One of my favorite things about the NBA is watching teams develop raw, young players. It may be the inner Process fan in me, but I’ll always have an interest in the non-household NBA names. Sixer fans know all-too-well about player development, thanks to the Process.
We watched Robert Covington go from G-League Rookie of the Year to an All-Defensive 1st team player. We saw TJ McConnell go from a no-name, fringe NBA player to a fan-favorite in the city of Philadelphia. Watching players grow with your favorite team is one of the most underrated aspects of the basketball world.
Draft talk is heating up as summer approaches. The Sixers are armed with a decent amount of draft assets; currently owning picks 21, 34, 36, 49, and 59. While trades involving second-round picks are almost certain, we can safely assume that the Sixers will look to find a diamond in the rough with their later draft picks and/or undrafted signings. These are the sort of players that are prime for a two-way contract.
As of this writing, the Sixers only have one full-time two-way player; Marial Shayok. Norvel Pelle was a player on a two-way deal before being converted to a full-time NBA contract earlier this year. Marial Shayok has been torching the G-League. He’s lead the Delaware Blue Coats to a 22-21 record, while averaging an impressive 23 points-per-game. The Sixers will likely consider bringing Shayok aboard full-time for the upcoming season, leaving them with two, two-way contract spots open - room to bring in fresh talent.
So, who are some names the Sixers should consider? Let’s get familiar with some candidates who are on my radar.
1. Sam Merrill, Shooting Guard, Utah State — 6’5’’, 205 lbs, 23 years old
2019-2020 Stats: 35.0 MPG, 19.7 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.9 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.1 BPG
Percentages: 46.1% FG, 41.0% 3PT, 89.3% FT
It’s no secret that Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid need shooting around them. The majority of the Sixers’ problems in the 2019-2020 campaign revolved around a lack of floor spacing. Losing JJ Redick hurt this team’s offense and they never really replaced him. Josh Richardson does a lot of good things on both sides of the ball, but he simply isn’t the elite shooter they need. So, why not bring in a guy who can shoot the lights out?
That’s exactly what Sam Merrill does, he shoots the ball and shoots it well. His percentages speak for themselves. Over Merrill’s four-year college career, he’s shot the ball 42% from behind the arc on almost 6 attempts per game.
So why is Merrill on this list of possible two-way players as a proven shooter in the modern age of basketball? Shooting is indeed his main skill, but he’s below-average in some key aspects. Merrill lacks athleticism and size. And while he can always put on some weight in the coming years, it’s unlikely he will ever be an above-average defender.
Still, on a team like the Sixers, this isn’t that big of a problem. As of right now, you have a good amount of talent on the roster that can defend. Players like Matisse Thybulle, Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, and Joel Embiid can help pick up any defensive slack that Merrill may create.Merrill is currently not on the radar of most mock drafts, and I can’t think of many better fits for the Sixers than using a two-way slot on an elite shooter. Why not take a swing on him in the late second round - or as an undrafted free agent - if you’re Elton Brand?
2. Cassius Winston, Point Guard, Michigan State — 6’1’’, 185 lbs, 22 years old
2019-2020 Stats: 18.6 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.0 BPG
Percentages: 44.8% FG, 43.2% 3PT, 85.2% FT
Our next two-way prospect is 4-year guard Cassius Winston. He brought a lot to the Spartans as a primary playmaker and scorer throughout his tenure with the team.
While Winston may lack size and overall athleticism he makes up for with an extremely high basketball IQ. He’s a very capable shooter and averaged solid percentages throughout his Spartan career; shooting 46% from the field and a scorching 43% from behind the arc.
The Sixers have slowly trended away from using Ben Simmons on the ball. We’ve seen Josh Richardson and Raul Neto play in lineups with Simmons serving as a forward or even small-ball center rolling to the rim.
These lineups were very successful; especially when Joel Embiid was out. It’s safe to assume that the Sixers will experiment with this more as time progresses. Winston could act as the perfect guard to put next to Ben Simmons in small-ball lineups, as Winston is very capable of running an offense and hitting outside shots.
The Sixers will have Shake Milton, Josh Richardson, and Ben Simmons on their salary books for the upcoming season and might look to add another secondary playmaker in the near future. Winston could be their answer at some point in the second round, providing great value as a two-way player.
