The Sixers are heading to Boston to take on the rival Celtics on Christmas Day, in what is quite easily the most high-profile regular season game that the Sixers have played in in many years.
Question #1: It’s been fascinating watching Gordon Hayward’s return to the NBA this season after his gruesome leg injury suffered on opening night last season. He definitely seems to be slowly but surely progressing into a positive NBA player again. If you had to guess, will Gordon ever get back to providing the All-Star level of an impact he did in Utah, or at least close to it? Watching Hayward’s progress this year and the flashes that he has shown, I’m leaning toward my official stance being, “Gordon will get back to the same level of production he had his final year in Utah”. That said, the new team context and injury fallout have still been there. Hayward still has very good defensive positioning instincts and finds ways to get himself into passing lanes and good rebounding areas. The biggest side effect the injury has had on his game is an unwillingness to draw contact. Hayward has his lowest free throw attempts per 100 possessions since his rookie year, and a lot of that is him just taking jump-shots. That said, he’s still showing flashes and I’m pretty confident he’ll at least be a high end starter by the time the playoffs arrive.
Question #2: Jaylen Brown has taken a step back this season. In addition to battling multiple injuries, his three-point shooting has dropped significantly after breaking out in that regard last year. He’s now been benched, with Marcus Smart taking his spot in the starting lineup. Are Celtics fans beginning to get nervous that Jaylen’s hot shooting last season was somewhat of an aberration? The Celtics seemed uninterested in using Brown as the centerpiece of a trade for Kawhi Leonard last summer- but if it proves true that Jaylen is nothing more than an okay shooter, does that impact how the Celtics would feel about potentially giving him up in a different deal?
Jaylen’s struggles have divided Celtics fans this season. More than the three point shooting, I think Jaylen’s struggles to finish in transition and around the rim have been what have really put the Twitter eggs on his back.
But while it’s clear that Jaylen is coming back down to Earth a bit, I remain pretty confident he’ll return to something closer to what he was during the 2018 playoffs- a good starter who will need to add more passing and improve his feel for the game to make the next step and become a fringe-star. Fun fact: Brown actually finished last year second on the Celtics in total +/-, trailing only Al Horford by 2. I find it hard to believe that a player that young could have as good of a full season as he had and then just lose it.
The question is whether he can be that guy with the current mix of players on the Celtics. I think he’ll figure it out, but even if he doesn’t, it behooves the Celtics to hold onto him through this next offseason, when Daniel Theis, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes and even Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have some sort of free agency. Jaylen has played in the back-court almost out of necessity because of the presences of Tatum, Morris, Hayward and Horford, so I wonder what a full-time move to the front-court would yield. Minutes and opportunity will be more plentiful eventually, and even if Brown’s nightmare season continues, I don’t see a reason to sell low when the team will look more like the one he succeeded with (2017-2018) next year.
Question #3: For Sixers fans, this Markelle Fultz saga has been brutal to endure, especially considering Jayson Tatum’s nearly immediate rise to excellence in Boston. What has it been like as a Celtics fan to watch what has unfolded with Fultz in the last year or so?
I might be a little insulated following primarily writers and people who are nuanced and kind, but largely what I’ve seen from Celtics fans is a want for Fultz to succeed. There was a period of time where him in green seem imminent, and a lot of us never really left that “protect Markelle” mode. Also, on a human level it’s just not fun to watch a guy struggle the way he has. Simmons and Embiid have drawn much more ire from Celtics fans, and I think the general wish is that he gets traded from Philly somewhere else and his career is rejuvenated. You know, because we like Markelle but we are going to stay petty.
Huge thanks to Sam for taking the time to answer our questions! And Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate.