When the Philadelphia 76ers suffered so many injuries that they affectionately became known as the Hospital Sixers, numerous players off the bench stepped up to help keep the team afloat.
Shake Milton went from playing 10-to-18 minutes per night, to starting, averaging 36-to-42 minutes, and getting nominated for Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Furkan Korkmaz, who has missed games due to a knee injury this season himself, had averaged just two minutes of playing time during October, and suddenly was playing over 20 minutes per night. You could go down the roster and name any number of guys with positive moments during the starters’ absences: De’Anthony Melton, Georges Niang, Danuel House, Jr., Paul Reed, Montrezl Harrell, Matisse Thybulle.
Now with Joel Embiid and James Harden back on the court, and Tyrese Maxey making progress towards his return, some of those guys are having to re-adjust to playing smaller roles off the bench. The Sixers had a rare three days off between games this week, during which they were able to hit the practice court harder than usual and get back in sync with some of the returning starters.
Korkmaz spoke to reporters after practice Thursday on that topic:
“It’s been great. Today [Thursday] was especially competitive. Everybody kind of fought each other. We are trying to make each other better everyday, so these two days give us a lot of chance to come together more and then try to learn how to play as a team much better. Sometimes, part of the games we are struggling. I think the execution wasn’t key, to execute defensively, offensively, stick to plan.”
In Harden’s return Monday, Korkmaz played just 13 minutes. He was asked to assess how his own season has been going thus far:
“I think I’m playing the right way. I’m trying to help my team to win and I’m trying to play my best basketball. But I think right now, for us, it’s playing the right way. It doesn’t matter how many points you score, how many rebounds you grab. If you play the right way, you’re gonna keep your place in the rotation, you’re gonna keep your minutes, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now.”
Furkan was also asked how his game shifts when he returns to playing alongside the team’s stars:
“Still, when I get in with those guys, like James, Tyrese, sometimes they need help, somebody to take that pressure from them — bring the ball down, maybe, sometimes, playmaking, punish the defense. I think I still can do that, even when they’re on the court. I know role is changing a lot, especially for me, I’m having more ball, Shake especially too. But at the end of the day, we are role players on this team. We gotta know that and then whenever we step on the court, we just need to do whatever they are asking from us and that’s what we can do.”
Korkmaz had this to say on how changing roles are communicated to players on the team:
“It’s honest conversations. It’s stuff, like, nobody is faking to each other. Everybody is like, ‘Hey, you can do this, you cannot do this. You’re a shooter. You’re a driver. You’re a playmaker.’ You know, I think Doc is just being honest with everybody. As NBA players, I think at this point, we should know our roles. We should know our limits and then we just don’t need to force it other than what we got in our pockets. I think that’s the main thing.”
Meanwhile, Milton probably sees his role change the most when Harden and Maxey are both available. With the starting backcourt sidelined, Milton recorded at least 21 points and seven assists in four straight games, including falling one rebound shy of his first career triple-double.
A guy who saw a lot that outstanding play firsthand was teammate Tobias Harris, who discussed what may or may not change now for Shake:
“I think he [Shake] can apply the same scoring ability and playmaking that he was able to do being a starter. I think what people have to understand and realize is that it’s a whole different dynamic of starting and playing 36 minutes. And Shake played a great deal of basketball in that time and showed everybody what he’s capable of doing. You’re more comfortable as a player when you’re playing that many minutes and you also know that you don’t have to look over your shoulder at somebody coming in to get you. We had seven, like eight players, ya know what I’m saying. So for him, it was ‘We’re going through you. You’re the point guard in this situation.’ So now it’s just re-adjusting a little bit, like he’s probably not gonna play 36 minutes a night, but he can still come in and whatever time that he gets, utilize all of his skill set of creating plays, getting downhill and making shots. Just playing great basketball like he’s doing. I think that it’ll just be a different sample size, but overall he’s still been playing great basketball. He’s a great player and he’s continue to do with whatever type of minutes he gets.”
Tobias also spoke on what his advice is to guys when they might not be seeing the court as much as they have in the past:
“Like I tell everybody, ‘just stay with it and stay ready.’ Because we need everybody on this whole group and we’re all professionals. It’s a long season, and just like there were moments a couple games ago where we had guys down and we were battling and fighting, guys had greater opportunities. That was big moments for guys to step up. So in everything, just like I tell him [Shake] and everybody else, ‘stay with it and be ready,’ because we’re gonna need everybody this whole journey here.”
Fortunately for the Sixers, players like Shake, Furkan and others definitely stayed with it. A potentially disastrous start to the season was averted by the supporting cast stepping up when called upon. Now, they’ll have to take a step back from the limelight of the starting lineup, but stay ready.