Sixers basketball is back!
Well, kind of. It’s only preseason, and the ongoing Ben Simmons trade drama is hanging over the team... But nevertheless, the Sixers are playing again, and as someone who has been looking forward to just focusing on actual basketball, these preseason games will be a chance to start getting a look at this non-Simmons version of the squad.
The Sixers’ opponent for their first preseason outing has been through some signifiant change this offseason as well. After establishing himself as the greatest player in franchise history, Kyle Lowry left the Toronto Raptors and headed to Miami via sign-and-trade this summer.
As the Raptors face the Sixers in their first game of the post-Lowry era on Monday, Chris Boucher (finger dislocation), Khem Birch (health and safety protocols), and Pascal Siakam (left shoulder surgery rehabilitation) are all out. Gary Trent Jr. (left quadriceps soreness) is questionable. For the Sixers, Joel Embiid (rest), Ben Simmons (not with team), and Charles Bassey (not with team — he isn’t travelling to Toronto as the Sixers finalize his work visa, and he isn’t expected to miss any additional time) are out.
After an incredibly difficult season in 2020-21 and a 12th place finish in the East — having to play on the road in Tampa all year — the Raptors have a chance to start bouncing back now as they return to Toronto with an intriguing collection of young talent.
OG Anunoby is already one of the NBA’s top defenders and has consistently developed his shooting and ability to create more off the dribble. He showed more creation upside last season, and should be in a great position to take a leap this year. Fred VanVleet’s playmaking and shooting will be even more important without Lowry. Crafty sophomore guard Malachi Flynn taking a step forward this year would be a real help. Re-signing Gary Trent Jr. in free agency was key after Toronto dealt Norman Powell for him in March. Meanwhile, new additions such as rookie Scottie Barnes, a terrific defensive talent and playmaking forward, and Precious Achiuwa and Goran Dragic from the Lowry sign-and-trade will all be contributing, too.
If some of the young guys develop well, Anunoby does take a leap, and Siakam reminds everyone how good he is in a more normal season, the Raptors have a solid foundation in place for the future.
As for the Sixers, there are a few things to focus in this game and moving forward as they progress without Simmons and no new contributors in his place. The team’s top players won’t be appearing in every preseason outing or playing too many minutes, so the focus for now is seeing how the young guys look in altered roles.
Tyrese Maxey looks set to step in as the starting point guard. The Sixers will need his creativity, and he’s coming off a strong finish to his rookie year. He developed in all areas over the last couple of months of the season, whether it was relying on his floater less to get to the rim more, or sharper defense. He even dominated Summer League in the two games he played — taking a flurry of threes off the bounce was the most encouraging sight. The main challenges and keys to Maxey taking a leap will be how well he utilizes his pull-up three and handles more playmaking responsibility. Suddenly taking on more point guard duties won’t be easy for the 20-year-old sophomore. But when you consider his tireless work ethic and impressive development as a rookie, I’m certain Maxey will be making a jump in 2021-22.
Shake Milton is also taking on an increased role. He put a lot of work into his three-point jumper and defense this offseason, spent some time working out with teammates Maxey and Seth Curry in the summer, and received plenty of praise from Doc Rivers in training camp. Milton is best in a more off-ball, complementary ball-handling role, but how he fares with extra responsibility for the time being is something to watch closely.
Matisse Thybulle’s value has also increased in Simmons’ absence. The Sixers will need Thybulle’s defense more than ever, and it will be easier to increase his minutes without the worry of playing him next to another non-shooting threat in Simmons. Thybulle also seems ready to build off his confidence-boosting trip to the Tokyo Olympics with Team Australia. His campaign to make another All-Defensive team won’t begin until the regular season starts, but can he start showing any more offensive development in preseason? He already displayed a little growth last season by improving his finishing, cutting, and showing a touch more ability to use his handle against closeouts, but can he build on this? And, most importantly, can his three-point stroke progress?
Finally, we can see how new arrivals Georges Niang and Andre Drummond look. Niang is a quality shooter and adds some much-needed size to upgrade the Sixers’ backup 4 spot (as I wrote about in more detail here). He also made a strong impression in training camp last week, with teammates like Milton pointing out Niang’s intelligence and how fun it is having another dangerous shooter on the floor.
Even though Drummond has his limits (from underwhelming rim protection, to his shaky finishing and lack of range offensively), he’s an upgrade over Dwight Howard. For instance, Drummond is a better passer, he’s a more viable big in dribble hand-offs, he’s one of the best rebounders in history (as good as Dwight was on the glass last season), and he’s a more disruptive defender away from the basket with an average of 1.4 steals per game for his career.
With Embiid resting on Monday, Drummond could be stepping in to start with a healthy dose of minutes in his debut.
So, while it is only preseason, there’s still plenty to look out for with the Sixers as they return to play without Simmons.
When: 7:00 pm ET, October 4, 2021
Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto, ON
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic
Unfortunately, the Sixers’ road games aren’t being televised this preseason, but you can follow along with 97.5 The Fanatic, League Pass, and through Twitter as we cover what’s happening with live updates.