5 Things To Watch For During Sixers Preseason Games
They’ll get two warmup games. Here’s what to look for.
Mike O’Connor is the best O’Connor in basketball writing. Previously of The Athletic, you can find Mike on Twitter @MOConnor_NBA.
Well, I hope you all were able to get enough of a Sixers detox in after the bubble. Because in just four days, the Sixers will be returning to your televisions, taking on the Boston Celtics at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday night.
The NBA’s preseason is shortened this season, and we will only get two Sixers games to watch (the second being Friday against the Pacers), but there will still be plenty to watch for given that the Sixers have had a four-month hiatus as well as a major makeover.
I will be avoiding the huge, obvious things, like Joel Embiid’s conditioning or Ben Simmons’ shooting (my take on the latter: if he doesn’t shoot in these meaningless games, there’s no way he starts shooting once the games matter) in an effort to not beat a dead horse. Instead I will try to outline five somewhat under the surface themes that I will be tracking in the preseason.
Tyrese Maxey’s at-rim finishing
For any slashing guard who enters the league, my first priority in watching them early on is to see how they handle the size and physicality around the rim -- can they handle themselves amongst the trees, or do they get consistently swallowed up by NBA rim protectors?
Remember watching Evan Turner when he first entered the league? One question stood out more than anything: why is he getting blocked so much? Ultimately, Turner’s lack of explosion and fluidity around the rim limited his potential. Similar questions came up around Markelle Fultz during his time in Philly, albeit not as frequent.
The point being: when a young, penetrating guard comes into the league and looks totally overwhelmed at the rim, it’s a definite red flag. For Maxey -- who measured just 6 feet, 1.5 inches without shoes, per the Sixers -- that’s the area that I’ll be looking at closely early on.
Other questions, like how good of a shooter he can become, or how high his defensive ceiling is, can take years to be answered. But how he looks athletically on an NBA court -- especially when attacking the rim -- is an instantly answerable question that carries significant weight in determining how good he will be. To be clear, I have total confidence that Maxey will look up to par athletically, but it’s still something I’ll be keeping a close eye on.
Is Tobias Harris’ game any different?
We all know that Tobias Harris will be used differently -- Doc Rivers will put him in more pick and rolls, as he did during their time together on the Clippers. But my question here is whether or not Harris’ skill set itself looks any different from when we last saw him.
Will he shoot 3s from tighter windows? Can he draw more fouls? Is his defense any better?
Perhaps I’m a fool for asking these questions. Harris is 28 and entering into his 10th year in the league. Rarely do players transform at that age.
But the areas where he could improve are so simple that I can’t help but wonder. After all, Harris did make a meaningful improvement on defense during the first half of last season. He is a hard worker and is certainly aware of where he needs to improve. My expectations are low, but if I see Harris shooting contested 3s and initiating contact at the rim, I will consider it noteworthy.
How Simmons utilizes a rim-runner (Dwight Howard)
Since Simmons has gotten into the league, he has never played major minutes with a rim-running center. The vast majority of the centers that the Sixers have brought in -- Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Mike Muscala, Al Horford -- have been extremely ground-bound centers who don’t pose much of a threat as lob catchers.
Dwight Howard, however, provides a massive presence as a roller, even at age 35. With Rivers continually talking about using Simmons more in the pick and roll, I’ll be interested to see how he connects with Howard. At 6-10, Simmons should have no problem throwing the ball over the top of the defense to the diving Howard.
Even outside of pick and roll actions, I’ll be looking for Simmons to connect over the top with Howard -- whether Howard gets freed up with an off-ball screen or simply seals his man inside, Simmons should be able to find him early and often.
Who initiates the offense when Simmons sits?
Perhaps the strangest thing about this Sixers team is that there is not a single actual point guard on the roster. There is a point forward in Simmons and a bunch of combo guards (Shake Milton, Seth Curry, Tyrese Maxey). None of those players are true, table setting point guards, and it makes me wonder who will carry the responsibility of simple tasks like getting the ball across half court and getting the Sixers into their sets, especially when Simmons sits.
My bet is on Curry, and that while Milton plays major minutes, he’s used more as a two-guard. Perhaps this issue is small potatoes, but I can’t help but wonder who the de facto, nominal point guard is in most situations. Especially in tight games and tense situations, there has to be someone designated to act as a floor general and get the offense organized. Based on whoever Rivers selects to run the offense when Simmons sits, we’ll hopefully get some clue of who he views as having the best ability to run point out of Curry, Milton, and Maxey.
Seth Curry, JJ Redick 2.0?
Speaking of Curry, it’s been interesting to see how much praise he’s gotten throughout training camp, most notably from Embiid, who said that he’s hoping to develop a similar two-man game with Curry that he had with JJ Redick.
I’ll be interested to see just how many of the Sixers’ half court play calls revolve around Curry. Will they lean on him heavily as a pick and roll shot creator? Will they utilize him as an off-ball screener in the way that they did with Redick? Will they run the exact same elbow series plays that they ran for Redick and Embiid?
Rivers isn’t likely to unleash much of the playbook in the preseason, but we’ll get to see a bare bones version of the offense, and that should give us a good idea of just how much of it revolves around Curry. Personally, I’m expecting the Sixers to try to weaponize him in one way or another on just about every possession.