We have finally passed the unofficial start to the season: Media Day. I was lucky enough to be at the team’s practice facility in Camden to see new and returning members of the Sixers make an early impression as we kick off the 2019-20 season. Here are a few things that stuck out to me:
Josh Richardson’s role
At his annual Media Luncheon last week, Brett Brown indicated that Richardson would be the primary defender of opposing point guards. Richardson seems comfortable with this task, saying he thinks he can “put a Band-Aid over that situation,” referring to the team’s struggles against ball-handlers last season.
But what also jumped out was his comfort level with the concept of being a backup point guard at times. There is no clear-cut backup to Ben Simmons among Trey Burke, Raul Neto and Shake Milton — if the team doesn't see enough from that combination of players, we could see Richardson be given initiation duties.
Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle
Smith and Thybulle each independently referred to the other during their media availabilities when discussing their improvement over the summer. Thybulle described how he has observed Smith’s ability to do all of the little things and how it all can accumulate into an effective defensive player. Smith shared that he was impressed with Thybulle’s defensive anticipation and ability to outsmart offensive players.
Smith and Thybulle both have major defensive potential, but for different reasons. On that end, they could both benefit greatly from studying one another — Smith’s upside could improve dramatically if he becomes a turnover-creator on the defensive end, and if Thybulle can become more like his partner in crime as an on-ball defender, he can be one of the best defensive specialists in the NBA.
The most important thing that stood out was how comfortable each seemed with the opportunity before them. Thybulle is a true rookie, Smith is barely a second-year player, and they are vying for minutes on a team hoping to play in the NBA Finals. Yet neither seemed rattled in any way by the expectations.
Nearly every single player on the team brought up this team’s size and length during their availability, more specifically how those things can lead to this team being elite defensively. A few direct quotes on that subject:
- Tobias Harris: “I think we can be an amazing group defensively... I think that’s going to be the thing that separates us.”
- Kyle O’Quinn: “Defense is something that we have to do... if you don't play defense with that kind of length... I don't want to say embarrassing, but it would be like ‘What are we doing out there?”
- Ben Simmons: “I want to be the best defensive player on the team.”
Simmons in particular was excited to talk about the defensive end of the floor. Throughout his availability, he harped on not having individual goals — but he did at one point hint at hoping to make a run for Defensive Player of the Year. If we see the Ben Simmons who took D’Angelo Russell out of a playoff series for an entire regular season, this defense will be even scarier than originally thought.
Joel Embiid’s Load Management
All offseason, we have been talking about how the Sixers can ensure they have Joel Embiid at 100% when the playoffs come. We got our first bit of insight into how they plan to do that today, and it was a bit different than what I expected. The expectation has been that Embiid will simply sit out for more games, similar to what Kawhi Leonard did in Toronto last season. But that may not be the case — Embiid was reiterating his hope to play more than 64 games, his 2018-19 total that was a career high. Instead of taking more games off, it seems as if the plan may be to simply play him less during each game. Embiid’s workload was out of control early on last season, leading to him at one point leading the entire league in total minutes. He brought this up as something that should be avoided from now on. So don't be surprised if Embiid’s total games continues to ascend while his minutes per game begins to deteriorate.
A few other interesting tidbits
- It was no shock, but Al Horford seemed to have a ton of respect for Simmons and Embiid — he referred to the two as “young veterans,” players who didn't need to be shown the ropes or taught how to be professionals. Horford also downplayed his success against Embiid, quipping that he would have a good defensive performance against Embiid and then check the box score and see that Embiid had 30 and 15.
- Nearly every key cog in the rotation expressed that this group is already bonding. It seems as if everyone, from Brett Brown to the players, appreciates having a team in place in training camp rather than making drastic changes to the roster throughout the season.
- Joel Embiid seems to still be sad about JJ Redick’s departure. He expressed that he missed Jimmy Butler as well, but he went in depth about missing Redick and acknowledged that he may need time to adjust to not having his DHO-partner on offense.
- We still don’t know much about what this offense will look like. Horford and Harris did not provide insight as to what their roles will be in the half-court. It seems we’ll have to wait until we actually see these starters on the court together in the preseason to figure out how the offense will be different.
If you missed Media Day and want more details, don’t worry: I put together a thread throughout the day with what should be every single notable quote from every single player, which can be accessed here.