As we approach our one year anniversary, and as the Sixers season ends, I cannot help but reflect on my first year actually covering the Sixers. Over the next few volumes, I will be discussing many aspects of the beat that people may not realize, but let’s start with a bang.
Today we will bring you one thing you probably don’t know about each Sixers player. These are based on discussions and/or observations that I have had with these players over the past year.
Highsmith was a 6’7″ rookie who spent much of the year as the versatile swiss army knife of the Delaware Blue Coats. Highsmith was signed to a 2 year two way NBA contract by the Sixers when Demetrius Jackson left to play overseas in January.
What you don’t know: Highsmith was discovered by Elton Brand himself. Elton Brand witnessed Highsmith put up a 20/10 game playing for Wheeling Jesuit against the University of West Virginia. Haywood went undrafted last June and did not receive an invite to Summer League, but the college Power Forward was dominant enough against a Division 1 opponent to earn an invite to the Blue Coats tryouts.
Highsmith and I formed a bond, both of us sort of being two way players. We first spoke in Blue Coats training camp in October, and Haywood joined our podcast multiple times over the season. He remains a model of hard work, positivity, and kindness. I enjoyed my time covering the Blue Coats immensely, and Hay was a big reason why. Funny little story: At Blue Coats media day, Haywood and I were talking, and we swapped Twitter handles to follow each other. When he told me his handle (since changed to Haywood24_7), I was like, “You sure you want to keep that?” I will not spill the beans on what the handle used to be.
Shake was drafted in the second round by the Sixers in 2018. At the draft, many people were actually surprised that Landry Shamet was drafted ahead of Milton. Milton likely fell out of the first round due to a stress fracture in his back that caused him to stay out of on court activities essentially right until training camp in September. As the season progressed, Milton dominated the G-League competition, scoring with his signature ease and grace. Over the season, his explosion and first step improved as his strength improved.
What you don’t know: Shake played 58 minutes in one day this season. Yes, you heard me right. On January 8th, Shake Milton played 38 minutes for the Delaware Blue Coats in an 11AM game at the Wells Fargo Center, scoring 33 points to go with 8 assists and 6 rebounds. Later that night, in the same building, Shake played 20 minutes for the 76ers in a blowout versus Washington. His total stats on the day? 37/11/11. I asked Shake that day if he had ever played two games in one day before, and he replied, “Not since AAU.”
For what it’s worth, Haywood Highsmith also played in both games but just 38 minutes total (slacker). Highsmith and Milton were the 25th and 26th players in history to play two games like this in the same day.
TJ is a process OG, we all know this. The pending free agent is beloved in the city of Philadelphia for his grit and his ability to “pick a motherf***er up full court,” per Jimmy Butler.
What you don’t know: TJ has one speed. He is as intense in shootaround as he is in a game. He is also a trash talker on the level of the saltiest dog on the high seas. TJ will cuss a mofo out just as much as he will pick them up full court.
Bolden was a darling of Sixers Twitter for the year he played overseas for Maccabi Tel Aviv. When he came over last year, he started the season playing stretch 4 in Delaware before being called up to be a reserve 4/5 in Philadelphia for the bulk of the season. His shooting was hit or miss, and his defense was prone to both highlight blocks and mental lapses. In all, Bolden remains a 6’10” prospect who has high upside but an uncertain future in the NBA.
What you don’t know: Bolden doesn’t really care what anyone thinks. In general, Jonah was media shy and uninterested in talking or opening up to us in the locker room. He was a reluctant interview and gave cursory answers. This doesn’t make Jonah a bad guy, because what you don’t know is Jonah Bolden is a star to an entire continent. Yes, Jonah Bolden, fringe NBA player, is a star in Australia. He grew up as a 5 star prospect in his home country. Philadelphia may be the 5th biggest media market in the US, but we mean very little to a guy who is followed by an entire nation of 24.6 million.
Simmons was famously traded, along with a future first round pick, to Philadelphia for Markelle Fultz. Simmons had flashes of good play in San Antonio while operating with the ball in his hands but had been uneven and often chaotic at times since leaving. His play in Philadelphia was unremarkable, and he ultimately lost the “tournament” for 8th man to James Ennis.
