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Sixers notebook: Shake Milton’s passing growth, Furkan Korkmaz’s versatile offense and more

Let’s talk through more early season observations.

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Every week or so, I’ll highlight trends I’ve picked up on during recent Philadelphia 76ers games. It’s not a novel concept, nor a new one from me specifically. I dabbled in it a few season ago, for those who remember. I want to actually be consistent with it moving forward. Hopefully, that’s plausible. Let’s dive in.

Shake Milton’s strides as a passer

Milton has been on the mind of head Doc Rivers throughout much of his Philadelphia tenure. Rivers praised him before the start of last season, often talked about the areas the coaching staff wanted to see him improve throughout the year and, again, praised him during training camp this fall. Much of this improvement centers on refining the intricacies of point guard, particularly growing as a passer and better blending playmaking and scoring. Through the early portion of Milton’s fourth year, he’s certainly accomplishing those endeavors.

“I think Shake has become a much better passer,” Rivers said Tuesday.

Prone to persistent drives with no consideration of passing last year, Milton is burrowing into the lane holstering greater discernment and floor vision this season. No longer is he predetermining the majority of his decisions and backing himself into precarious situations. When the ball is in his hands, he’s scanning the court, all the while aware of how he might be able to frequent his rhythm scoring spots.

“From a film standpoint, that’s helped a lot,” Milton said of his passing growth. “And then, just constant reps and knowing out of Doc’s offense, where open guys are gonna be and what’s the most effective way to get them the ball.”

He’ll boomerang live dribble feeds to shooters, has developed a rapport with Andre Drummond and responds to defensive rotations on the fly rather than aiming to chart them out beforehand. According to Cleaning The Glass, his assist-to-usage ratio has jumped from 0.80 a year ago (41st percentile among combo guards) to a career-high 1.08 (78th percentile). By broadening the scope of his passing reads, he’s better maximizing his touches and it’s helped the Sixers achieve the league’s top offense through 12 games.

Furkan Korkmaz’s versatile and vital offensive game

So, this segment could come at a better time, yeah. Korkmaz’s 2-for-18 showing against the Milwaukee Bucks Tuesday was rough. That’ll happen when you play 85 minutes in two days. Such struggles, however, do not take away from the impressive start he’s off to in his fifth season.

Despite a career-low 60 percent of his makes coming via assists, he’s averaging a career-high 12.4 points per game on 56.4 percent true shooting, which is a career-best 1.5 points above league average (also known as relative true shooting). He’s splashed home 13 of his 31 (41.9 percent) off-the-bounce triples. Even when that clip likely endures some inevitable regression, it should be met by an uptick on his 32.5 percent mark (13 of 40) on catch-and-shoot threes.

Part of what’s made Korkmaz so indispensable thus far is his versatility. The Sixers can tailor and scale up or down his usage to fit the circumstances. When Milton missed a few games to open the year, Korkmaz admirably filled in as backup point guard by creating for himself and others off the bench. Since Milton returned, he’s played off the ball more. But with so many offensive hubs sidelined as of late, they’ve needed his shot-making and facilitating to heightened degrees again.

Applying his 6-foot-7 frame and a crafty ball fake near the paint, his rim frequency is a career-high 25 percent and he’s shooting 88 percent (17 of 22) there. He’s a savvy cutter from the corners. They’ll deploy him in guard-guard screening actions. He can wind around screens or handoffs and fire on the move. He’ll run pick-and-rolls, and pairs well with Drummond. His unrelenting gumption, high release point, threatening shot fake and quick release make it difficult for defenses to contain him. Among non-Sixers circles, he flies under the radar as an excellent, excellent offensive player.

“The good part about Furk is when you draw up a play for Furk, for him to shoot, he’s going to shoot it. There’s something good about that,” Rivers told reporters following Saturday’s win over the Chicago Bulls. “If we can get him air, he’s gonna let it go, and that’s what you actually want him to do.

“I think what helps him, though, is his size and his ability to go downhill as well.”

Separate from driving and shot-making leaps, Korkmaz is also more regularly tapping into his distributing talents, both improvisationally and because the Sixers have asked more of him on the ball. His assist rate of 17.5 percent is well above his previous career-best 10.9 percent.

He serves out dimes to rollers in ball-screens, typically to his bench buddy Drummond, and has a snazzy overhead skip pass that he whizzes to corner snipers. Guys who can shoot, put the ball on the deck and pass are rare on this Sixers roster, and have been for years. Korkmaz is one of them.

Xs and Os stylings

Sporting the NBA’s top-ranked offense, the Sixers’ have been ripping through nylon to open the season. Much of that is because they’re second in three-point percentage (38 percent) and eight of their 10 rotation players are rocking a true shooting percentage above league average, including four guys who stand more than five points north of average. But they’ve also fruitfully diversified the playbook.

In last week’s home victory over the Bulls, they ran this nifty set for Seth Curry that saw him go from screening for Tyrese Maxey to receiving an exit screen from Joel Embiid. My pal, Evin Gualberto, labeled the set as “Pistol Nash Exit” and graciously broke it down for our enjoyment (follow Evin, you’ll be a smarter basketball consumer).

Not only do I appreciate the setup, the modifications off of that specific result are intriguing as well. Maxey could use the initial screen to attack the rim with an empty corner. If Curry is covered on the catch, they can flow it into an Embiid post-up and flank him with credible shooters on the strong-side. Swap Matisse Thybulle for Danny Green to optimize the spacing, if preferred (Green missed this game due to injury)

Another development involving Curry as a screener against Chicago caught my eye. The Curry-Embiid two-man tango is the Sixers’ go-to approach quite often and it’s lethal. Opponents are increasingly aware of that, though, and have begun to top-lock/deny Curry the handoff more often. So, as a counter, Philadelphia is just manipulating that strategy into an inverted pick-and-roll for Embiid, and featuring the big man’s expanded off-the-bounce prowess. Late in Saturday’s win, it sparked a go-ahead pull-up 3 from Embiid.

I’ve often critiqued this coaching staff’s offensive scheme. Yet with more creative actions and some counters to defensive coverage, there have been signs of progress early in 2021-22 compared to last season, and they warrant highlighting.