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October 01, 2019

Training camp notes: Sixers open camp with spirited practice

Built around a pair of young players and flanked by an assortment of guys who haven't been here very long, the Sixers don't have a lot of institutional history to fall back on. But they all seem aware of the opportunity they have in front of them, and Ben Simmons believes they are already off to their best start as a group since he arrived here in 2016.

"This is the best first practice I've been a part of since I've been with the Sixers, for sure," Simmons said. "The energy, we went straight to it. We know what we want to do, we know what we're here to accomplish, and everybody has that mindset so we want it to stay that way. 

"We have a great opportunity, great owners, great coaches, great team that [Elton Brand] has put together, so we're excited."

The vibe is certainly different than it has been in years past, when the Sixers were still viewed as upstarts trying to shake up the NBA. There is no mistaking what this team is now — an elite team, a title favorite, a group that very well may own a claim as the best starting five in the NBA.

Questions about how they'll make it all work will come later. For now, their head coach is thrilled that everyone appears to have prepared properly for this moment, allowing the team to get off to a flying start in their first practice together.

"I think just the spirit of the gym stood out to me. You could talk about a big-big pass from Al to Jo or Jo to Al, you could see a two-man game with [Josh Richardson] and Joel in that spot that I had JJ [Redick] in. You could talk about Ben's leadership, his authoritative leadership" Brett Brown said Tuesday. "But I just feel like there was just a vibe in the gym that was really exciting."

Philadelphia's defeat at the hands of the Toronto Raptors has loomed over this team all offseason, with Brown admitting recently that Kawhi Leonard's series-ending shot was the toughest defeat he has had to deal with in his career. 

But the sting of that series has aided, not hindered the Sixers this summer. It has driven the work of the front office to improve the team, it has served as inspiration for workouts amongst the players throughout the offseason, and it is a constant reminder of how small the difference can be between winning a title and having to reshuffle a team around your stars.

At least this is a reshuffle the Sixers can be happy about. They have All-Defense caliber players throughout their starting lineup, and a bench that used to be devoid of toughness and athleticism now has a pair of young wings who fly around on defense and veterans who contributed to last year's playoff runs. There is a lot to be excited about in Philly.

One day at a time, though. From the get-go, this group should be able to defend even if they aren't always on the same page. The offensive side of the ball is a different story, as the Sixers try to find floor spots where Horford can excel without complicating life for Embiid or Simmons or any of their perimeter-focused players.

Even for the incumbents, there's work to be done to get new guys up to speed on plays they've been running forever. Embiid knows his dribble handoffs with Redick were hugely successful because of Redick's shooting gravity, and he believes he and Richardson can eventually weaponize the play, just in a way that takes advantage of Richardson's strengths.

"Josh brings something different than JJ," Embiid said. "[He's] more athletic than JJ, especially when it comes to back-cutting and me throwing lobs or him just turning the corner and attacking the defender. I think in that sense, he can do that better than JJ." 

Most importantly, the Sixers made it through the first day of camp without any serious medical concerns. For a team that has felt cursed with bad injury luck at times, a little ankle soreness for two-way player Norvel Pelle probably feels like a victory.

Other notes

The big winner of the day has to be backup guard Trey Burke, who received endorsements from not one, but two Sixers players. Simmons was the first guy to highlight his exploits on Tuesday, raving about the damage he was able to do with the second unit. 

"Trey Burke played amazing today," Simmons said. "He killed us in a few of the games, he was killing. He really stepped up."

Al Horford would later join Simmons in praising Burke, unprompted by any specific questions from the media, but still echoing the sentiment of his younger teammate.

"I was really impressed with a guy like Trey Burke, came in with a lot of energy, really scoring the ball at will, just being very active," Horford said. "I just felt like our energy was good competing against one another...I like the intensity we practiced with today."

Time will tell if Burke manages to win the backup point guard job, and in the past Brown has tended to favor the "steady hand" archetype behind his starters as opposed to going with players in a more volatile mold. Burke falls into the latter camp, but if he continues to show out in the preseason, he may win himself the job regardless.

Philadelphia's young players made a great first impression on their head coach on Tuesday, and it is imperative they keep that up. Unlike in years past, the Sixers don't have a lot of open rotation spots to speak of heading into the year, and they are no longer in a spot where they will force feed young players at the cost of potentially winning ballgames.

So far, no concerns for Philadelphia on that front. Both Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle grabbed Brown's attention on Tuesday.

"Those kids, I tell you what, there's a bounce, there's an energy, and they know what I know: I can't play everybody," Brown said. "They both are coming out to put their hand out and say look at me, and they did today. And that is for sure the quickest way you're going to get my attention is just sitting down and defending, and they really can do that... I thought those two defensively were pretty special today."

Brown has made it a point recently to point out how luring Al Horford is a win on multiple fronts for Philadelphia, strengthening their base while hurting the rival Celtics at the same time. The early returns on Horford are exactly what you'd expect to hear about the veteran big man, who has been lauded for his intelligence and awareness throughout his career.

"Just how cerebral he is, he really understands the game. How he finds cutters and that kind of stuff, you just got to be ready for the ball," Thybulle said. "If you're cutting, just be ready. That's what I learned."

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