What you don’t know: Simmons often found out his nightly role and/or assignment from local media. There were multiple times prior to games where Brett Brown would discuss a role for Simmons in the pregame press conference. Brown’s media availability was an hour and 45 minutes prior to home games, usually 5:15pm. The locker room is open typically from 5:45 to 6:15pm before games. So this means that media would often go from talking to Brett to the locker room. It happened more than once where I would go talk to Simmons about an assignment, and he would react with surprise and say, “Well if that’s what they want me to do, I’ll do it.” Simmons is always professional in the locker room and added a veteran “been there done that” attitude.
Amir was the last NBA player to enter the league directly out of high school. He played his 13th season this year and has become a valued teammate and role model in the locker room. Perhaps the coolest dude on the team, Amir fully intends to remain in the NBA “until they kick me out.” Johnson is a bright presence on the team, thoughtful and extremely intelligent. He famously went to Delaware to play two games in February and March.
What you don’t know: Instead of being a big fish in a small pond, when Johnson went to Delaware to play for the Coats, he didn’t shower and leave immediately. He came early to practice, shared his story with the team, played in the game, and then stayed late after for an autograph signing and signed an autograph for EVERY FAN that wanted one. This was not an obligation, and he did not even discuss it with team officials.
Furkan is another free agent to be. He was injured this year and fell out of favor and shape. Early in the season, he asked to be traded due to unhappiness with his playing time. It goes deeper than just playing time, however, as his family was staying with him and disconnected from their home. I first met his family at the rained out Blue and White game at the Palestra. They did not speak English, and as the security guards were trying to get us to leave, they struggled to communicate that they were with the 6’7″ Turkish wing.
I was able to intervene on their behalf until Furkan came over to collect them to go home. As the early season wore on, it was apparent that his family was unhappy in a foreign city where they came to support a son who was barely playing. The entire situation was unfortunate, and I look for Korkmaz to go play somewhere like Cleveland or Milwaukee where he can be around other Turkish players.
What you don’t know: If you were surprised to see Furkan check in as the first player off the bench, 6 minutes into Game 1 against Toronto, you aren’t alone. Prior to Game 1 in Toronto, Furkan and I talked in the locker room. We discussed the upcoming World Cup in China where he, Cedi Osman, and Ersan Ilyasova will represent Turkey in the tournament. At no time did Furkan indicate (as I’m fairly certain he did not know) that he would be playing that night. Just 6 minutes into Game 1, Korkmaz entered the game in a surprise early move by Brett Brown. He scored 5 points, with 4 rebounds and 3 assists in 11 minutes in Game 1 before sitting out the rest of the series.
Bobi is huge now in Hollywood. The 7’3″ (probably without shoes) center was the opposite of a swiss army knife for the Sixers. He is undoubtedly a weapon to be used under certain conditions. In the Nets series, against a Brooklyn frontcourt lacking any ability to space the floor with shooting, Boban was able to play drop pick-and-roll coverage. The Nets countered by playing the same defense against him, which led to numerous wide open looks for him around the free throw line.
In the Toronto series, the matchup was the polar opposite. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka were able to shoot from outside which forced Boban into an unwinnable position. In just 10 minutes played in Game 1, Marjanovic was a minus 17.
What you don’t know: Boban answered the same question at least six times after Game 2 against Brooklyn. Boban had been left open in Game 2 and scored 16 points in 18 minutes on 8-14 shooting. When meeting with the media, he is considerate and really contemplates the question before giving an answer. After the game, he got dressed, I walked over, and we started talking about how Brooklyn dared him to shoot. He talked about being happily surprised.
After a few minutes, a local news camera crew came over and asked the same question, then another reporter came over and asked it again. Pretty soon, there was an entire scrum, each new person asking essentially the same query. Each time, Boban acted as though it was the first time he was asked and gave an answer that was earnest and open. It was a rare window into the surreal world of a professional athlete meeting the press.
