For the Philadelphia 76ers, Tuesday night’s 114-106 victory over the Orlando Magic was big in the sense that every game is big. The Sixers are currently tied in the loss column with the Indiana Pacers for third place in the Eastern Conference. Finishing third would likely mean avoiding the Boston Celtics in the first round, who despite their own struggles at present, have given the Sixers Freddy Krueger-level nightmares the last two seasons. As a result, every win matters a great deal this late in the season.
However, for one particular Philadelphia 76er, Tuesday night’s game had additional importance. With Joel Embiid, Boban Marjanovic, and Jonah Bolden all sidelined by injury, second-year big man Justin Patton received nine minutes of playing time off the bench. For Patton, those minutes marked his Sixers debut, and also just his second career appearance in an NBA game (he previously played four minutes on April 1, 2018 against Utah as a member of the Timberwolves).
It’s perhaps fitting that Patton would receive this first opportunity in Philadelphia as a result of a series of injuries, as unluckily, the 21-year-old has been no stranger to injuries himself. After being drafted in the first round in the 2017 draft, the former Creighton Bluejay suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot during the summer. Then, as if that bit of misfortune wasn’t enough, Patton broke the same bone in his right foot last September. Clearly, with that degree of injury-related bad luck, he was destined to join the Sixers.
After Tuesday night’s game, I spoke with Patton in the locker room about his long-awaited return to the court:
“It felt good. It felt like a long time coming. I put in a lot of work behind the scenes just getting ready with our G League team, in Minnesota, rehabbing here. It just felt good to put it all together and get out there.”
Since returning to health, Patton has appeared in seven games for the team’s G League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats, averaging 11.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks. While he was returning to form in the First State, Patton also stayed ready to return to an NBA court should the opportunity arise.
“When I got called up, I knew at some point that I was going to get the opportunity to get in the game. So you always got to be prepared, so I thought once I got called up, I was going to get in at some point.”
While his line of one point, four rebounds, and three assists against Orlando isn’t going to make any headlines, Patton didn’t look the least bit out of place, impressive considering his limited experience. Sixers head coach Brett Brown gave a positive assessment of his young big man’s first run with the main club:
“Not afraid. I thought he passed the ball well. He took the shots he should have shot, comfortably. I see size that moves; there’s an agility about his style of play that at his age and his skill set is really interesting.”
Patton’s passing was something I found impressive, as well. Here, he rolls to the rim and makes a perfect off-balanced touch pass to JJ Redick for a corner 3:
A minute later, he made the proper read from the top of the key, hitting Tobias Harris on a back cut for a dunk.
As to be expected for a player who only has 13 career NBA minutes under his belt, there are necessary areas of improvement. Something that stood out Tuesday night was Patton’s tendency to over-chase in search of blocks. Twice in the fourth quarter, Patton went after a shot he didn’t have a realistic shot of altering, leaving Orlando’s Khem Birch with an easy putback.
Aside from his on-court performance, however, the simple reality is that for a young player like Patton, it may be hard to see consistent minutes on a team that considers making the NBA Finals a goal for itself. In his post-game press conference, Brett Brown was pragmatic in regard to future minutes for Patton:
“He was on the court tonight because of circumstance, out of any of our control: injury. It’ll be hard for him to continue to grab minutes with the way our team is constructed and the calendar. Like in March, I don’t feel the need right now to do anything else but win games. And the development will come and maybe some more G League appearances. When I’m able to, I will use him. If something unusual like tonight happens, I’ll do what I did.”
Nevertheless, a return to an NBA court and making positive contributions toward his team’s victory have to be viewed as unequivocal successes for Justin Patton. These were the things he said the Sixers expect of him: “Bring energy, do the little things, screen-and-roll, and play defense hard.” As the regular season winds down, we’ll keep an eye on whether Patton is given the chance to bring those things to the table.