The Philadelphia 76ers’ 2019-20 season is best described as disappointing. From the terrible fit of Al Horford to the injury of Ben Simmons, hardly anything has gone right for the Sixers. And now, with the NBA postponed for the foreseeable future due to the coronavirus pandemic, everyone’s focus has rightfully shifted onto matters that are far more important than basketball.
When looking at takeaways from the Sixers’ season, though, there are some positives. Perhaps at the top of this short list is the play of their young trio of guards and wings.
Matisse Thybulle exploded onto the scene as he entered the NBA. He’s one of the most talented rookie defenders we’ve ever seen, and he proved it immediately with eye-popping steal and block numbers, stringing together extremely smart, athletic plays that few others can.
As exciting as Thybulle’s future is for the Sixers, his rookie season hasn’t been plain sailing the whole time. His minutes have been rather up and down, as has his performance. After a terrific handful of games to start the year, he slowed down, bothered by typical rookie issues. His hyper aggressive mindset on defense hurt him too often with gambles that took him out of position and led to too many fouls, while his frenetic play on offense resulted in messy finishes and passes. Then, for a few weeks before he missed two weeks with a knee injury through the end of December and early January, he had his best stretch as a pro. His hot shooting continued (46.3 percent from three through 30 games before injury), he was more composed on offense, and he utilized his defensive gifts to be a highly impactful, disruptive presence without making too many mistakes.
After returning from injury, though, Thybulle slipped back into some rookie errors again. After shooting so well before his injury, he shot just 25.3 percent from three in 27 games since returning, and averaged 4.5 points per game with a 38.5 field goal percentage. He wasn’t at his best defensively, either. While he had good nights here and there after coming back, it was a relatively rough stretch for him overall.
It’s obvious how good Thybulle can be, though. As the plays in the clip below help demonstrate, he’s a special playmaker on defense. Whether he’s reading plays before they happen, flying into passing lanes, hounding the point of attack, contesting shots from behind, beating screens, or smothering pick-and-rolls, he can do all the Sixers need from him defensively.
Thybulle ended on a high in the Sixers’ final game, too. Against the Detroit Pistons on March 11, he tallied 9 points on 4-of-5 shooting, made a nifty assist off a euro-step drive to set up Horford, and picked up 3 steals as he bothered the Pistons on and off the ball.
Overall, Thybulle has delivered as a rookie. His offensive potential was always going to be limited, and he’s still got plenty to work on besides his jumper. His finishing at the rim is probably the next priority, along with being able to consistently make smart, simple passes and not rush his decision-making.
It’s unlikely he’s ever a positive (or maybe even average) offensive player. But his improved composure from early in the season and his consistent confidence as a three-point shooter is something to build on. If he can make any refinements to his offensive game and land somewhere around (ideally slightly above) the 35.2 three-point percentage he has for the season, that’s all he needs to do to support the value provided by his stellar defense.
During his impressive, more controlled stretches of play, Thybulle has demonstrated exactly what the Sixers want from him. He’s going to be a valuable piece of the rotation as long as he’s in Philadelphia. And on a rookie contract that will pay him a total of just $9,930,967 over the next three seasons, he’s great value for money, too.
The turnaround of Furkan Korkmaz’s NBA career is easily one of the top few stories of the Sixers’ season. After two years of struggling to find a real role and shoot any more than 32.6 percent from three (as he did in 2018-19), he’s absolutely thrived. Not just by his previously low standards, either. He’s proven himself as a quality shooter.
The Sixers needed Korkmaz’s shooting more than ever after going all in on a double-center starting lineup and losing JJ Redick in free agency. Korkmaz is second to Shake Milton on the team in three-point percentage (39.7), and leads the team in made threes per game (2) and total made threes (126). Besides Korkmaz’s general three-point numbers, he also ranks in the 88th percentile on spot-up plays and the 75th percentile off screens. His combination of volume and efficiency has been pretty impressive.
Korkmaz’s confidence has kept growing. He’s shown the ability to shoot without hesitating, a quick trigger, nifty pump-fakes and sidesteps (this helps him create space in the corners, where he’s shot 49 percent), range well beyond the arc, and touch off movement. Seeing as these are all traits the Sixers have lacked on their roster, it’s only increased Korkmaz’s value.
Along with some craftiness in other areas of his game — such as a little complementary playmaking and soft floaters when attacking closeouts — he’s given the Sixers all they could ask for on offense.
As his production, willingness to fire from all over the floor, and frequency of plays designed for him increased, Korkmaz started garnering real defensive attention. He became part of the game plan for opponents. And while he lacks the speed to spring himself open sometimes and shake tight off-ball coverages, that extra attention from defenses helps create more space for others.
