This is a weekly series where we’ll look back at one player’s performance to see who stood out and why. Whether it’s the best player on the team, someone at the bottom of the bench who stepped up, or anyone in between.
Last week’s results: 129-112 W vs. Atlanta, 94-108 L @ Cleveland, 115-106 W vs. New York, 130-136 L @ Los Angeles Clippers.
It made sense for Brett Brown to turn to a committee approach at point guard once Ben Simmons was sidelined with nerve impingement in his lower back. There’s no clear-cut option who can come close to replicating what Simmons can do. But one of the Philadelphia 76ers’ young guards has stepped up far more than others to earn a bigger role.
Shake Milton has been one of the better stories for the Sixers as this season has developed. This continued last week, with no Simmons and Joel Embiid being ruled out after suffering a left shoulder sprain. Milton has started the last four games, averaging 21.3 points (on red-hot 64.6/73.9/85.7 shooting splits), 3.8 rebounds, and 4.8 assists to just 1.3 turnovers in 33.7 minutes. He had a few of his top performances yet, capped off with the best game of his young NBA career on Sunday.
Milton started the week fairly slow, with 7 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists (2 turnovers), 1 steal and 1 block against the Atlanta Hawks. Embiid dominated with a career-high 49 points to lead the way offensively, and Milton did what was required of him by spotting up and moving the ball.
Milton got going on Wednesday against the Cleveland Cavaliers. While the Sixers team overall had a useless game, primarily thanks to the trio of Al Horford, Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson completely failing to step up on offense without Embiid, Milton thrived. He scored 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting including a 4-of-6 stroke from 3, adding 4 rebounds and 4 assists to 0 turnovers.
Milton found his way to the rim when he had openings to do so, and continued showing his constant confidence as a shooter. He’s comfortable firing if he’s a couple of steps beyond the arc or has a defender closing out on him, and has a quick release. These are simple qualities, but ones that the Sixers lack on their roster.
In fact, through Milton’s final three games of the week, he tied the NBA record for the most three-pointers made in a row at 13.
Milton showed more of the same against the Knicks on Thursday. He tallied 19 points on near perfect shooting (6-of-7 from the floor, going 5-of-5 from three and 2-of-2 from the free throw line), 3 rebounds, 4 assists to 1 turnover, 1 steal, and a pair of blocks. Besides more terrific shooting from deep, Milton played mostly solid defense and continued to show poise with his decision-making.
While Milton can’t consistently break down a defense off the dribble, he’s consistently displayed good ball security (he’s averaged 2.9 assists to just 1.1 turnovers since entering the rotation 16 games ago on January 22). Whether he’s leading a fast break, running a pick-and-roll or kicking out of a drive, Milton has been making sound passing reads.
After the Sixers played the Knicks, Brown discussed the team’s point guard situation in the absence of Simmons. “At this stage, if everybody is looking for a tournament, [Milton] is winning it,” Brown said. “He’s the starting point guard. The rest of it falls into place with some other ballhandlers that are more than capable. Shake has been a needed surprise late.”
Milton didn’t just impress against weaker opponents, either. To end the week, as the Sixers faced the Clippers on the road without their two stars (and Josh Richardson for most of the game), Milton had the best night of his NBA career.
He erupted for 39 points on 14-of-20 shooting, including 7-of-9 from three. He also had 5 assists to only 2 turnovers, which is noteworthy given his 39 minutes of playing time and high usage against top defensive talent like Patrick Beverley, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
It was unsurprising that the Clippers’ defense locked in on Milton as the second half got underway. There’s only so much you can expect from him against an elite group of wing defenders with his athletic and creative limits off the dribble. But the fact that L.A. needed to focus on slowing down Milton, and even threw some double teams at half court at him, says a lot about how much he was doing for Philly. Milton’s 26-point first half and overall play was excellent.
He hit a range of threes off the dribble with step-backs and pull-ups coming off high screens, he moved the ball well, got to the free throw line 5 times, made a nifty steal and dunk, and attacked the rim successfully, too. One particularly strong drive and scoop finish against Kawhi stood out most.
Milton displayed craftiness creating shots at the perimeter and attacking inside, and yet again maintained impressive composure all night. It would have been easy for him to get overly aggressive, but he never started forcing plays or bad shots. He looked more confident than ever in all areas of the game, despite leading the Sixers against a quality opponent on the road.
Milton didn't think he’d have opportunities like this, either. When he spoke with Brett Brown after the All-Star break (before Simmons' injury) to discuss his role, he thought he wouldn’t even be in the rotation.
After the Clippers game, Brown recalled what he said to Milton during their conversation. “You’re not playing. You are not in the rotation,” Brown said per The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. “I’m going with Alec (Burks), I’m going with J-Rich and Ben Simmons, and you have to stay ready. This is your role.”
“He did his G League duties, he comes in and sits on a bench and swings a towel. Now in March he’s the starting point guard on a pretty good team, and just had 39 points on national TV against a candidate to win an NBA championship. It’s a hell of a story.”
Of course, Milton has clear weaknesses. He isn't very explosive as a ballhandler and shot creator, and while he has good size, length and energy on defense, he can be a liability against stronger, athletic guards and wings.
Milton doesn’t need to do too much for the Sixers when they're healthy, though. Being the lead ballhandler and facing top perimeter defenders isn’t the expectation for him. Milton’s quick-trigger shooting alone can fit well alongside Simmons and Embiid. All Milton needs to do to provide offensive value for a complete Sixers team is spot up with confidence, hit a few threes off the dribble, run a handful of dribble hand-offs and pick-and-rolls, and make smart decisions as a complementary ballhandler. So far, he’s showing that’s what he can do.
Hardly anything has been going right for the Sixers lately. Shake Milton staying ready, putting together an impressive stretch of play, and emerging as another contributor has given the team something to feel good about moving forward.