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July 07, 2022

Summer League observations: Isaiah Joe game-winner pushes Sixers past Thunder

Sixers NBA
Isaiah_Joe_2_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers guard Isaiah Joe.

The Sixers somehow ended up in their third straight late-game struggle in Utah, but they emerged victorious thanks to an Isaiah Joe game-winner in an 80-79 squeaker.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Sixers got much better outside shooting from Isaiah Joe on Thursday night, which frankly is all that really matters for him. He is an offense-first player whose defensive flashes at lower levels has not mattered much against the big boys, and as long as he makes shots during his time on the floor, he's going to get chances to play.

If you simply watch him shoot the basketball, you want to believe this kid can be a high-level, multi-purpose shooter who fits on any team. His release is (or at least looks) effortless, and it's relatively unchanged regardless of whether it's a standstill three in the corner or a jumper he has launched after flying around a screen or two. 

Late in this game, it became clear to everyone on both teams that Joe was the hot hand for Philly, and the Thunder started sending a little extra pressure his way when he was put on the ball in those spots. Joe was in the zone at that point, though, and it allowed him to can the game-winning shot despite probably getting fouled in the process.

That's what everyone has wanted to see from this kid all along. 

Give Joe credit for this on top of the shooting — he fought to do the little things even when he wasn't involved in a play, even if he was at a physical disadvantage against his opponent. Joe pulled down a late offensive rebound in traffic to create an extra possession and score, then scored on a move to the basket that kept the Sixers on the see-saw with OKC a moment later. 

More to prove in Vegas, obviously, but Joe has done well so far. 

• The first half of this game showcased the version of Jaden Springer I think people were hoping to see in the 2022 edition of Summer League. Building off of a second-half against Memphis where he had a lot of success going to the hoop, Springer put his head down and just went through Thunder defenders on Thursday evening, standing out from the rest of the crowd to open the game.

As we touched on following their Summer League opener, Springer's handle swings between "in need of serious work" and "surprisingly effective" from moment to moment. The key for him on almost all fronts is how much he's able to impose his will physically on the opponent. Springer has a powerful build for his size, and though he doesn't have a ton of wiggle with the ball in his hands, he often remains calm in the midst of a tangle of limbs because he's strong enough to hold the opponent off. 

Being able to play through contact is a point of separation amongst players, and while Springer has real concerns to address in the years ahead, forcing defenders to take fouls in the painted area is the lifeblood of many productive scorers. That's true now, and has been true for the entirety of basketball's modern era.

Springer was also a lot more dialed in to start this one on defense, and given his defensive rep and production up to this point, perhaps we can chalk some of the Memphis struggles up to it being a first game back after a layoff. There were some sharp reads made off-ball by Springer, including a play where he prevented an easy dunk/layup with an excellent play as the "low man," and plenty of examples of tough, physical defense at the point of attack.

A lot of this basically stopped after halftime, with Springer hitting a wall on offense. Even at this level, it's hard to carve out a living if you need to constantly win with muscle. Concerns about how this all translates to the big league. At times, the issue is that he simply refuses to take a three that's there for the taking. Other times, it's that he lacks the touch to capitalize on the looks he does get. Ultimately, you can't ignore that he struggles with efficiency/accuracy, unless you're inclined to bet that he'll be good enough driving to the basket to offset that. That feels awful unlikely. 

Springer still managed to come up with some big plays when it counted, including an excellent defensive possession to seal the victory.

• Paul Reed pulling off a between-the-legs move on his way to the basket for a layup is half the reason Summer League exists. A lot of guys enter this process trying stuff like this and failing miserably, ultimately ending up as fodder for jokes on social media. Over the course of a few years, Reed has evolved from human meme to someone who can impact real basketball games, and now he can try out goofy stuff in this setting with no real fear of repercussions.

Reed is doing stuff like this, mind you, while still taking the games and his assignments seriously. He has been no less competitive as a third-year player in Summer League than he was in a playoff environment (okay, maybe slightly less competitive than that). Reed is still running the floor, still trying to clean plays up at the rim, still trying to get involved as a rebounder and disruptor whenever he can.

"Playing hard is a skill" is a claim I don't always believe in, but it is definitely a mentality, and not every guy has it. I think it says something about Reed that you never have to question whether the motor is running, especially in this setting, where he'd probably be forgiven for feeling a little tired of beating up on this level of competition. On the contrary, he keeps pounding these guys, and the real shame of this game is that we didn't get to see him go toe-to-toe with Chet Holmgren.

(To be clear, I am pretty sure he would lose that battle. I'd still like to see it!)

Though there were a few moments where Reed being the best player on the team led to him making some ill-advised decisions. We probably don't need to see too many midrange pull-ups from Reed, as I'm sure he knows. But I think he stopped himself before getting too wild a few times, ultimately playing just restrained enough to avoid venturing back into meme territory. Thank you for the entertainment, Bball. 

• Malik Ellison got baptized by Josh Giddey in the fourth quarter, but I loved the tenacity he showed during their time in Utah, and I think he did a better job than most of not trying to do too much. 

The Bad

• A lot of my complaints about bad performances over the past few days could easily be applied to Trevelin Queen. He hasn't hit shots, he's turned the ball over too much, and so forth. You don't want a guy who is only going to be a role player for the big club consistently biting off more than they can chew.

Those are important things to make note of, yet I still end up watching him and think there's more there than the production suggests. Queen can move with pace off-the-dribble, and he is seeing passing angles that most of the guys with the team in Utah aren't even thinking about. That includes the players on the receiving end of those passes — more than a couple of times the last two nights, Queen has thrown a pass only to watch it bounce off of somebody's hands for a turnover or a loose ball. I think his game scales better than a lot of these guys, though he admittedly needs to make more shots. (#Analysis as my colleague Jimmy Kempski would say.)

The easy argument to make here and excuse his inefficiency is that we already know he's capable of dominating G-League competition, so a dip in scoring form for a few games isn't super meaningful. What's more important to focus on is his ability to create advantageous situations for his team in multiple ways.

But hey, you still get dinged if the results aren't there. 

• Not sure Julian Champagnie could have put together three games where he was more anonymous than he was during this Utah run. Couldn't hit shots, no impact as a cutter, no standout plays on defense, no off-the-dribble juice, just a whole lot of nothing.

The Ugly

• Let's be clear, this has been pretty bad basketball all-around. But the content must go on. I'm going to be a sad man when Reed sits down for the rest of the summer.

• I don't blame them a ton, it's Summer League, but Utah's announcers constantly being unaware of who made a play was pretty funny for this entire run. You've covered four teams for three straight days, I would think it sinks in at some point.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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