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September 28, 2018

Brett Brown thrusts Markelle Fultz into starting role to kick off preseason

One of the things that I enjoy about being on the Sixers beat relative to other sports in this town is that there's still an air of mystery about rather ordinary parts of their season. With teams like the Phillies and Eagles, most fans can recite the important milestones in the preseason off the top of their head — the day pitchers and catchers report is a sign of how close spring is, and training camp opening is anticipated for months beforehand.

Basketball is still growing in this town, in part because of where this franchise has been for most of the last couple of decades. So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised when a friend sent me a text this morning and asked a very simple question: "Are all the starters going to play tonight?"

This was a common sentiment on social media too, and it helped bring into focus how conditioned a lot of locals are by the beats of the Eagles season. We'll save the high-level analysis for later — at least if you consider what I tend to do "high-level" — but here's a brief rundown of what to expect when the Sixers take on Melbourne United tonight.

Yes, the starters will play

We'll probably learn a little bit more about how much they'll play before tip-off, but you should absolutely expect the starting group to be out on the floor to start tonight. In last year's preseason opener, the gym was buzzing when Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons took the floor together for the first time, long before we knew how big a problem Fultz's shooting woes would become.

There's no hard and fast rule like football coaches tend to set with a number of series or quarters, but the top guys will get a healthy dose of minutes tonight. I would expect that the veterans like JJ Redick and the always protected Joel Embiid will see their roles marginalized, but they will get plenty of time to stretch their legs and shake off the offseason rust.

Simmons and Fultz should get ample time together

Brett Brown's tolerance for developing the pairing of Fultz and Simmons is one of the biggest stories to watch heading into the season. When he spoke to reporters at his recent luncheon, Brown admitted finding the balance between development and trying to win games now would be one of his toughest challenges this season.

But Brown is committed to making this thing work, and he believes this concern will dissipate over time.

"Somewhere with my responsibility to grow Markelle Fultz, with the reality that we won 52 games and lost in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference, where does that fit?" Brown said to reporters. "My immediate thought is that it will, and I'm going to give it every chance to do that, and I'm coming into the season to make that work."

It's hard for Brown to spell it out any clearer than that. Simmons has openly praised his younger teammate during training camp and brief glimpses of Fultz in action have shown he's a lot more willing to let it fly than he was even six months ago. So there's no better place to get things going than tonight, with no pressure to win and all the reason in the world to begin the development of this duo.

UPDATE: So, Brett Brown came out before tonight's game and dropped a reasonably big story on us — Markelle Fultz will start in place of JJ Redick tonight, and it certainly sounds like the partnership of he and Simmons is going to be given a chance to start right out the gate in the regular season.

Asked by PhillyVoice about how things would look, Brown launched into an extensive answer on the reasoning for doing so and the behind-the-scenes machinations that put it in motion.

I have done this before, we did it in San Antonio, we won an NBA championship bringing an All-Star off the bench. It was interesting, I went back to Pop and Manu and asked them to remind me of Manu, how did you feel, and Pop reminded me of why we did it. I've been thinking about this all summer. And things that Manu shared with me and Pop shared with me are similar to what we have here.

[JJ] is not going to play any less minutes, I'm just going to use him in a different way, and really sort of tap into him when he does come in. I think preserving his minutes and his legs, using him in crunch time situations, end of period, people in bonuses, is important to our team and ultimately I think him.

Markelle, you know, I want to see what we have. I want to see it. We want to see him grow with Ben and Joel, I want to try this early and see what it looks like early. I'm excited for it all, and JJ was incredible. We talked through this with him, if it was really something that was going to expect him and I really felt that, I would have taken that into deep consideration.

But he was as you'd expect, a tremendous teammate, Markelle's excited to get out there with Ben and Jo especially, and we're going to see how this looks.

Brown normally gives an extremely short and to the point answer about the starting lineup, so all this explaining on his end created more questions. The Athletic's Rich Hofmann asked a follow-up about whether that meant we should expect this to start the year, and Brown left the door open.

Maybe. I think like everything it's all on the table. For me, I want to have a starting point to how I'm going to sub the team. What's the rhythm to how I'm going to play these guys? For me that's as important as anything with the preseason situation, games that we have. So you can hit the ground running a little bit when you open up the season in Boston.

