reliance on those sorts of players, and the Sixers have been stocking up on more tough wings to cope with that reality. But I think it will be helpful for people to come into the season with realistic expectations for Thybulle and Smith, who have a lot of growing left to do to become the players they'll need to be for a team with championship aspirations.
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