Re-Imagining the Sixers Bench

Article by Leon Morduch of Philadelphia Sports Nation

Part I: Return of the Injured 

It’s only right to start with Markelle Fultz here. There is no clear cut timetable on Fultz’s return this season, and for all we know, we may not see him on an NBA floor at all this year, per GM Elton Brand. The team has fielded calls from various teams seeking Fultz in exchange for one or two rotation players and/or draft picks. Why you haven’t seen a deal go through yet is for the simple reason that the team would like to see what Fultz can do when he is 100% healthy, which according to his agent and doctors, we have not seen yet.

If he were to somehow make an appearance this year, I’m confident that he’d have a serious impact on the team’s play. Even during Fultz’s semi-healthy stint for the Sixers last year, it’s undeniable that he showed flashes of brilliance as an ultra-athletic combo guard who knows how to put the ball on the floor with confidence and find  his teamates for open looks. If anything, that’s what the bench needs right now. A guard who isn’t afraid to put it on the floor and play some iso-ball. It obviously wouldn’t hurt to take some pointers from Jimmy Buckets now that he’s on the roster. Even if what we saw last season was a raw, unpolished, jumpshot-less Fultz, the bench would be revitalized by his style of play.  

The curse of injured Sixers rookies made its way into the 2018-19 season, sidelining Zhaire Smith of Texas Tech following a broken foot in Summer League and a severe allergic reaction. We have little knowledge of how Smith’s game will translate to the NBA after seeing him only briefly in Summer League, but we all can take our guesses. I’ll put it this way: Zhaire Smith has the sheer athletic ability of some of the top guys in the league. The question is whether he can channel that God-given talent into lockdown perimeter defense and high-flying finishes at the rim.

Standing at 6’4″ and 200 lbs, Smith was one of if not the best perimeter defender in college basketball last year. Sports Illustrated’s scouting report called him a “malleable, disruptive defender capable of switching assignments.” I couldn’t put it any better myself; this is the Sixers’ biggest defensive need. The team has seen guard after guard torch them for career highs in points. Unfortunately I only have to look to yesterday’s game to find an example of this, as Bradley Beal dropped what seemed like an effortless 34 points in the Wizards’ rout of the Sixers in DC. Elton Brand seems to think that Zhaire’s odds of returning this year are high, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he changed the team’s defensive attitude the moment he stepped on the floor.

The last of the injured, Justin Patton, was part of the Jimmy Butler package that came from Minnesota in November. Patton has essentially gone unrecognized after arriving in Philadelphia, mostly because of ongoing foot issues which have sidelined him on-and-off since his rookie year. Ideally, Patton turns into a solid backup for MVP candidate Joel Embiid once he returns.  

The Timberwolves elected to take Patton with a first round selection in the 2017 draft after just one year at Creighton, where he exhibited extraordinary leaping ability and athleticism for a 7-footer that scouts hoped would translate into valuable post defense, rebounding, and inside scoring. With the Sixers’ only true center on the current bench being Amir Johnson, who has played almost solely “garbage time” minutes this year, Patton would be a welcomed addition to a team that needs someone consistent on the floor when Embiid takes a seat.

Part II: The Two-Way Guys

There’s always room for some experimentation during the regular season, and after sitting two-way contract holders Jonah Bolden and Shake Milton for most of the season, coach Brett Brown has finally looked willing to experiment with the guys at the end of his bench. For the most part, these experiments have been an undoubtable success. Former second round pick Jonah Bolden has looked like a possible starter at the power forward after a promising game on Saturday against Dallas as the starter, totaling 11 points and 9 rebounds coupled with 2 blocks and some great hustle down the stretch. With Wilson Chandler struggling on both sides of the ball as of late, it may be time for Brett Brown to take a serious look at Jonah Bolden as a starter.

Shake Milton has looked like another guy who could move from the end of the bench to a role as a rotational piece. The rookie from SMU has begun to see action early in games, and the coaching staff sees him as a wing who can spot up from beyond the arc as well as act as a secondary ball handler. He also knocked down a ridiculous 51.1% of his three point looks in conference play last year. He looks like he’s sliding his feet pretty well on defense, and his 6’5″ frame with a 7 foot wingspan won’t hurt him on either end.

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