Tuesday night at 8:00pm, the Sixers will begin the 2018-2019 season by facing off against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. The matchup will be loaded with star players, scores to settle, and underlying subtext between the two teams. The microscope will be bright, as the game will be aired on TNT to kick off the season for the league at large.
Soon after tip-off, to be sure, Sixers faithful will begin mounting their list of gripes. It’s what we sports fans do. We complain, we pick apart, we fuss. We shouldn’t have drafted him, we should’ve signed him, Gritty>Franklin. You name it. But first, before the whistle blows, I’d like to take a moment to recognize some reasons for which we, as Sixers fans, should be grateful.
It was not long ago that I was talking myself into Jarvis Varnado as Marcus Camby-lite and trying to resell my Evan Turner shirsey on eBay. The Sixers enter the season as Eastern Conference contenders with incredibly bright short and long-term prospects. NBA contention, like most things, is ephemeral. It’s here for a short window, it’s incredibly exciting and fun, and then you look up one day and Andre Miller is the best player on your team. We ought to take a moment to smell the roses. So as the season draws near, here are 4 reasons we have to be grateful.
Dario Saric and His Lovable Peccadilloes
It’s not hard to see why Dario has become the most affable member of a team chock full of charming, engaging players. The floppy-haired, hardly-athletic Croatian power forward makes the absolute most of his gifts, and his time as an NBA player. He treats postgame interviews like he’s being deposed, he celebrates like he just got out of detention in The Breakfast Club, and he made Jordan Clarkson really mad once.
Oh, and he’s also very good. His tireless, nonstop work on his game resulted in great improvement on his shooting numbers from year 1 to year 2, 41%/31%/78% to 45%/39%/86%. Dario fulfilled his promise to come over, and in doing so, rendered Process villain Howard Eskin forever, provably wrong, which is an added bonus. Just look at him.
Zhaire Smith, Eventually
Like many of you, draft night 2018 was a mildly jarring experience for me. First, with the 10th pick, the triumvirate of Brett Brown, Ned Cohen and Marc Eversley that was then running the Sixers selected Villanova swingman Mikal Bridges. This was a layup. According to the vast majority of mock drafts from respected NBA reporters, Bridges was the clear favorite to stay home and be drafted to Philly. He seemed like a perfect plug-and-play G/F, and an archetype for the kind of player NBA basketball is now favoring, one that the Sixers sadly lack. So they took him, good stuff. Happy for Mikal, his mom (a Sixers employee) and the team. And then this happened.
The Sixers employed a bold strategy by accepting a trade offer from the Phoenix Suns, which would net them Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder and high-upside 19-year-old swingman Zhaire Smith out of Texas Tech. The trade was a shockingly forward-thinking move for a team partially being operated by its head coach. In Smith, the Sixers nabbed one of the fiercest and most switchable defenders in last year’s class. While his offense and jump shot isn’t close to Bridges’ at the moment, Sixers fans should be excited to add a piece like Zhaire Smith to their young core.
Of course, because Nothing Gold Can Stay, the league-mandated Sixers Rookie Injury Bug was incurred by Smith after breaking his foot in August. He also had an allergic reaction that necessitated surgery a few weeks ago, because of course he did. But be patient, Sixers fans. Beating Boston in the playoffs is a tall task that requires a number of defense-minded wings on the floor at once. When April rolls around, Brett Brown should be able to deploy a lineup of Fultz-Smith-Covington-Simmons-Embiid in crunch time when they need a stop.
Landry Shamet, Late First Round Steal
If you’re like me, when the Sixers took Landry Shamet with the 26th pick in the first round of the 2018 draft, you did one thing: you googled Landry Shamet. I’m not a college basketball buff, but I knew most first-rounders at least by name. But not this guy. Who the hell is he? Well, it’s October and the ink on my Landry Shamet tattoo is nearly dry.
The most pleasant surprise of the Sixers’ preseason had to be Shamet, the off guard with a picture-perfect jump shot. The Wichita State alum (see, I googled him) hit 17 threes in preseason, and forecasted a translatable and fluid offensive game that should blend perfectly playing off the styles of current Sixers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Off the bench, we can now be reasonably optimistic about Shamet’s chances of being a lesser version of JJ Redick, and trust him to hit open shots, handle the ball in a pinch, and not be an eyesore on defense. After what feels like a lifetime of Anžejs Pasečņiks-eque whiffs, it’s encouraging to see that the Sixers might have nabbed an unexpected contributor for the 2018 team and beyond with the 26th pick.
Joel Embiid is Healthy, and He’s Ours
Yesterday, Under Armour announced its new partnership with Joel Embiid, which reportedly will make the Cameroonian the highest-earning big man on a shoe deal. As a part of the announcement, Embiid penned a personal account of his motivation behind the deal. In it, he expounded on the pain he felt after his brother Arthur’s passing, soon after he was drafted by the Sixers in 2014. He wrote about his offseason trip back home to Africa, and how affected he’s been by seeing the poverty not only there, but in his adopted home in Philadelphia. Time and again, he articulated how important to him it is that the partnership be about more than basketball, or popular shoes. He wants to make an impact. The article only further underlined the charm and care that the star seems to put into his every interaction with the Philadelphia fans.
From dubbing himself The Process, to continuously invoking the name of our lord and savoir Sam Hinkie, Joel has uniquely identified with our particular faction of the fan base since Day 1. He is a transcendent talent of the highest order, the most likable player in the league (unless you’re Willie Reed), and he’s ours. Through the losses, the load managements, and the navicular fractures, Sixers fans can look around now with pride because of Joel Embiid.