Ennis was the eventual winner of “the tournament” as the primary bench wing. He quickly became valued and trusted by the coaching staff. An underrated Elton Brand move, Ennis gave the team floor spacing, defense, and sneaky baseline offensive board crashing.
What you don’t know: Ennis was a 24 year old rookie with the Miami Heat in 2014/15. He credits Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Chris “The Birdman” Andersen for helping him learn how to be a professional.
Mike Scott, favorite son of the #mikescotthive, was acquired in the Tobias Harris trade along with Boban Marjanovic. Elton Brand immediately mentioned Scott as a tough defender who could add physicality to the team. “He was not an afterthought in this deal,” Brand said. Scott is a legitimate shooter who had his second straight year over 40% from three. His reputation for toughness would seem to indicate he is some sort of bad dude.
What you don’t know: Mike Scott was perhaps the most generous player with the media all season. He never sought out attention, but he also never said he was too busy to talk and always gave sincere answers. He was one of only three Sixers to have previously played in a Game 7 before this season. We caught up in the locker room after the Game 6 win and talked about this. He gave me a great quote: “Game 7s are different, physical, chippy, the way I like it. My kind of game.”
“Game 7s are different, physical, chippy, the way I like it. My kind of game.— J Blevins (@JBlevinsPFO) May 10, 2019
I like our chances.. “ Mike Scott on how Game 7s are different.
He also said he hasn’t worn a Hockey Sweater in a while because he’s superstitious.
Quotes are currency to reporters, so this was a gift. I thanked him and proceeded to get out of his hair, but he stopped me and said with all sincerity, “I like our chances.” There was no one else around, he didn’t need to do that, but he did. He made sure I got something good. Mike Scott, is not a tough guy, he is an understated man of generosity.
Zhaire Smith had a weird rookie season. First, a Jones fracture put his season at risk, and then a terrible allergic reaction turned into a life threatening emergency. He lost 40 pounds while recovering. As his health improved, he kept much of his recovery a secret even from teammates. He was known for coming into the gym at the 76ers Camden practice facility in the middle of the night, away from prying eyes. He returned to the court in February in Delaware for shoot-arounds and finally made his debut in Portland, Maine in early March against the Maine Red Claws.
What you don’t know:
Zhaire and I had a very awkward time in Maine. The Delaware Blue Coats do not get much media coverage. Generally there are 2-3 reporters at a game in Wilmington, and quite often PFO is the only one to stick around for postgame interviews. As such, we have pretty significant access to get to know coaches and players pretty closely. The walls of formality and mistrust generally do not exist in G-League settings.
When news of Zhaire’s debut came out, I was already scheduled to represent us at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston Massachusetts. Portland is roughly a two hour drive from Boston, so I rented a car and drove up for the Friday night game. I was told by the 76ers that Zhaire would not be available to the media. That’s fine, understandable, and wasn’t a problem with one exception. It made things very weird.
What Happens in Portland
I arrived at the arena in Portland roughly 90 minutes before the game. I walked up to will call to find out where to pick up my media credential and was told there was a table inside. This is perfectly normal for a setup. What was unusual is I walked up to the table to find two employees and a grand total of one…. yes ONE media pass. That’s right. I was the only reporter covering the event for either team. As I walked in, the players were warming up. I know these guys, and I was greeted by the GM of the team. We had a nice conversation about their road trip and team dinner and other things.
The casual and friendly atmosphere was squelched when Zhaire hit the floor. He walked by me awkwardly; I did not initiate conversation and nor did he. In fact, it was clear he was cautioned against speaking to media, and he avoided eye contact but giving me side eye. Here we were in a road arena with hardly anyone around, and we had this odd barrier. He was ultra aware of my presence, and as a result I was ultra aware of his awareness. It is a hard thing to explain how awkward it is for two people to have to artificially avoid contact. Two days later, the team returned home, and Zhaire was made available to media. I look forward to Zhaire becoming more comfortable expressing himself in his second year.
Redick, in some ways, had a career year. He scored a career high 18 points per game. JJ shot 39.7% on 8 three point attempts per game as an important counterweight to the interior gravity of Joel Embiid. All this good news is countered by deficiencies with Redick’s on-ball defense. His 115 Defensive rating was dead last on the team (Justin Patton was first with a 103). This is surprising given the sheer number of minutes Redick was paired with Embiid who had a 104 Defensive rating.
What you don’t know: JJ is a sneaky cheat as a screen setter. You could make a legitimate argument that Redick’s main value to the Sixers was not his somewhat streaky outside shooting, but his ability to set screens and clog traffic lanes in the paint to free up others in the offense. JJ is known as a “perpetual motion dynamo,” and true to his reputation, he was usually moving on those screens. He got called very early in the Toronto series on a couple of illegal screens, which tells me it was something Toronto had pointed out to officials heading into the series.
Harris had his moments for the 76ers, who traded Landry Shamet and a future first acquired in the Zhaire Smith trade on draft night 2018 for his rights. Tobias was a reliable scorer in transition and a competent ball handler. He was a good shooter despite prolonged slumps late in the year.
What you don’t know: Tobias Harris is a first cousin of Channing Frye who he played with in Orlando. Frye, a classic stretch big, was an inspiration for Harris, but Harris says that he came to the realization himself that he would need to add a three pointer to his game in order to stay relevant in the modern NBA.
Butler came to the Sixers with a bit of a checkered reputation. Two of the most popular Process era Sixers were traded for him. The chance for things to go poorly were very real. In fact, not long after joining the team, he was involved in a shouting match with the coach in Portland.
But ultimately, Butler won over his teammates and coaches. “I can be difficult at times, but it comes from the right place,” said Jimmy Butler during exit interviews. Brown saw the evolution of Butler over time and gained appreciation for his style.
"We arrived at a place where they were a team, he emerged as a leader" Brett Brown on Jimmy Butler. "We arrived at a place where, if I'm able to coach him again… we can use him more correctly right from the get go"— J Blevins (@JBlevinsPFO) May 14, 2019
What you don’t know: Jimmy (not James, literally Jimmy) is more cerebral and calculated than he wants you to think. If Jimmy wants the 5 year max, he basically did everything to position himself for it in a city he finds palatable. If, however, he is more interested in something shorter term in a more suitable climate, it is possible he will go to LA. He almost certainly knows what he wants despite all protestations to the contrary.
If Jimmy Butler is the embodiment of externalized intensity, Ben Simmons is the opposite. Ben Simmons is an observer. He is always side eyeing, always aware. It is his greatest gift perhaps, that vision, that grand awareness. It also perhaps contributes to what may ultimately be his disconnect with fans. Simmons, by the counting stats, had incremental progress in his second year. Defensively, however, he became the queen of the chessboard for Brett Brown. Simmons was deployed against the opposing team’s best player often and otherwise used as more of a team defender in a switching scheme. The progress on that side of the ball was tremendous.
What you don’t know: Ben Simmons, like his countryman Jonah Bolden, really doesn’t care what we think about him or his game. This is not to say he doesn’t care about improving the weak areas of his game, but he will not do it because media, fans, or TV pundits say it. He tires of the questions about his shooting, and he has very little value for what anyone but his coaches and family think.
Joel Embiid has a nearly incalculable impact on an opposing team’s offense. I struggled to even find the right way to phrase a question to Brett Brown after Game 6 versus Toronto. He impacts an opposing team not just with the shots that he blocks or alters, but rather the very selection of shots that other players even take.
Nearly without exception, when Embiid walks to the bench, the relief of the opposing team is palpable and a track meet to the rim begins. He was a +90 in the Toronto series, a seven game series that they ultimately lost. Think about that for a moment. For the minutes Embiid played, they outscored the Raptors by 90 points. That disparity puts his impact in stark relief.
What you don’t know: Joel Embiid, the troll of all NBA trolls, is actually an incredibly respectful person. He not only respects his elders, he reveres parental figures. Some of the conflict early in the Jimmy Butler experience was due to their contrasting attitudes towards authority. Joel Embiid will talk trash to his peers, but he is a remarkably kind and respectful person at heart.