A wide grin sprouted across Shake Milton’s face as he stared past the fleet of reporters and toward the video monitor behind them, while perking up his shoulders during Monday’s Media Day.
“Man, I’m looking at the screen right now, like, ‘Bro, I look kinda swole,” Milton said playfully.
It’s sort of the banter predominantly reserved for those who feel satisfied with their situation, a sentiment the reserve guard has repeatedly expressed in the early stages of his fourth year as a Philadelphia 76er and second under head coach Doc Rivers. Excluding Ben Simmons, only Joel Embiid and Furkan Korkmaz are longer-tenured members of the Sixers.
Every season has unfolded differently for him. As a rookie, he starred in the G League and received minimal minutes with the Sixers. When he did see the floor, the speed and muscle of NBA opponents rattled him. In year two, he seized an opportunity for rotation run and emerged as a critical scorer off the bench, which featured a 39-point explosion on national television against the Los Angeles Clippers in March of 2020.
Last season, he immediately earned the trust of the new coaching staff with a 19-point debut in which he was a member of the closing five and authored various defensive stops against Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal to seal a win. Through his first 12 games of 2020-21, he averaged 16.8 points on 62.2 percent true shooting and provided a necessary scoring punch off the pine.
But then, teams adjusted. They applied more physicality. He couldn’t frequent his rhythm spots as seamlessly. His efficiency nosedived, while his defense regressed after a pesky start, particularly on the ball. Scattered with ill-advised or contested shots and missed passing reads, the decision-making grew shaky. By season’s end, he had averaged 13 points on 54.9 percent true shooting and was on the fringes of the rotation, receiving fewer than 10 combined minutes in Games 6 and 7 against the Atlanta Hawks.
To rectify that 180, Milton — who dipped from 43 percent beyond the arc as a sophomore to 35 percent last year — said he “spent the majority of (his) summer working on defense and 3s.” Specifically, “old school lane slides” to refine getting and staying in a defensive stance and improve his lateral mobility were the focus.
“I haven’t really thought much about individual stats or areas I wanna see myself improve other than defense and being in the game when it matters most,” Milton said Monday. “I’ll tell you, last year, that was something that really ate at me. Of course, you’re on the sidelines supporting your teammates, but you wanna help them win. For me, I think defense is gonna be the key to that, so just put in a bunch of work.”
Following the second day of training camp on Wednesday, Rivers, unprompted, praised Milton for the way he led the second unit. At various points last season, Rivers said an emphasis from the coaching staff was for Milton to grow into a point guard and become a better passer rather than the pure scorer he’s primarily served as thus far in the NBA.
“You can tell he’s put a lot of work in at that position, where last year, honestly, he came into the year and had no idea that he’d be a point guard,” Rivers said Wednesday. “He’s been fantastic for us.”
For as long as the Sixers are without Simmons, replacing the ball-handling duties he carried will be delegated primarily to Milton, Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry and Tobias Harris. Milton said he’s aware he’ll have to step up in Simmons’ absence. Even if the three-time All-Star returns and slides Milton into responsibilities closely resembling that of 2020-21, he’ll be ready because of the continuity that arises from playing for the same head coach and with a similar surrounding cast of teammates.
“It definitely has me more comfortable,” he said. “Going into the offseason, I wanted to become a better overall player and now that I know what exactly Doc wants from me, just the work that I’ve put in is gonna allow me to just be confident and cool in my role.