3. Lesley Varner, Small Forward, UT Rio Grande Valley — 6’7’’, 190 lbs, 21 years old
2019-2020 Stats: 28.0 MPG, 15.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.3 BPG
Percentages: 43.5% FG, 40.6% 3PT, 87.1% FT
Varner is a perfect under-the-radar project for any NBA Team. He possesses all the necessary tools to become a great defensive player over time. He has ample height and athleticism, and a 6’10” wingspan to switch onto a multitude of NBA players - all musts for the modern NBA.
Varner’s play speaks for itself. He’s one of a few players in all of college basketball to average at least 85% from the free-throw line, 40% from behind the three-point line, and 1.5 steals per game per https://www.sports-reference.com/. Two other players on the list found success in the NBA; including Kyle Korver and Danny Green.
There is no such thing as having too many 3&D players on your team; GMs and front offices are always looking for two-way talent. Varner has the makings to develop into a 3&D player over time. He does need to fill out his 190-lb. frame, but that will likely come with time and training. Fortunately, Varner was gifted with good genes; as his father was a prolific college quarterback who had a pro football stint with the Chicago Bears.
A very unique aspect of UT Rio Grande Valley’s program is that they often deploy a full-court press for large segments throughout their games. We’ve seen the Sixers trend towards using a fullcourt press before, and it likely won’t be the last time they experiment with the idea. Varner thrived in the system and developed perimeter defending skills throughout his time in Texas.
It’s likely that NBA teams are watching Varner closely, given his much-desired skill set. In particular, the Houston Rockets may be eyeing him, as their G-League affiliate plays in the same city. The Sixers actually have roots in said area. One of their assistant coaches, Joseph Blair, coached the Rio Grande Valley Vipers for 4 years before coming to Philadelphia.
Personally, I am very high on Varner and think that he can become a very good role player in the league for years to come. He has all the necessary skills to be in the league; all he needs to do is to polish up his game and put on some weight.
He would be a great candidate for a two-way contract and the perfect player to use in the Blue Coats’ system, which preaches pace, space, and defense.
4. Kylor Kelley, Center, Oregon State - 7’0’’, 230 lbs, 22 years old
2019-2020 Stats: 29.1 MPG, 11.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.3 SPG, 3.5 BPG
Percentages: 60.4% FG, 68.1% FT
It’s quite possible Al Horford could be getting moved in the offseason if the front office decides to go a different direction. Let’s say the Sixers trade Horford in a deal to acquire a player who is a better fit (*cough* Buddy Hield *cough*). The team will likely need to get some depth for the center spot, as Joel Embiid needs to rest and remain healthy for the playoffs.
Two-way center Norvel Pelle gained the hearts of Sixer fans everywhere with his shot-blocking early in the preseason. He showed enough to Sixers brass to be rewarded with an NBA deal. Kylor Kelly has a very similar skillset to a Pelle (or even Mitchell Robinson type player); even blocking shots with his left hand as a righty.
I recently had a chance to talk to an NBA scout in the Western Conference about his view on Kelley, and he shared this insight:
He’s got great physical tools and size for [the center] position at an NBA level. His body type is a bit skinny right now, so he has to improve on that with the NBA strength and conditioning staff. He’s a great finisher above the rim and is a vertical threat in the pick & roll ... The guys I would compare him to overall would be [Mason] Plumlee or Greg Stiemsma.
Shotblocking is the best way to describe Kelly’s game. He’s a great option as the last line of defense around the rim, averaging a very impressive 3.5 blocks-per-game in only 29 minutes of play. Kylor Kelley has all the makings of becoming a rim-protecting center at the next level. He has great speed and athleticism, and good lateral movement which is critical for 7-footers to succeed.
He does need to (again) put on some weight, but Kelley has broad shoulders and will likely bulk up. One of the coolest facts about Kelley is that he had a similar road as Anthony Davis in that Kelley played both guard spots in high school before having a massive growth spurt. We’ve seen such centers grow their offensive game with time and with the right development Kelley can improve his playmaking and jumper with time. If the Sixers do decide to shuffle their roster in the front court, they could be looking for depth at the center spot. Kylor Kelley would help in the long term.
The upcoming NBA Draft will have a ton of talent that may fall due to a lack of information from the shortened season. Teams will have multiple chances to find quality NBA players throughout the second round. As we approach the draft (that’s hopefully soon?), keep an eye on the players above — new talent in the making.