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Sixers-Blazers Preview: Development doesn’t stop because Joel Embiid is hurt

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The Sixers have plenty left to learn about their young team.

NBA: New York Knicks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers and their fans have grown used to this scenario. It’s March, and focus is shifting to everything but the on-court product as the team takes a tumble down the standings. Visions of ping pong balls and draft prospects have replaced the hope of seeing Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons play together this season.

I can’t really blame anyone in the process of checking out, turning their attention to the young men who might become future Sixers. But the team’s downturn and the loss of their blue-chip prospects doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to tune in for, or that we can’t learn anything about the team in the season’s final months.

Look at the case of Richaun Holmes. Relegated to the bench for a lot of this season, the second-year big suddenly finds himself in position to start whenever Jahlil Okafor can’t go. A lot of Philadelphians like the idea of him as the long-term backup to Embiid, a cheap, energetic player who can soak up minutes and hold down the fort while The Process rests.

We don’t get to see Holmes play out this season as the primary spotter for Embiid, but his minutes are pivotal. Holmes will get more minutes than he ever has and will be forced to sink or swim. His ability to protect the rim — erratic at best currently — will be tested, and he’ll get a boatload of developmental minutes with which to grow out of his worst tendencies. The 76ers coaching staff is tasked with converting him from an athlete who blocks shots to a back-line defender who can impact games.

It’s certainly not as exciting as Embiid performing like a Defensive Player of the Year in his rookie season, but getting a fair read on things like Holmes’ defensive prowess (read: lack thereof) benefits the team greatly. The more information they have on their current players, the better, and Holmes is far from the only player with something to prove down the stretch.

Thrust into a starting role following Ersan Ilyasova’s departure, fans will hope Dario Saric can close out the year strong enough to be a serious Rookie of the Year consideration. But there might be a more important subplot to follow for the Croatian forward: how will he hold up when playing starter’s minutes against an opponent’s best lineups?

Saric’s raw stats have climbed when he starts and benefits from extra minutes, though it’s hard to get a read on how his play translates for his future role. Exciting as his last month has been to watch, the Sixers need him to be a much better shooter to get the most out of his skill set long-term. Improving his shot is the difference between Saric being a change of pace player off the bench and allowing the team to unleash he and Simmons alongside one another. The ability to unleash two outsized, genius-level passers would unlock a lot of things for the Sixers’ offense, and the path to that reality starts with Saric’s J.

Speaking of shooters, if Robert Covington can sustain his three-point shooting — over 38 percent since the start of January! — he is going to put real pressure on the Sixers financially. We’ve spoken at length about the borderline-elite defense The Rock has played this season, and the stroke his fans know and love has finally reemerged.

The majority of Covington’s offensive value stems from that ability to knock down shots; well over half his attempts have come from three in each of his three seasons in Philadelphia, and he’s still a limited offensive player despite slight improvements to his off-the-dribble game. The Sixers can live with that to slot in a player with the versatility to switch onto players as small as Isaiah Thomas and as large as power forwards. A big raise is coming for Covington next offseason, but the size of the raise is dependent on proving he has the legs to consistently impact the game on both ends.

Tonight’s road-trip opener against the Blazers — sitting in the West’s ninth spot and flailing desperately to hold off the surging Mavericks — is a sign of things to come. Though the Sixers’ focus will be on individual goals and development, they’ll face plenty of hungry teams jostling for playoff position.

Under Bryan Colangelo, the Sixers no longer have the same volume of raw, fresh-faced athletes hoping to build their case as NBA players. They don’t necessarily have any players who feel safe enough to rest on their laurels, but you can learn a lot about competitors when they’re relegated to spoiling things for opponents with realistic team goals left to play for.

This time is pivotal for the Sixers’ information collectors, who need to plan for future drafts, free agency periods and a whole lot more. Richaun Holmes’ propensity to chase blocks might not be as sexy a topic as Ben Simmons’ jumper, but we’ll get to see what the guys left standing are made of. The 19-game gut check starts at 10:00 p.m. in Portland on Thursday night.