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October 04, 2019

Training camp notes: Sixers bench focused on establishing a defensive identity

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Zhaire Smith Summer league sixers Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports Images

Sixers guard Zhaire Smith started his second NBA season with a pair of dynamite dunks in the team's first Summer League game.

With all the talk in Philadelphia focused on the team's elite starting five, the leaders of the unit behind them have received little airtime to open the Sixers’ preseason. But it’s not a stretch to say this could be the best group they’ve had in a while, with a mix of reliable veterans and young players with upside on hand for Brett Brown to work with.

James Ennis is a man of few words, but he delivered a clear description of the group’s identity while talking with reporters on Friday afternoon.

“Bulldogs. We got Mike Scott leading us, myself, Furkan, Kyle, whoever’s on the second team is going to be bulldogs,” Ennis said. “We’re ready to get stops.”

It is no secret that defense comes first, second, and third for Sixers head coach Brett Brown, who has consistently rewarded players for taking their defensive assignments seriously during his tenure. The opposite has also been true — big men like Richaun Holmes often flashed at the offensive end, but missed rotations and a lack of defensive preparation put them in the doghouse.

That message has already trickled down to Philadelphia’s young players, two of whom were drafted predominantly for their physical gifts and ability to impact the game on the defensive end. Matisse Thybulle has probably been the recipient of the most praise for his work in the passing lanes throughout training camp, from the head coach right on through the veterans he’s expected to aid in their quest for a championship.

Though they’ve been lumped together as “Philadelphia’s young wings” at times, within that group there are points of separation between Thybulle and his counterpart Zhaire Smith, with the former excelling in more of a free safety role and the latter shining brightest when he’s asked to get into someone’s chest and prevent them from getting into the teeth of Philadelphia’s defense. It’s a small but important difference that may impact how they’re used and when in the rotation.

“Matisse’s ability off the ball where he can cover ground and shoot gaps and get in lanes and pick stuff out of the sky with his length stands out,” Brown said. “I think Zhaire’s gravity, his center of gravity where he’s just dogging someone at a lower balance level, he reminds me a little of Avery Bradley at times. I think that side of it stands out for me of him. It’s all under the roof that they’re tremendous athletes and for sure elite defensive players for their ages. That carryover into an NBA game will be part of their learning curve, but that is for sure how they see the world — they play defense.”

But that’s less surprising than the commitments we’ve heard from other players on the roster who didn’t arrive in Philadelphia with defensive reputations. Trey Burke, for example, is known predominantly as a microwave scorer above all else, and he stressed to the media this week that a lot of his energy and attention has been directed toward the other end of the floor.

“I know offense is going to come for me, defensively is the area I’m trying to really be conscious of,” Burke said Wednesday, “and I think they really appreciate that a lot. I was picking up full court, playing hard, diving on the floor, all the things a teammate wants to see me do.”

“[Brett Brown] challenged me from day one when I decided to sign here, he challenged me on the defensive end and said he was going to be on me all year about having that edge. It’s something I’ve accepted and I’m trying to get done every time I’m out there, trying to be the head of the snake…the point guard is the guy who really starts the defense, our pickup points are just as important as the guy getting back and guarding the rim.”

The buzzword of the week in Camden has been “focus,” with the players understanding they have an opportunity in front of them to possibly win a championship. Last year’s Toronto Raptors are instructive in this way — while it was Kawhi Leonard who delivered a lot of the kill shots for the NBA champions, it took contributions from players up and down the roster to get it over the line. Serge Ibaka hit three monster threes in their game seven victory over the Sixers, and Fred Van Vleet is a Canadian folk hero after his clutch shotmaking against the Warriors.

Saturday’s scrimmage will be our first opportunity to see the team in extended action, and while the headlines will once again belong to the starters, the bench subplots are plentiful.

Other notes

— For about an hour after practice concluded on Friday, Joel Embiid went through a series of shooting drills on the far end of the court. Though he consistently insists he’s not actually excited by the prospect of shooting threes, he puts in a lot of work to get better at it. He hopes it won’t be as necessary with this group this season.

“Like I’ve always said, I don’t really like shooting threes, but this year since we’re going to have Ben willing to shoot those threes, maybe it’s going to put my game more inside,” Embiid said. “I’m hoping he will shoot them so I do my job, what I do inside.”

(One of the underrated funny storylines on this team the past couple years, IMO, has been the team’s franchise center trying to goad the All-Star point guard into shooting more. Big men have been fighting coaches for the ability to show off their guard skills for basically the entire modern history of basketball, and yet the Sixers are dealing with the opposite problem.)

But the highlight of Embiid’s availability with reporters on Friday was easily his description of working with Roy Hibbert, the former All Star who Philadelphia hired as a player development assistant over the summer.

“Well I’ve been busting his ass,” Embiid joked. “Another guy his size helps a lot, another guy who is strong, so it’s been good. He’s in the training room every day after I workout because I’m always hitting him, but he’s a great guy.”

This season may yet reveal a more reserved Embiid, who has promised to drop the trash talk with opponents, but the NBA is better with playful Embiid in it.


Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kyleneubeck

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