By Lewis Gould
Ask Brett Brown to describe what it’s like figuring out how to use his big men, the Sixers head coach told ESPN.com:
“If you went into my office, you would see it is a Rubik’s Cube,” Brown said of his minutes plan for Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. “I need an abacus.”
Fantasy owners of Embiid (above) and Okafor can empathize with Brown. If you own Embiid, Okafor or some other Sixers, you will have to embrace Embiid’s nickname and understand that you will be following “The Process.” You will need some patience but some of these Sixers’ fantasy options could pay off for you later this season.
Embiid is showing that his versatile game is well worth the two-year wait. Already, the raw 7-footer has a boatload of moves and you can actually see how he can do a bunch of different things but hasn’t come close to mastering any one thing yet, a scary thought for opponents.
One move during his rookie debut — on a missed shot, no less — might best sum up his vast talent. Embiid pump-faked a 3, put the ball on the floor, delivered a crossover before backing in his man at the free-throw line, showing the ball and pumping with one hand like Hakeem Olajuwon used to do, before turning around and missing the attempt.
Embiid has a nice, soft shot from the arc. He can face up and pop the short jumper or put the ball on the floor and drive past a big man like a guard or forward. He has back-to-the-basket moves, rebounds and he already has blocked Russell Westbrook and Dwight Howard in his first two games.
The Kansas product started the first two games with a 20-minute playing-time restriction. That was lifted to 24 on Tuesday night and he ended up playing 25 minutes and putting up 18 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and three assists against Orlando.
Brown played Embiid in four-minute segments in the first two games and Embiid’s minutes restriction will continue for the foreseeable future, although it’s rising a tad. The Sixers are cautious with their big man, understandably, and will hold him out of the tail end of their first back-to-back set on Wednesday at Charlotte.
So in season-long fantasy, you will have to monitor reports on his minutes restriction and see if the Sixers have any back-to-backs and adjust accordingly. So far, despite the restriction, Embiid is averaging 17.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks while shooting 45.9 percent from the field, including 2-of-5 from 3-point range — all in just 20.6 minutes per game. And that is with him still very much learning every nuance of the game.
In leagues where you can set your lineup daily, Embiid is worth using unless you have better options that you know will get a double-double and see 30-plus minutes that night. In daily contests, Embiid is worth using if his price is cheap and his minutes are at 24 or more. He doesn’t need much time to flirt with a double-double and the blocks and ability to hit a 3-pointer makes him worth it if the price is right.
There will be road bumps and inevitably Embiid will get into foul trouble as he gets more playing time. But already, he is the Sixers’ go-to guy.
“We all see different things every time he plays,” Brown marveled. “To start the [Hawks] game, him trailing and hitting the 3-point shot and in the second half, him up-faking and taking one dribble and making a move a guard would make to get to the rim…We look forward to when we have more minutes available for him.”
Okafor’s situation has been a bit more complicated early on. His minutes restriction was shorter until now and the second-year big man did not play on Tuesday night as he continues to come along slowly after right knee surgery. Brown also brought Okafor off the bench and primarily brought him in when Embiid sat.
Okafor’s fantasy value will depend on his minutes and volume of touches. He’s rusty and needs to play more minutes to be more of a fantasy factor. Through his first two games, Okafor played 15 and 16 minutes and managed to get up a total of 17 shots, but scored just eight points in each game. He also is averaging just 3.5 rebounds.
It will be interesting to see what Okafor will do on Wednesday against Charlotte in his first start with Embiid resting. Okafor, a former Duke standout, is expected to play in the 20-minute neighborhood,so it might be best to hold off on Okafor for now.
Moving forward, season-long fantasy owners might want to hold on to Okafor and wait and see how he does with more minutes and monitor when the Sixers have back-to-backs. But compared to and because of Embiid, Okafor’s ceiling is limited right now.
Eventually, Brown will look to play Embiid and Okafor more together when the minutes restrictions get looser, and that will be another thing for Brown to figure out. So besides adjusting to the playing time, Embiid and Okafor will also have to adapt to each other’s game on the court together, which could lead to some growing pains.
“You just feel like it is cookie-cutter stuff,” Brown explained of the restrictions and playing the two together. “It is a very rigid road map and that is OK. Nobody is crying about it. It is a challenge.”
Other Sixers to keep an eye on from a fantasy perspective:
Dario Saric — The rookie forward struggled badly in his first two games in the NBA with a total of 10 points on 4-for-21 shooting. But he finally gave a glimpse of why the Sixers had been high on the Croatian. Saric hit 9-of-15 shots, including 3-of-4 from behind the arc, for 21 points last Tuesday against the Magic. Newly-acquired Ersan Ilyasova might eat into Saric’s playing time and could start at power forward instead of Saric. But the rookie should still have value in deeper leagues because the Sixers want to develop Saric and give him experience.
Robert Covington — He looks like rapper Q-Tip’s doppleganger. Unfortunately, Covington left his jumper in El Segundo, having missed his last 11 shots in each of the last two games. He does have six steals during that span, however, and the minutes and shots should still be there, especially with Jerami Grant gone. It’s just the inconsistency that can be frustrating.
Sergio Rodriguez — “Spanish Chocolate” had his first double-double of the season with 12 points and 11 assists, hitting two treys. Brown clearly likes the point guard, who is averaging 12.7 points, 8.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds in 31 minutes per game so far. Rodriguez is owned in 14.4 percent of ESPN leagues, so keep an eye on how he continues to play while Ben Simmons rehabs.
Ersan Ilyasova — The Sixers traded the athletic Grant for Ilysova to provide another shooter who can space the floor for Embiid and Okafor. His value, like many of the other Sixers, could rise later this season if or when pass-first Simmons returns from injury. Ilyasova provides the Sixers with another big on nights when they rest either Embiid or Okafor as well. Monitor Ilyasova if you need a big who can provide some 3’s and rebounds.
Richaun Holmes — Keep an eye on this athletic big man if there’s an injury to Embiid or Okafor.