Blackjack and Battier: Liberty Ballers Talks with Sam Hinkie

USA TODAY Sports

Here are a few takeaways from a long chat with the Sixers' GM.

To put it lightly, the past five and a half months have been eventful for Sam Hinkie, ever since he took over the reins of the Philadelphia 76ers in mid-May.

The team's new general manager and president of basketball operations pulled the trigger on a shocking trade at the NBA Draft, shipping out his best player for potentially two lottery picks. He also presided over a lengthy coaching search that became a talking point and raised quite a few eyebrows around the city. Almost an afterthought, he acquired two former 2012 first-round draft picks via trade, only one of whom eventually made the opening night roster.

Yet perhaps most importantly, on the eve of the Sixers' opener, Hinkie capped off the offseason in style by sharing an early breakfast with six bloggers.

Derek Bodner and I had the opportunity to be a part of this group. For almost two whole hours, Hinkie answered every question thrown his way, or at least honestly explained why he couldn't. The first two long sections are mine and the rest are written by Derek.

The mental aspect of player development

It's no secret that Michael Carter-Williams' jumper was lacking at Syracuse*. In fact, after shooting a measly 29 percent from three-point range in his only season as a starting college point guard, you could argue that it needs a decent amount of improvement for him to become any sort of successful NBA player.

It's also no secret that MCW's jumper is currently AWESOME in the NBA, among plenty of other parts of his game. Roll with me on this, though.

With the Sixers now highly invested in player development, the process of individual improvement becomes an especially important idea. Take Carter-Williams' jumper for example, specifically the process of trying to refine it. My thoughts tend to drift towards wondering if he's practicing the right things, like the proper shooting mechanics. Does he have solid form? Does he understand how his legs work? Is he gaining muscle memory?

On the other hand, when Hinkie talks about improvement in a general context, he emits a different vibe. It's apparent how much he values something far simpler than hand placement or a follow through: work ethic. Will he put the necessary work in on his shot?

"I think a lot of [improving] is mental, and how you want to get better, and what it is you want to work at," Hinkie said. "It's whether you're willing to work at things when no one's watching or whether you're willing to keep at things without seeing results."

Work hard and good things could happen; Sam Hinkie is basically selling the American Dream. A common refrain of the Sixers' GM is that he wants players who are "willing to work at their craft," which is another way of saying that he values hard workers. Of course, for the analytically minded thinker, this characteristic is difficult to quantify.

"I think it's one we're just OK at estimating," Hinkie said of an individual player's drive to improve. "We hope to ask reasonable questions to lots of people and try to strip out their bias and make an educated guess, but it's still just that. It's why we spend so much time with managers in college, trainers in college, and sports information directors."

Obviously, individual improvement can come in many different areas other than a jump shot. Some can be gained by simply playing against NBA competition. As he rehabilitates from a torn ACL, Nerlens Noel won't have that opportunity for either much or all of his rookie year. According to Hinkie, trying to improve while injured is especially where a player's mental toughness is tested.

"I think a lot of what will be good for [Noel] is just being around an NBA team, and the schedule, the travel and managing your sleep, body, nutrition, daily rehab, and daily strength and conditioning," Hinkie said. "You talk about, ‘He's a pro's pro,' one guy or another. That's often what people mean, if you can bring an everyday approach even if you're winning or losing, or struggling, or even if you're in a shooting slump, you can keep at it by being mentally strong."

Better shot selection

Throughout Doug Collins' three-year tenure as head coach, the Sixers ranked 27th, 30th, and 20th in expected field goal percentage. The 2012-13 Sixers compounded struggles getting to the rim with a well below average number of three-pointers. Instead of working harder for those shots, they seemingly (and mystifyingly) chose to lead the league in shots between 16 and 23 feet, the dreaded long two.

I wrote about this troubling trend last December, and ironically used the Houston Rockets as a contrast. Hinkie comes from an organization that highly values shot location, and he's bringing that philosophy to Philadelphia. Thus far, the preseason and regular season opener have yielded radically less long twos, as the Sixers have submitted shot charts that look like this, as opposed to this.

Again, that's a small sample comprised of mostly exhibition games, but the Sixers' shot selection and its effect on the team's offensive efficiency is certainly something worth monitoring going forward.

"Conscious," Hinkie said when asked to describe the change in shot selection. "Conscious. I don't have a good scale for degrees of consciousness but it's something our coaches have focused on. And in a tiny preseason, they've seen results."

