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Improved second unit play on full display in Sixers opener

Furkan and friends offered a new twist on the all-bench lineup experience.

Philadelphia 76ers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Death. Taxes. Thanos. Simmo the Savage pwning noobs. Some things in life are simply inevitable. So too, evidently, is Doc Rivers using all-bench lineups. Rivers’ commitment to that sort of rotation was a point of consternation for Sixers fans throughout last season, culminating with the second unit getting outscored 10-0 by the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the second-round series loss.

It was with a knowing groan, then, that fans watched Rivers go to the all-bench lineup again in the 2021-22 regular season opener against the New Orleans Pelicans. However, perhaps knowing he would have to steer into the skid, Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey made a couple meaningful tweaks to the second unit in the offseason, and the results in the opener were promising. The Sixers’ bench outscored the Pelicans’ reserves, 45-17, in Philadelphia’s 117-97 victory.

The two frontcourt reserves brought in via free agency both played key roles. Andre Drummond was a full-on chaos element, and he made some head-scratching plays on his way to four turnovers, but he also made a positive impact in a lot of different areas. Check out this instantaneous high-low pass from Drummond to Matisse Thybulle under the basket:

The big man also performed extremely well defensively, collected four stocks, and brought down a whopping 17 rebounds in 19 minutes. I’ll drop this stat here to let you know how absurdly dominant that effort was from Drummond:

Following the win, Tobias Harris made a point of discussing everything Drummond contributed to the victory to reporters on hand:

“But I’ve got to highlight Andre Drummond tonight, the way that he played. The game could switch up and go a different way if Jaxson Hayes catches two of those lobs during that game, excites the crowd. The hustle back that Andre had and his willingness to rebound the basketball and just play smart for us, a lot of those plays didn’t show up on the stat sheet but those are momentum plays that can make or break a game. I just think his energy out there — and I’ve said it since the signing, but Andre Drummond as a backup five is a steal for us a team. I think to be able to have that type of talent to come in behind Joel, that’s tough for other teams to go against.”

Meanwhile, teammate Georges Niang fit into his new role with the club just as cleanly. I have a feeling fans are going to take to Mike Scott’s replacement so swimmingly that he might as well start wearing hockey jerseys and showing up at folks’ weddings. Niang was brought in first and foremost to knock down threes. Mission accomplished in the opener, as he went 3-of-4 from behind the arc. While the playmaking we saw from Georges in the preseason wasn’t needed Wednesday night, we did see his defensive activity on display:

Saving the best for last, Morey made the decision this past offseason to bring Furkan Korkmaz back on a three-year, $15 million contract. After one game, that deal looks like an absolute steal. Korkmaz channeled his inner rainmaker, shooting 4-of-4 from three across a 131-second period to put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter. The swagger was just dripping off Furkan as he pulled up for this 27-foot heat check:

We’ve seen Furkan get hot from the outside before, though, so perhaps more surprising was his ability to step in as the point guard of the second unit. With Shake Milton injured and Ben Simmons not “mentally ready” to do his job, Korkmaz assumed a somewhat unfamiliar role and performed better than expected at it. Sure, he had a bad turnover in the backcourt, but Furkan consistently made the right reads and would have collected a couple more than his five assists if his teammates had nailed more open shots.

No one is going to confuse him for prime Chris Paul, but if Korkmaz can get by for a few minutes as the primary ball handler, that ability will unlock a lot of different lineup combinations for Doc Rivers throughout the season. Rivers spoke to reporters after the game about having Furkan in that role:

“Yeah, Furk plays point guard in Europe. You remember we talked about that last year. We experimented with it a bit last year and it didn’t work out well for us, but you can tell that’s why he’s worked on [it]. That’s what we asked him to work on.”

Furkan spoke postgame about his increased comfort with the ball in his hands and playing point guard:

“Actually, I do [feel comfortable with the ball] now, because the first couple years in the league you are trying to get your spot in the rotation. You are trying to play what Coach gives you. And mostly for the young guys, this is just spot-up, catch-and-shoot threes and playing defense with mistakes. That’s what I did my first three years. But right now, Doc is trusting me. He’s giving me a lot of confidence, too. He doesn’t just want me to score. He wants me to make plays for others. I think this year especially I understand that much better than last year ... Of course when I was younger, I was playing point guard. I knew it was in my pocket, but I just never had a chance to use it. Every summer I’m trying to focus on my dribbling. … That was one of the things I worked on.”

Matisse Thybulle had a quiet night and still finished with four steals and a block because he’s a defensive savant. Isaiah Joe struggled with an 0-of-3 shooting line and two turnovers, but given how well he played in the preseason, he should be offered more runway before pulling the plug on his rotation time. Tyrese Maxey summed the situation up very well in his postgame interview:

“Everybody’s capable on this team. It can be any given night. Like you saw tonight, Furk was able to go out there and be successful. Georges hit some big threes. Andre was big on the glass. At the end of the day, basketball is a team effort. You need an entire team to be able to win — first unit, second unit. Whoever gets on the floor, you need their ultimate effort to be able to win a basketball game. So that was good tonight.”

All in all, the Sixers’ second unit offers much more reason for optimism than a year ago. While I don’t think we’ve reached the point where people might cheer for Doc dialing up the all-bench lineup, I’ll take not feeling a source of overwhelming dread when he goes to it as a much-needed step in the right direction. Sixers fans have enough to stress over these days.