Early in the first quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers’ 104-84 win over Melbourne United on Friday evening, Ben Simmons stole a pass, stood at the free-throw line and surveyed the court before tossing the ball off the backboard. After regathering the orange, he didn’t end up slamming it home — or even attempting to — and instead passed it to Markelle Fultz for an easy layup, but such a play signifies the preseason label attached to these games. They will be sloppy, especially early on, but they will be fun.
Ben Simmons throws it off the backboard to himself then dishes it to Markelle Fultz for the easy two.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) September 28, 2018
Fun is exactly what Simmons was, too. He was his regular passing-wizard self, slinging 14 assists, while adding eight points (4-of-9 shooting), eight rebounds, three steals and one block. His co-star, Joel Embiid, had his way against the lesser competition, dominating the interior with 20 points (7-of-11 shooting, 1 of 3 beyond the arc, 5 of 8 from the free-throw line), 13 rebounds, two blocks, one assist and one steal.
Dario Saric picked his spots and chipped in 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting (0 of 3 from deep) and three rebounds while Markelle Fultz tallied 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting, four assists, two steals and one highlight-worthy block.
Markelle Fultz with the chase-down block! pic.twitter.com/iglWX26XuI— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) September 29, 2018
For the most part, there’s nothing too noteworthy to glean from the team as a whole. It didn’t unveil much of the playbook and often scored in transition or just proved too talented for Melbourne.
However, that doesn’t mean the game was a total waste from an analysis perspective. Below, I’ve offered some in-depth thoughts on specific developments and will have some quick-hitting details at the conclusion of this recap.
New year, same Markelle Fultz
Fultz is the man every fan tuned in to see tonight. While his statline looks pretty, it’s tough to feel overly encouraged from the game. He didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer, passing up more than a few looks (both catch-and-shoot and off-the-bounce ones), and was a bit erratic — at least early — as a lead ball-handler. 2018-19 preseason Fultz resembled much of 2017-18 regular-season Fultz: attacking the lane, impressive feel as a passer and timidness as a shooter.
He netted a midrange jumper in the third quarter but that’s not going to be what elevates Philadelphia’s ceiling. Regaining confidence as an outside shooter is a process. He might not even consistently take triples this season and perhaps we set too lofty of expectations for him. He’s going to continue working with Drew Hanlen but the dynamic guard from Washington wasn’t on the court Friday.
Furthermore, he didn’t seem to play on the ball very often alongside Simmons, which was disappointing to see, as pairing Simmons with a capable ball-handler is the key to unlocking the full scope of his versatility.
Defensively, Fultz struggled to fight through ball screens but was an active off-ball defender. Those seem to be the norms at this point. Overall, the Fultz we saw on Friday is one who should have a rotation spot but isn’t likely to be worthy of starter’s minutes.
Ben Simmons: pick-and-roll maestro and post-up king?
The Sixers finished dead last in pick-and-roll ball-handler frequency last season, opting for more post-ups, handoffs and other free-flowing sets. But, at least from the eye-test, it seemed as though Simmons was involved in more pick and rolls tonight. Although he isn’t a threat to shoot outside the paint in pick and rolls, having him initiate high-screen action and enabling him to rev up before powering to the rim could be one way to manufacture buckets in the halfcourt for him, given his size, strength and quickness.
He even set a screen for Fultz and slipped to the rim, though Fultz mistimed his dribble-drive, shrunk the spacing and collided into two defenders before turning it over. Nonetheless, the fact that two-man game was explored is encouraging and worth monitoring.
Simmons was also aggressive in posting up against mismatches down low and his teammates made it an emphasis to find him. He struggled with post-up efficiency last season (0.69 points per possession, 17th percentile, per Synergy) but if he’s made genuine strides on that end, it could be a newfound weapon for both him and the team overall.
J.J. Redick’s bench role
Just before the game tipped off, head coach Brett Brown explained his rationale for swapping out Redick and inserting Fultz into the starting lineup. He said he wanted to preserve Redick’s longevity and paralleled it to Manu Ginobili’s backup gig with the San Antonio Spurs, an organization Brown once coached for.
It might not be a bad strategy, especially if Fultz is starter material. Anyhow, that didn’t seem to alter Redick’s role in any capacity, though. He came in, zipped around the floor and hoisted up shots, scoring 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting (2 of 7 beyond the arc) in just 20 minutes of action.
With Fultz unwilling to shoot from deep (so far), Redick could regain his starting role come Opening Night. Either way, he’s going to Philadelphia’s gun slinger.
- Jerryd Bayless saw 14 minutes of action and was ahead of T.J. McConnell in the rotation. Given the fact Fultz is healthy and there’s a need for shooting off the bench, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Brown opt for Bayless over McConnell.
- Embiid and Fultz seemed to have chemistry on the floor together. Fultz did a nice job of finding Embiid in the post and delivering precise entry passes. His playmaking remains his most impressive trait to this point and should be the primary reason he continues to see the floor.
- Mike Muscala and Amir Johnson played the majority of their minutes together, with Muscala as the 4 and Johnson at the 5. Lacking strong depth at power forward, that could become a regular pairing. Muscala was isolated on the perimeter defensively a few times and while he’s a bit clunky with his movements, he didn’t look hopeless. If he can he hold his own against other 4s on defense, it would give the Sixers’ reserve unit a shot in the arm.
- The bench rotation currently seems to be Redick, Wilson Chandler — who exited the game with a left hamstring strain after just four minutes of run — Muscala and Johnson. Besides the starters, those four were the only guys to see playing time before the final period.
The Sixers will take on the Orlando Magic at 4 p.m. inside Wells Fargo Center on Monday, Oct. 1 as they look to move to 2-0 in the preseason.