When asked how specifically how he has tried to implement such sweeping organizational change, Hinkie downplayed the process, saying it involves nothing more complicated than a few conversations.

"We acquired Shane Battier in Houston and didn't have to say ‘Stop doing this and start doing all the million small things that drive winning.' It was like, ‘You've always done that, just do you. Encourage your teammates to do one more of them a month and that would be great.' That's very different from saying, ‘This is your game now,' take this out of your game,' or ‘put this in.'"

The level of accountability between teammates that Hinkie describes is how a strong team culture gets forged. Will the Sixers ultimately form a successful one? I honestly don't know, as that sort of thing takes time and is tough to quantify. But they'll at least take better shots this year.

Improving data collection

Hinkie described himself as "customer zero" of SportsVU, the groundbreaking system of camera tracking that is now in every NBA arena. It's perhaps no surprise then that Hinkie has brought over Catapult Sports' performance monitoring tools with him.

The tool is essentially a GPS device that each player wears during practice, allowing measurement of top speed, acceleration, change of direction, distance run, and numerous other variables.

"Every player has worn it in our gym every day since I've been here," Hinkie said. "You get lots of data back on a players particular workload that day, how efficiently they move. You get some sense of their conditioning, and that's sort of an objective look at their conditioning level."

"There's a lot of things you think, 'That should help, right?' And I'm one that's like 'we'll use it when we're sure it will help', and one of the ways you'll get sure it will help is track it. That means you have to be willing to track lots of things before you're really willing to change behavior."

Focus on what you believe, not results

It's something we've heard from Harris and Hinkie quite a bit over the past few months, but this time in somewhat of a different context.

This time it came from a discussion about shot selection and strategy, particularly as it relates to adjusting to what isn't working during a particular game or a short series.

"It means a lot about how you think about the world. This is what we're going to do, this is our plan. Until the first two-hour period in which it doesn't work. Then we're going to change our plan," Hinkie said. "What a lot of people can't live with is 'I'm going to do this, and then if the first three returns aren't positive I'm going to switch.' I'm obviously not that way."

"What's your perspective? Loss avoidance? I want to not get upset in the first round. That's your goal? Okay. You can probably do that. You can probably maximize that. If your goal is something else, then you might focus on something different," Hinkie said. "There's lots of randomness in everything we're doing, we just don't like to think about it that way."

"We can't control [the results]," Hinkie said. "I don't know any other benchmark [than evaluating process]."

"It would be like you sit down at a blackjack table and you say 'forget how you play, how many hands do you have to win to know you're doing what you should be doing?. If you win seven hands, is that enough? Or do you have to win eight hands?" Hinkie said in a comparison. "And you say, 'actually all you should focus on is what we know will lead to winning hands in blackjack over time.' "

Being quiet at draft time?

Hinkie said he expected the negative reaction when he went into isolation around the time of the draft.

"Change. No one likes it."

But it was done for a competitive advantage.

"Never. Never, never never [would I have said that]," Hinkie said, responding to a question about the rumor that he would have accepted Anthony Bennett or Victor Oladipo as well as Nerlens Noel on draft night. "If you spend a lot of your life trying to gain an advantage, step one is 'how can we keep it'."

"Everything we've talked about is playing the long game," Hinkie said. "Revealing a draft board is the shortest or shortest of short games. I will not make myself look smart or dumb or let my guard down at the very first possible moment, the morning after the draft."

"[Players] become available over and over and over again, in trade and free agency later in their careers," Hinkie explained. "Revealing early who you particularly like or dislike hurts that [competitive advantage]."

On Arsalan Kazemi going overseas

"[Kazemi] had several options at the end of the day. I walked through, with Arsalan in my office, all the options," Hinkie said. "Which [options] mattered to him, which mattered to me, and highlight that those might not be exactly the same, but that they could be similar, and that there's lots of overlap too. At the end of the day he and I both agreed that Iran was a good place for him"

"It is important if you're a rights owned player that you get a sense that you're part of our larger pipeline," Hinkie said about the situation Kazemi and Furkan Aldemir find themselves in. "That you matter, and that we're paying attention."

"I'll have weekly reports on how they're doing, and I'll watch a lot of his games on tape, and I'll probably go [for an overseas trip]."

Odds and ends

The draft pick the Sixers acquired from the New Orleans Pelicans remains top-five protected after this season as well, although it can be converted to a second round pick if the pick is not conveyed within the next three seasons.

"I almost picked up Joe Alexander the other day, just leak the rumor, just to see what Michael Levin would do."

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