The Sixers fell to the undefeated Houston Rockets 104-93 on Monday night, once again letting the game get away from them in the 4th quarter.
Before that happened, the Sixers showcased many reasons to be hopeful, with K.J. McDaniels and Nerlens Noel spearheading a smothering defense that helped the overmatched Sixers claw back against the much more talented Rockets squad.
McDaniels' defensive potential has long been evident, with much of the focus on his ability to block shots and get out in transition. And that attention is well-deserved. McDaniels' incredible 8.9% block percentage during his final season at Clemson ranked 56th in the nation, blocking shots at a higher rate than anybody else under 6'7".
He then totaled the third most blocks in the NBA in the preseason, with 14 blocked shots in only 156 minutes of play. The names surrounding him on that list? Pau Gasol and Andre Drummond were above him with 19 and 15, respectively, with Ed Davis, Marcin Gortat, Samuel Dalembert, and Anthony Davis either tied or just below. The next closest wing player to McDaniels 14 blocks was Klay Thompson with 7.
But it's not just the weak side shot blocking, unique for his position, that McDaniels brings to the table defensively. As he showed in the second half on Monday's loss to the Rockets, he has the ability to be an incredible 1-1 defender on the perimeter as well.
James Harden shot 2-7 when K.J. McDaniels was defending him, with both of his makes coming off of pick and rolls. When Harden tried to isolate McDaniels, the rookie largely won the battle, forcing Harden into a pair of well-contested three point attempts and two tough step back jumpers, one of which was an airball, with McDaniels appearing to get a piece of it.
Perhaps most impressively was that Harden, who was second in the league in free throw attempts per game last season and went to the line 18 times against the Sixers on Monday, failed to draw a foul when defended by McDaniels, despite the rookie playing tough pressure defense 25 feet away from the hoop.
(Note: That pressure defense, despite working, seemed to go against coach Brown's game plan. Brown emphasized yesterday that the game plan was that they couldn't pick Harden up high, and to make an exaggerated effort to show the referees their hands defensively to avoid Harden's ability to draw contact. While McDaniels made it work, forcing Harden into low percentage shots and not picking up a foul despite the pressure, Brown, while saying that KJ's heart was in the right place, seemed to make a concerted effort to point out that it went against the game plan).
"You just have to hold your own," McDaniels told reporters at practice yesterday. "He's a superstar in the league, so to be out there matched up with him in the 4th game of the season is a great feeling."
The Sixers head coach notices progress in his young rookie.
"K.J. has come along," Brown said, when asked about McDaniels. "Learning the league, trying to understand how to take his natural skills and parlay that into an NBA setting. He's most definitely coming along."
"If there's such a thing as a humble swagger, a humble belief, I see that too," Brown said. "He doesn't seem phased."
So far this season, the player K.J. McDaniels has defended has averaged a field goal percentage of 45.6% on the season. McDaniels has held them to 31% shooting from the field, with better-than-average marks at every location tracked on the floor: 6% better than average from 3 (30% against K.J, vs 36% on average), 17.3% better than average on two pointers (31.6% vs 48.9%), 14.9% better within 6 feet (45.5% vs 60.4%), 16.3% better within 10 feet (38.5% vs 54.8%), and 10.4% better on shots greater than 15 feet (28.6% vs 39%).
|Opponents fg% when defended by specific players|
|(total attempts defended in parenthesis)|
|Player||Overall fg%||3pt %||2 pt%||< 6 ft||< 10 ft||> 15 feet|
|K.J. McDaniels||31% (29 fga)
|Alexey Shved||57.1% (14)
|Tony Wroten||56.7% (30)
|Hollis Thompson||36.4% (44)
|Luc Mbah a Moute||57.1% (21)
|JaKarr Sampson||50% (16)
|Chris Johnson||28.6% (42)
All of these numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, of course, with the combination of low sample size and lack of context. Still, with the numbers backing up the eye test, with K.J. having such incredible defensive tools, and with K.J. starting off the season shooting 6-11 from three point range, it seems only a matter of time before he begins starting alongside Hollis Thompson.
"How many athletes do you see that can shoot three's and guard?" Brown asked rhetorically. "That's a good start."
It sure is.
Brandon Davies to remain a starter?
Henry Sims came down with an upper respiratory infection on Sunday, causing Brandon Davies to start at power forward, sliding Nerlens Noel to his more natural center position. Henry Sims was limited to 13 minutes off the bench.
Could that remain even as Sims returns to 100% ?
It seems like that could be possible.
"I feel like that I'm personally in a mood where we can experiment with some things," Brown said at practice on Tuesday. "The program is where the program is. It's flexible. It's pliable. There's a lot of moving parts, and I'm going to play around with it."
"He could. I don't know," Brown said, when asked about whether Sims could come off the bench tonight against Orlando. "What I most definitely know is I don't feel a prisoner to anything."
"It's not a knock on these guys. It's not like if I did do that I'm scolding Henry. It has nothing to do with that. Henry's playing his tail off," Brown said when discussing the possible change.
If anything, it was more a knock on Nerlens Noel's progress learning the differences between defending the power forward and center positions in the NBA, something that we talked about after the game against the Miami Heat..
"It's a real eye opener, for me personally, to watch his history of playing only a 5," Brown said when talking about Nerlens Noel's transition to playing power forward.
"Nerlens in trail, when you have stretch 4 men that can shoot three's, and a team in general that shoots three's, it's a challenge and a learning curve for him," Brown said. "There's an awareness that isn't there yet."
K.J. McDaniels talking about the Rockets game