What did you do on your summer vacation?
Over the last few years, the NBA has evolved into what people call a “year-long league”, as through the draft, free agency, summer league, and a string of All-Star trade demands, the league has been able to keep the public’s attention well into the summer. With all the drama, speculation, and flight tracking that has gone on over the last few years, it’s easy to understand why some would argue that the offseason is even more unpredictable than the regular season - but one thing you can count on each summer is a slew of workout videos, weight loss transformation photos, and plenty of optimism coming from players and fans alike.
Before letting school out for the summer and letting the team disperse to their respective summer homes, Brett Brown delivered personalized summer homework to each player to use as a guide for what they set up to accomplish over the warmer months. Let’s take a look at what some prominent returning Sixers claimed to be working on over the summer and see what some of the early returns have been through five games this season.
Points of emphasis: Low-post game, handling double teams, and conditioning
For the first time in his young NBA career, Embiid entered the offseason completely healthy, giving him his first real chance to refine some of the skills that made him an All-NBA performer in just two seasons of play.
Of course, the clean bill of health led to some talking from Mr. Process - who stated that he anticipates an MVP caliber season from himself and that he didn’t care that the Sixers swung and missed on high profile stars over the summer. Although the team has struggled a bit out of the gate, Embiid’s performance has been impressive.
Although Embiid has shown flashes of brilliance on the block, his shooting percentage at the rim has actually dropped from 69% last year to 64% this year, a number that likely stems from the decreased spacing that the Sixers have provided him with so far this season. The real jump in Embiid’s scoring efficiency has come from his face-up game and mid-range shooting.
So far this season, Embiid has increased his mid-range shooting percentage from just 41% a year ago to 49%, and seen a nearly equal uptick on his pull-up jumpers, going from 42% to 50%.
In addition to his scoring, Embiid has also done a better job taking care of the basketball this season. His turnover percentage is all the way down from 15.8% to just 7.4%.
Last season, Embiid turnovers came in all different shapes and sizes, but the most frequent boiled down to two categories, mishandling a double team and lazy passes - both of which cost the team dearly against Boston.
Although he hasn’t faced the kind of defensive pressure and double teams, the Sixers have to be encouraged by Embiid’s ability to cut down the turnovers in the early goings this year, as well as the fact that he has done so while increasing his assist percentage from 18.2% a year ago to 20.2% - a number that has surely been helped by his near telepathic connection to JJ Redick.
The other major area of focus for Embiid this offseason was his conditioning - something that was called into question often last season as he struggled to keep up with Al Horford during the Boston series. Embiid currently sits at 10th in the NBA in minutes per game, clocking in at 35.8 a contest so far, and although Andre Drummond would disagree, he’s looked spry through the first five games of the season.
Points of Emphasis: Foul shooting, Finishing at the rim, and jump shooting
Despite the encouragement he received from Celtics fans over the summer, Ben Simmons made it abundantly clear that he would not be shooting threes upon arriving back in Camden for training camp. Rather, Simmons spent the summer working with his older brother Liam, re-working his mechanics on free throws and beginning to build a base upon which he can eventually develop a workable jumper.
The early returns on Simmons’ foul shooting numbers have not been encouraging. He’s actually down from 56% his rookie year to 52.6% so far this season, but the reworked form does look better than the previous installment.
Like Embiid, Simmons has also struggled at the rim comparative to last season, dropping from 71% all the way down to just 62% - but as stated with Embiid, the addition of another non-shooter to the starting lineup is most likely to blame for this number.
One area that Simmons has stood out early on has been his on-ball defense, something that could have helped prevent Blake Griffin’s 50 piece special on Tuesday night had Simmons been healthy.
Ben provided Mavericks rookie sensation Luka Doncic with a “Welcome to the NBA” moment during the Sixers and Mavs time in China, while also proving to be the only Sixer capable of keeping up with Giannis Antetokounmpo during the team’s loss to Milwaukee on Wednesday evening, holding him to just 1-7 shooting when matched up one-on-one.
Points of emphasis: Lateral quickness and perimeter defense
While on stage during the latest live Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast, Dario had his Jabari Parker moment when he joked that no one cares about defense. The Homie was, of course, kidding, later stating that he’s been working on trying to improve his quickness in order to keep athletic NBA guards and wings in front of him when forced to switch on to them.
Saric may also want to note that the big guys in the NBA can be pretty quick as well, as Blake Griffin gave Saric 16 of his career high 50 points on Tuesday. Griffin shot 6-9 while guarded by Saric on Tuesday, giving it to Dario in a multitude of ways.
In addition to having his hands muddied by Griffin’s explosion on Tuesday night, Saric has also seen his fouls go up in the early stages of this season. His foul percentage is up to 3.7% from just 2.6% a year ago. Although that 1.1% might not seen like a huge jump, according to Cleaning the Glass, it knocks him from the 94th percentile for his position in that stat a year ago, all the way down to the 44th percentile so far this season.
Points of emphasis: Ball handling and finishing at the rim
Robert Covington is one of the most prominent role players in the NBA, thriving as a “3 and D” wing in the modern NBA. In 2017-18, he shot 37% from beyond the arc and was named to 1st Team All-Defense.
For all his accomplishments, finishing at the rim (lay-ups in particular) and putting the ball on the floor proved to be a bit of an adventure for Covington last season.
So far this season, Covington has improved his shooting at the rim, going from 64% to 67% at the hoop.
Points of emphasis: Jump shooting
Markelle Fultz is shooting 50% on three pointers. If only we could close the door on this conversation there.
It is true that Fultz is shooting 50% from deep, but he’s only taken six shots of the sort and has passed up on many more than he’s taken.
This *has* to be a jumper from Fultz. pic.twitter.com/Ayrq0MccwI— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) October 25, 2018
While there have been some encouraging signs for Markelle, he is still struggling with his confidence in the jumper and the team is still struggling with him on the floor. Lineups that include Fultz, Simmons, and Embiid have a -7.1 point differential and are in the 10th percentile for eFG%.
Just like the game results, so far the returns from the Sixers summer work have been mixed, but the wrinkles of a trip to China and adding another unconventional piece to the starting lineup have caused more turbulence than a team would usually expect this early in the season. The level of talent on this team is too overwhelming for them not to overcome these early bumps in the road, and with the work they put in over the summer, we should expect to see them back on track in no time.