Korkmaz’s best run of the season came in mid-February, when he became the first Sixer of the season to score 30 points in consecutive games. He played with more confidence than ever to show what he can do.
Korkmaz has also improved somewhat on defense. There’s no way he can overcome his athletic limitations to never be a liability, but he’s sharpened up his movement on the ball and his rotations.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, Korkmaz isn’t on a long-term deal like Thybulle. Korkmaz has only one year remaining after this season, but his salary for 2020-21 is just $1.76 million. For the level of shooting he provides, he’s an excellent value piece.
Shake Milton never expected to become such a key part of the Sixers’ rotation this season. He played fewer minutes earlier in the year and missed time with injury. Even once he reached the All-Star break after re-entering the mix and having a few good games (starting eight), he didn’t think he’d be part of the rotation. Brett Brown was honest, and told Milton as much during the break.
Now, when looking back at the entire Sixers’ season, Milton’s emergence is one of the top bright spots.
Since re-entering the rotation to begin with on January 22, Milton averaged 12.8 points (shooting 52.6 percent, including 51.2 percent from three on 4.2 attempts), 2.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists to just 1.3 turnovers, and 0.9 steals in 25.5 minutes per game. This includes his impressive eight-game run as a starter before the season came to a halt, while Ben Simmons was out injured. In this stretch, Milton put up 17.9 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists to 1.6 turnovers, and 1.3 steals a night, shooting 57.6 percent overall and 58.5 percent from beyond the arc on 5.1 attempts.
Some regression from three-point range will bring Milton down a notch, but he’s still broken out as a legitimately good rotation guard.
For one, he’s a quality shooter, possessing some similar traits to Korkmaz. Milton has range to fire well beyond the arc, he doesn’t hesitate with his quick release when defenders are nearby, and he can fire off the dribble a bit, too. The Sixers — who ranked dead last in made pull-up threes (1.6 per game) and 29th in efficiency (30.5 percent) — need that element of his skillset.
Milton’s poise often stands out as well. He rarely seems to get flustered and force bad shots or careless passes. He takes good care of the ball, and generally makes smart, accurate passing reads. And even though he isn’t very dynamic or explosive in isolation, he can work fairly well off the dribble in pick-and-roll and dribble hand-off scenarios, especially for a secondary ball handler. When the Sixers are healthy and return to action, this is where he’ll be best suited anyway.
He has some craftiness and touch to help him on drives. He takes his time, attacks assertively when openings present themselves, and has great length with his 7-foot wingspan to extend past defenders at the rim, which he uses to drop in plenty of scoop finishes. And again, unlike most Sixers, he has the skill to utilize a pull-up jumper when working with high screens.
Milton exploded for national attention when he scored a career-high 39 points on 14-of-20 shooting against the Clippers on March 1. It was a statement for the young guard. He led a depleted Sixers team against an elite defense — facing pressure from the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley — played point with composure throughout, and scored in a variety of ways. Besides his 7-of-9 shooting from three-point range, some of his plays inside the arc, such as a strong drive on Kawhi, were equally eye-catching.
Obviously Milton has his limitations. His lacking explosiveness holds him back somewhat as a lead guard. On defense, his 6’5” frame and length can help him disrupt plays here and there, but he can easily be a liability against faster, stronger opponents.
He still brings plenty of offensive qualities to the table, though. What makes Milton even better is his contract. He’s locked up for the next three years with a team option for 2022-23, and the Sixers owe him a bargain total of just $5,546,049 through the rest of his deal. With the way he’s played, the Sixers should be ecstatic with that value for money.
Milton also serves as a reminder that it’s good to actually use second-round picks. Whether you look to take swings on cheap talent later in the draft, or package picks together for trades, valuing these assets, rather than selling them or treating them carelessly (as the Sixers have done), is important.
The Sixers have depleted their trade assets and lost their salary cap flexibility. With so much money committed to the possibly immovable contracts of Al Horford (horribly overpaid and declining with age) and Tobias Harris (horribly overpaid and set to make $40.96 million in the fifth year of his deal in 2023-24), the Sixers need to find young, affordable talent more than ever.
Building a complete roster around three big contracts — let alone four, including Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid — is incredibly difficult. It’s going to be a major concern for the Sixers moving forward. Attempting to trade Horford, and making a good selection with the first-round pick from OKC in this year’s NBA draft, would be a start. Maybe Zhaire Smith will develop as the team hopes as well. But for now, his exact upside and chance to contribute is uncertain.
However, with Thybulle’s arrival and Korkmaz and Milton breaking out, the Sixers’ group of young, cheap, developing contributors is something they can feel good about.