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Is Shake Milton the key to the Sixers’ big playoff run? Why has he struggled from downtown?

NBA: Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid is out for at least a couple of weeks, and the Sixers are going to need other players to step up during their MVP candidate’s absence. One player that many Sixers fans had lofty expectations for heading into this season was the team’s 24-year-old SMU product, Shake Milton. But not everything has gone quite according to plan. This season Shake has struggled from downtown, connecting on a lowly 30.3% from three. Is something wrong? Might we expect some positive regression? Let’s take a deeper look at Sniper Shake Moneytrain Milton.

Last season Milton was a scorching 24/52 from downtown when he had 4-6 feet of room to shoot. That’s excellent. Combined with the 32/74 he shot when “wide open” (6’ of room to shoot or more) he wound up 58/135 on the season, good for 43 percent.

But this year has been a struggle for him shooting the triple. He’s just 31 out of 101 tries, hovering just over 30 percent on the year. While some fans expected a third-year leap and penciled him in as a reliable floor spacer, he hasn’t really been that consistent this year. He’s enjoying career highs in points per game (ppg 13.2) assists, (3.1apg ) free throws attempted (3.0) and free throw percentage (88%), but what many of us did not expect was his struggles from downtown.

Three points by the numbers

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Per, a look at how Shake has fared from downtown, by distance from the nearest defender:

The same table written as a percent:

These are not large samples. But they’re what we’ve got, and if we had to come up with a hypothesis it might read something like: “Shake has been solid when wide open over the last year and a half, but when given 6’ or less room to shoot, he was much much better last season than this season.”

He’s roughly proven consistent when wide open (40% isn’t great when wide open, we can contrast with names like Joe Harris or Khris Middleton who shoot up around 60 percent when given tons of room or with names like Norm Powell, Malik Beasley, Mike Scott, Nic Batum, Tyrese Halliburton who all shoot near or above 50 percent from deep when wide open).

Where Shake has dropped off is when given between 2-6’ of room, so anywhere from what we might describe as “defended closely” to “reasonably open.” Between 2-6’ he’s 26/61 last year, good for for 42.6 percent but just 7 of 45 this year, good bad for 15.6% percent. Again, these are not large samples but there might be a pattern here.

What do you see out there coach?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

You never want to rely too much on numbers because they can be misleading. So let’s watch some film and see if anything jumps out at us.

The first thing I noticed is that it feels like Shake gets a fair amount of what Marc Zumoff calls “hot potatoes,” where the shot-clock is winding down and dude has to chuck up a tough shot.

Now this is strictly anecdotal, I didn’t count his hot potatoes. I didn’t compare Shake’s potatoes to his potatoes from last year or to other players’ potatoes. I didn’t figure out if Shake was truly given an unfair Shake on hot potatoes. But watching all of his shots, it did stand out that Shake has taken a handful of these:

My armchair analysis might go something like: when Shake is in, and the team is depending on bench units, and there isn’t much working, dudes just give it to Shake and hope he makes something out of nothing. That does’t help his percentages, but he’s not a whiner.

The other thing I noticed was that when Doc is about to lose a ball game (trailing by double digits or so in the 4th) he’s likely to insert Shake into the lineup for his shooting, so Shake has taken a handful of “welp, we may as well start bombing contested 3s” in late game scenarios. These factors might contribute to his depressed average.

When Shake is wide open, you can see there isn’t a ton of body language. He usually sets, fires, lands just a little bit in front of where he jumped from, and freezes his follow-through:

And you’ll probably notice that when he takes a relatively contested shot, there’s more variance in his body language:

Sometimes he does a nice two-handed full extension and he freezes. Embiid’s personal trainer, Drew Hanlen, came on our podcast, and talked about he he’ll occasionally remind Jo to freeze his follow through with two hands. And he has done his part helping Jo to become one of the best shooting big men of all time. Other times though, Shake will drop his heavily. Sometimes, he’ll twist his shoulders and/or hips to the left, or take a full step to the left. Good shooters (like Milton) have enough of a sense upon release if they’ve misfired. As such, you may see him twist, turn, back up, yank back or drop a shooting hand, or point their arm left or right. When Joel Embiid thinks he’s bricked a free throw, you may see some torso contortion. It’s pretty funny.

Now none of these follow-throughs are forbidden. Simply watch how often Steph Curry tilts to his left or drops his arms after a shot:

However, when you’re struggling, there’s usually nothing better than going back to a more disciplined two-armed freeze, while limiting as much variance as possible, in order to recalibrate and find that groove again. There were a lot of times this season when Shake dropped his follow-through or backpedaled only to miss short by inches! That’s a lot of backward momentum he’s generating and likely costing himself, and the Sixers buckets.


Shake has played 808 minutes this season. A majority of those minutes (529) have come when Joel Embiid is not in the game. And 330 minutes have come without Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, the two players on the team most capable of creating his own shot in the halfcourt. Shake has actually played 219 of his minutes without any of Simmons, Harris, or Embiid, a sharp contrast from gunners like Danny Green and Seth Curry, who have only seen 88 minutes and 23 minutes respectively without any of the team’s big three.

So one might infer that Doc Rivers a) really likes to play his starting unit together and/or b) Doc trusts Shake as a “Lou Williams like” creator who can keep the offense afloat when at least one if not all of his 3 best players take a blow. Indeed, Shake is occasionally tasked with being one of the few players on the court who can create for himself, which may not be doing his percentages or efficiency any favors.

Some data from before the Embiid injury:

Let’s see how Shake’s numbers moved when in certain lineups over the first half of the year:

Here we can see that Shake gets a bit of a boost when he plays with Tobias Harris, and Doc has married about half of Shake’s minutes with the former Tennessee Volunteer. Shake gets a similar boost when he plays alongside Simmons. And he enjoys a rather healthy bump in efficiency when he plays with Embiid. Things really get cooking when he plays with Ben and Joel, and in lineups he’s shared the floor with all of the Sixers’ big 3, Shake as well as the four-man unit has really thrived in limited (116 minutes) action with a +22.2 net rating with Shake threatening to post a ridonkulous 75% True Shooting percentage.

But if you have a guy who’s a fringe 6th man candidate, you do want the luxury to buy your stars some opportunities to rest without things going up in flames, right? So it makes sense that Doc doesn’t always utilize Shake alongside the big three. Let’s see how Milton does when Doc tries to buy some rest for one or more of his top guns:

Here we can see that lineups featuring Shake, Ben and Joel but without Harris have been outscored; lineups featuring Shake, Joel and Harris without Simmons have been outscored. And a lineup of Shake, Harris and Ben sans Embiid has been pummeled.

So if one’s only goal were to give Shake some added confidence, they could simply sub him in for Green or Curry where we can expect him to find some open looks. But what if Doc predetermined that during the playoffs he wanted one of Simmons or Embiid in the game at all times? How might he utilize Shake then? In that case, over the coming games, he might look to experiment more with subbing Shake in for Harris while leaving Ben and Joel (Shake, Ben, Joel have a +21 NetRTG over 63 minutes) in. And then sub out Simmons, leaving in Shake and Joel as both Harris and Simmons rest (+15.3 netRTG over a measly 24 minutes).

But again, these are such small samples, I’m not sure if we’re even onto anything!

If I had to recommend anything to Shake, I’d say “get back to a two-armed follow through and freeze” let’s cut down on some of the body language in your contested looks. And if I had to recommend something for Doc Rivers, I’d say “maybe playing Shake a bit more with the better players could provide a boost, as well as some confidence for him. Get Seth or Danny a quick rest, and get Shake back on track.”

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