Shake Milton wasn't in the Philadelphia 76ers’ rotation until the last three games. He'd appeared in just 12 games all season beforehand, averaging 8.5 minutes a night. Until January 22, Milton had played a mere 2 minutes and 34 seconds all month to start off 2020.
Now, with Josh Richardson injured, Brett Brown has given Milton a chance to not just play real minutes, but start the last two games.
In 24.4 minutes over the last three games, Milton has averaged 9 points (52.4 percent shooting, including 45.5 percent from three), 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists to 1.3 turnovers, and 0.7 steals. He's stepped in right away with confidence.
One of the ways this has helped him contribute is with his shooing. Milton, who shot 42.7 percent from deep on 5.1 attempts per game during his three years in college, hasn't hesitated to fire away. The Sixers lack quick-trigger shooters who can punish defenses as soon as they get an opening. Milton hasn't been afraid to shoot, taking 3.7 threes per game over his last three outings. He doesn’t hesitate when open, and doesn’t need too much space to feel comfortable shooting.
This pick-and-pop with Ben Simmons worked well against the Warriors. Simmons handles and Milton comes up to fake a screen before popping to the arc. Draymond Green goes under Milton to get back into the paint, and as Alec Burks spends too long occupied with Simmons’ drive to ensure Green has recovered into position, it’s easy for Simmons to fling a pass to Milton for three:
Milton isn't a point guard or lead ball handler. He isn't an overly advanced playmaker or explosive and dynamic enough off the dribble to lead an offense or break down defenders to create too much for others. The good thing is that he hasn't been trying to do too much, and he's making fast decisions with the ball.
Similarly to his mindset with the threes in the clips above, Milton has displayed quick decision-making in other areas. His finishing at the rim is one of the best ways he's been able to contribute so far. He’s found success with decisive cuts and swift drives to the basket when he’s found open lanes.
“There is a sense of poise and inner peace,” Brett Brown said after the Sixers’ recent win over the Lakers when discussing Milton. “He plays at a non-rattled level. He really doesn’t, to me, get rattled. He doesn’t get shaken up. He got 9 rebounds and he’s a two-guard. Both Furkan [Korkmaz] and Shake, for different reasons that you won’t see on the stat sheet, they are two of the pick-and-roll guys that I pair Ben with… 9 rebounds is very impressive.”
Milton made some nifty layups in the Sixers’ latest win against the Warriors, too, getting to the rim with spins and reverse finishes. Even though these came against the NBA’s 23rd-ranked defense, Milton does have a little craftiness to his game, with his combination of length to extend and finish, touch and body control.
Milton has thrown some sharp passes over the last few games as well. From simple kick-outs off drives to an accurate lob from above the arc to Simmons against the Warriors, he's kept the ball moving fairly well.
After giving him more minutes against the Raptors, Brett Brown said that pick-and-roll with Milton and Simmons is something he wants to utilize. There hasn't been too much of this yet, but Milton has had a chance to play with Simmons as a roll man and this should be something the Sixers continue to try.
Besides his limitations as a creator, Milton’s other main issues come on defense. While he has good size and length at 6’5” with a 6’11.5” wingspan, he’s hurt by a lack of explosiveness and strength. Faster guards and bulkier forwards can overpower him. It's fortunate that the Sixers can surround him with plenty of plus defenders and he's certainly not a Trey Burke-type liability, but Milton’s defense can be a weak spot nonetheless.
There won't be as many minutes available when Richardson returns, but Milton is helping his case to climb up the rotation. For one, James Ennis has been losing minutes for a couple of weeks now. Over the last four games, he’s averaged just 5.9 minutes and hasn't surpassed 8:32. Milton can’t match everything Ennis offers, such as better size and surprisingly good offensive rebounding. It’s also important to not get carried away this early into Milton's first stint as a real contributor for the Sixers. A much larger sample is needed to reveal just how effective he can be in the NBA. That said, he can clearly do more with the ball in his hands than Ennis, and he’s a superior shooter, from volume to release speed.
If the Sixers want to go a little smaller and assign some of Ennis’s minutes elsewhere, including when Richardson returns, Milton could provide better spacing and maintain a touch of extra complementary ball handling alongside Simmons. Or, given Mike Scott’s struggles, a more appropriate change would be trying to use some of his minutes elsewhere to keep Ennis on the floor more instead. Ennis has simply been the better player this season.
Time will tell how the rotation works out when this team is fully healthy. For now, Milton just needs to keep up his solid stretch of play. The Sixers couldn't have hoped for him to step in and perform much better after hardly playing all year. The simple fact that it's worth monitoring his play and sudden arrival in the rotation at this point of the season is a worthy development in itself.
Milton has grasped his new opportunity with the Sixers, and he's making the most of it so far.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.