The Philadelphia 76ers are operating as usual, setting grand expectations on their high-end draft picks, offering vague recovery timelines on injured pieces to The Process, and treating anyone who no longer fits into that plan as a commodity. Welcome to the start of training camp in Philadelphia.
In less than an hour on Wednesday, the Sixers brass: 1) dubbed Ben Simmons an “elite passer” and “a multi-position elite defensive player” with “breakaway speed that is jaw-dropping” and downright Usain Bolt-esque; 2) gave no update on Joel Embiid’s status eight months after he suffered a knee injury the team initially called “minor,” other than to say he’s still not cleared for 5-on-5 practice and may not be ready for the start of the season; and 3) openly admitted Jahlil Okafor is being shopped.
All in the course of a media luncheon.
Ben Simmons: ‘He’s got a real chance to be great.’
We believe in Simmons, too, making him the top-ranked playmaker in our NBA 25 Under 25 series, despite the No. 1 overall pick in 2016 having not played a single NBA game. But the Sixers, who have already set “Hall of Fame type of player” expectations on the 21-year-old Australian, kept the bar higher: “I don’t say this lightly,” coach Brett Brown told reporters, “he’s got a real chance to be great.”
“He’s playing 5-on-5 basketball,” added general manager Bryan Colangelo, “and dominating the gym.”
More from Brown on Simmons, via The Inquirer:
• On his vision and intellect: “When I watch him, either in an open court or in a half-court situation, those two things immediately stand out and really make him an elite passer.”
• On his breakaway speed: “If you were to interview a world-class sprint coach, they would talk about that. … Baseline to baseline, there’s a thing we’re referring to as ‘Bolt’ when we talk to Ben, where, you are Usain Bolt, and off you go. It’s jaw-dropping at times, his ability to cover ground.”
• On his ability to defend multiple positions: “I think when you go to the defensive end, it’s where he’s going to make his biggest mark most immediately. I think right off the bat, he has a chance to be an elite defender, for some for the reasons I just said, mostly the physical side, the reaction side. There’s an Australian grunt in him, a grit — he was for sure raised in that country, you can see it.”
Just about the only thing we shouldn’t anticipate from Simmons in his rookie season is a refined jumper. “None of us should expect him to come out and start burying 3’s,” said Brown. But a 6-foot-10 dude boasting elite passing and defense with world-class speed? Sign me up for that guy right now.
Joel Embiid: ‘It’s not about being ready for the first practice, or the first game.’
Of course, these Sixers have always been an optimistic bunch. And why shouldn’t they be? They gambled the franchise on a few lottery tickets and won more often than not. I’d be confident, too.
Well, except when it comes to injury timelines. The 76ers have a long history of misrepresenting injuries, and the Embiid saga has been no different. What was once “a minor tweak” to the 7-footer’s left knee in January soon became a bone bruise in early March and season-ending meniscus surgery later that month, only after beat reporter Derek Bodner broke the news of a tear in the cartilage.
We’re eight months removed from the initial injury, on the verge of training camp, and Embiid is still not fully cleared. This is discouraging news about a player who missed the first two years of his career with foot injuries and played just 31 games, albeit spectacularly, on a minutes restriction last season.
“[The doctors] have him on a conservative path that will hopefully put him in a planned progression to have sustainable on-court success,” Colangelo said of Embiid, via The Athletic. “It’s not about being ready for the first practice, or the first game. And he will be out there on the first practice and the first game. The question is how much, how little, if at all.”
This news comes less than a month after Embiid said, “I feel a hundred percent,” and Brown claimed the Cameroonian center was “on track to play in the preseason.” As for minutes restrictions, which Colangelo said in June he does not anticipate, the Sixers are walking back on that suggestion, too:
“We all hope not. We all hope not, obviously,” Brown said, via The Athletic. “It’s our anticipation that they [restrictions] will not be as steep [as they were last year]. They may not happen, we do not know that. But I feel like they certainly won’t be at the level that they were at.”
That’s the bad news. Although, for what it’s worth, Colangelo added Embiid is “doing a lot on the court. More so than you would imagine based on some of the dialogue we are having today.” And Bodner presented another interesting reason for optimism: The Sixers just hired a new team doctor, and Embiid’s clearance could mean the mere formality of allowing Dr. Daniel Medina to sign off on it.
The good news on Embiid, who is a restricted free agent in 2018, is that Colangelo remains “cautiously optimistic” they can reach “common ground” on a contract extension before the Oct. 16 deadline.
Jahlil Okafor: ‘We are going to see what goes on with the rest of the league’
As for Okafor, Philadelphia’s other oft-injured recent No. 3 overall pick, the Sixers had little use for setting high expectations or optimistic injury timelines. The backup big man is available in a trade.
“Bryan’s going to do his job,” Brown said of Philadelphia’s GM, via The Inquirer. “I’m going to coach him, and we are going to see what goes on with the rest of the league in relation to whatever else is out there. But I’m coaching him like he’s mine.”
This isn’t necessarily a surprise. Colangelo shopped Okafor for almost the entirety of last season, added in April’s exit interview, “We discussed scenarios with his agent that we can find something mutually beneficial. But if not, I’m happy to have Jahlil a part of this organization,” and then spent the summer offering the once promising prospect to the rest of the NBA. Now, they open training camp telling us he will see increased minutes in Embiid’s absence as another audition for a trade.
I’m not sure this is the right tactic to drum up interest for a guy with two years left on his rookie deal who averaged 17.5 points in his debut season (even if he is a defensive liability and an old-school post player in a new-school game). But at least the 76ers are trying a different negotiation technique.
Nerlens Noel spent the early part of last season saying of Philadelphia’s big man logjam, “They need to figure this s*** out,” to the point he was benched. The Sixers eventually increased his role in January, but by then his value sunk so low they only got spare parts in return at the trade deadline.
For his part, Okafor has been a good soldier as far as the incessant trade discussions are concerned, telling reporters last month, “I couldn’t be happier” in Philadelphia. So, maybe Colangelo and company should stop holding up a “FOR SALE: DUDE WE DON’T NEED ANYMORE” sign, start using Okafor as an Enes Kanter-like scoring weapon off the bench, and quietly assess his value from there.
Yeah, Wednesday was kind of a wild ride for the 76ers brass, so we’ll leave you with this:
In one breath, Colangelo told reporters, “I think it’s almost unfair to coach to push two No. 1 picks out onto the floor at the same time and say, ‘Go win, take us to the playoffs.’ It hasn’t happened in 20 years.” And in another, the GM added, “I think it’s premature to throw anything out there with respect to a number and end goal, but I would say that our objective is to make the playoffs.” OK, then.
Meet the new Philadelphia 76ers, just as optimistic as the old Sixers, only better. Maybe.
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