I feel like I would rather try stuff like this now, and learn, and feel it out. I'm not married to this, but I certainly hope to continue on if it produces what I think it has a chance of producing. Everything is still fluid, but you need to have a starting point, and this is mine.

And when I asked Brown another follow-up about whether some of the motivation for the move was prompted by a desire to get Fultz in a good headspace following a trying rookie season, Brown made one thing clear: this is about merit, and how he feels Fultz has looked through the early days of preseason.

The Markelle situation for me was, I'm looking forward to seeing [more of] what he did in September. You're not just going to move JJ for the heck of it so Markelle could feel confident. You've heard me say this, the gym's going to speak to me.

He came in and had a hell of a September. And I put him in funky situations all the time, some of them in front of you — having to go out and shoot free throws and let's have a look at this. And how are you playing defense? If we're going to do this, you're going to have to come in and guard. You're going to have to come in and play defense. And he did — he was really, really good on the ball.

Endorsements are not going to get much stronger than that from his head coach. Now, we're left to see what he does with the opportunity.

Markelle will shoot

I can't base this on anything but instinct and expectation, but I find it hard to believe you won't see Fultz shoot at least once tonight. He has been a confident and comfortable player in what we've seen at training camp so far, though the pressure is obviously a little different in front of a crowd than it is in front of friendly faces at the practice facility.

The Sixers are certainly aware of this, but they've done everything they can to help Fultz stay prepared for this moment. The same goes for Fultz himself — the guard has continued going through individualized workouts with Drew Hanlen at the practice facility, both shortly after training camp practices have concluded and late at night with most of his teammates gearing up for the next day.

He has prepared extensively for this moment and this upcoming season. Now's the time to see what all the work was for.

Experimentation with lineups

NBA rotations tend to take longer to crystalize than people like to think, but the Sixers are fortunate to return a lot of the members of last year's successful group. The starting group won't be tinkered with yet, but there is some intrigue in how the new additions will be used early on.

Wilson Chandler in particular offers the Sixers a little bit of flexibility that they haven't really had in previous seasons. With a bigger and more athletic backup on the wing, the Sixers can tinker more with sliding Robert Covington up to the four position and in general sprinkle in more athleticism throughout the lineup. They desparately needed a piece like that last season, and Brown has already mentioned to reporters that they will tinker with looks before settling on a long-term outlook.

Mike Muscala will factor into the rotation as well, and from the sound of things his role may shift depending on the matchup. He told reporters at Thursday's practice that he'd split time fairly evenly between the four and five spots, and his coach mentioned that he's a more credible defender at the five than Ersan Ilyasova was last season, which makes him feel confident he can use him at either spot.

I tend to believe Brown will settle into more "traditional" lineups, because that has been his reflex for most of his tenue. Forward-thinking though he may be from a basketball philosophy perspective, Brown seems more likely to use small ball as an infrequent curveball rather than a staple of their approach. But tonight we'll see what his baseline is for this group.

A glimpse at the role of their young shooters

Furkan Korkmaz exploded back onto the scene with a monster performance at Summer League in July, but the expectations for him locally seem fairly dialed back for a former first round pick. I'm not sure that tracks with what we've seen so far, and I think Korkmaz will be given a chance to factor in the rotation early.

In small pieces of action the media has been able to watch at training camp, Korkmaz has been a surprise inclusion in lineups that have featured several starters or important Sixers players. One brief scrimmage we were able to see Thursday saw Korkmaz sharing the floor with a lineup of Markelle Fultz, JJ Redick, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid around him. There are defensive concerns that jump off the page in that group, but it should tell you Brown is going to continue to try to get shooting on the floor when possible.

Landry Shamet is also a player to watch on Friday night, despite being out of sight and out of mind for many Sixers fans after he was ruled out of Vegas Summer League with a minor injury. He has spent his post-practice cooldowns working through shooting drills with Redick, and he looks a heck of a lot more comfortable than Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot ever did going through the paces with Philadelphia's resident deadeye.

Both players come with considerable warts on the defensive end, so their ability to crack the rotation will largely hinge on how successful they are converting open jumpers. If either can start off on the right foot, they may be able to parlay that into real minutes to start the season.

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