By Jack Ryan
While the Sixers cavorted down the shore this week, let’s summarize where they are with training camp right around the corner and the regular season opener at Washington less than two months away:
2016-17 record: 28-54
Who’s new: Markelle Fultz (Draft), Furkan Korkmaz (Draft), JJ Redick (free agency), Amir Johnson (free agency)
Who’s gone: Gerald Henderson (waived)
The lowdown: Evidently, the Sixers are serious about taking the next step forward in their development. Why else would they trade two spots up, and surrender a future No. 1 pick in the process, just to get choosy about whom they draft?
Most teams like the Sixers would just sit back and take the best available player. Not Philly. General manager Bryan Colangelo made the first bold move in his tenure by gunning for Fultz, a point guard, even though there was no strong consensus in this draft, even though in five years Fultz might not be the best player from this class.
However, it sends a subtle message that the Sixers are finally satisfied with a handful of players on the roster. They appear set at center with Joel Embiid (20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks last season). They like rookie swingman Ben Simmons and versatile youngster Robert Covington.
Fultz checked all the boxes for Philly. He’s a talent with upside, especially when considering he wasn’t considered a top player until his senior year in high school. He’s also a combo guard, which means he can surrender some ball-handling chores to Simmons, the lesser shooter of the two. Philly would rather control the Draft and therefore did not settle for Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum or someone else who would’ve been there for the taking at No. 3.
In a best-case scenario, the young core is not only productive, but stays healthy and finally gives Philly basketball a glow not seen since the days of Allen Iverson.
Of course, the key word is “health.” Embiid played only 31 games and couldn’t finish the season due to meniscus surgery. Jahlil Okafor, the forgotten man yet still (we think) in Philly’s plans, saw 50 games. As for Simmons, he sat out the entire season and was held out of Summer League play as a precaution. In essence, the Sixers really don’t know for sure what they have in Simmons, and while Embiid was monstrous in limited play, he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer and Philly must make a major financial decision on a player who hasn’t been able to stay on the floor.
None of the young players have shown a taste for winning. Fultz’s Washington team finished with a losing record and failed to make the NCAA tournament last year. Simmons, during his time at LSU in the 2015-16 season, also didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament. Embiid didn’t win a national title at Kansas, even with Andrew Wiggins for a teammate (though to be fair, Embiid dealt with injuries).
But perhaps the past doesn’t matter much. All the Sixers wanted to do is stockpile young assets, and mission accomplished. It’s all about the future, and speaking of which, Philly must ultimately decide whether Okafor fits in those plans.
Once considered the foundation of the team, he’s not even among the top four options for the Sixers leading into the new season. Okafor plays the same position as Embiid, which is a huge strike against him. And his weaknesses (defense, athletic ability) are still dogging him. The Sixers could trade Okafor and not really miss his presence, yet his value isn’t tremendously high around the NBA, because the league is drifting away from low-post centers. He didn’t fetch much interest this summer and Philly signed Johnson for front-court depth on a cheap one-year deal (in case the Sixers find a taker for Okafor in 2017-18).
Besides drafting Fultz, the other offseason decision was signing Redick. While Philadelphia ranked 10th in 3-pointers made last season, its 3-point percentage ranked 25th. Philly was supposed to have the “next Redick” in former lottery pick Nik Stauskas, who has been a dud since arriving from Sacramento. While adding Redick was a pricey pickup ($23 million), he’s on a one-year deal in what is a win-win for both sides. Redick will not only help with 3-point shooting, he also brings solid locker-room character to a team without much in terms of veteran help.
For a change, there’s enthusiasm in Philly about the Sixers. Tickets and jerseys are selling and fans are thinking playoffs. Perhaps it might be wise to slow the roll, though, as plenty of young teams discover that the next step is a slippery one.
But after everything the Sixers have gone through the last four seasons, the players and their fans have earned the right to think positively for a change. Remember, they play in the East, where anything is possible — even basketball in Philly in late April.