BY CONNOR McGLYNN—Philadelphia 76ers assistant-turned-summer-league-head-coach Billy Lange said from the beginning of team practices in late June that his team’s performance would not be judged on wins and loses. Rather, the two-year NBA coach is using the time to make sure his group of new players develop their skills and adjust to life in the Association. With that in mind, unless you like to watch grown men throwing up airballs and playing as recklessly as elementary school kids, chances are you haven’t watched any summer league action, or any Sixers basketball in the past two seasons for that matter. It’s OK. You’re covered.
Reasonably so, the biggest storyline heading into the games in Utah was third-overall pick Jahlil Okafor getting his first professional action. Despite posting some healthy stat lines, his overall play was unimpressive. The 19-year-old posted 20 points to go along with nine rebounds in his debut against the San Antonio Spurs, shooting 10-for-22 from the field. A teenager is allowed to be nervous heading into his first glimpse of NBA action which may have led to the poor 3-for-11 first half. With a 6-foot-10-inch, 275-pound frame, points will inevitably come. However, that mentality should be exactly what concerns Sixers fans.
Through his first three games– Okafor finished in Utah with 44 points shooting 20-for-44 from the field– the lottery choice from Duke has exhibited few offensive tactical attacks and more of a “let me use my body to get to the post and throw up a shot” strategy. He’s shown glimpses of stardom, being able to split a double team using those gargantuan hands of his and even sank two turnaround jumpers while embracing contact from the elbows against the Spurs. If the Sixers want to get the most out of the big man, these need to be more than just moments and he has to develop his touch around the rim more than people are letting on.
Side note: Through three games, Okafor was given the ball in the final 8 seconds of two separate one-possession games. He turned it over twice with both resulting in eventual loses.
The bigger concern for Okafor heading into the draft was his defense, a concern that is proving legitimate in the early going. He’s all too frequently finding himself stuck between going for the blocked shot or holding his ground to draw the offensive foul, only to do neither and allow easy layups. Jah has also shown trouble handling the pick-and-roll game. Whether he is unable or simply too uncomfortable to step out on screens and help his teammates, Okafor has allowed multiple uncontested finishes at the rim. If he wants to become the dominate NBA big man he keeps alluding to, his intensity on both sides of the ball is going to need to increase.
Though the lottery pick is stealing most of the spotlight, two lesser-known, underrated players have been making name for themselves trying to earn a spot on that 15-man roster.
The Sixers used the 37th overall pick, one of five second-round picks, on Richaun Holmes out of Bowling Green. The 6-foot-8-inch forward made an impact during his three-year career for the Falcons, becoming the first player in school history to score 1000 points, 600 rebounds, 200 blocks. In his senior season, Holmes was named first team All-MAC and MAC Defensive Player of the Year. Despite coming off the bench, Holmes has provided the Sixers with the necessary spacing for the big front court to operate as well as impressive off ball movements that led to easy buckets. The Illinois native mentioned that his focus is on learning to shoot the long ball, a part of his game that he has not been afraid to show off in the early going—Holmes went 3-for-13 from deep in Utah. His stroke in the midrange level looks fluid enough that his three pointer can be developed and Sixers fans should be eager to see Holmes contribute early. The only problem: he fractured his elbow in the final game in Utah, and will be out for 6-8 weeks.
The last gleaming light comes from undrafted point guard T.J. McConnell out of Arizona, who signed a partially guaranteed free agent deal that places him on both summer league teams, as well as the fall camp roster. McConnell turned heads while playing for the Wildcats as an excellent ball handler and defender, earning PAC-12 All-Defensive team honors in both his junior and senior campaigns. Coming to a team starved for talent at the point guard position after ideal draft selection D’Angelo Russell got snagged by the Los Angeles Lakers, the Sixers may have found their guy at point.
A sparse scorer, McConnell is a true pass-first point guard, splitting through the lane and putting the ball on the mark for teammates to take open looks. Though he only registered nine assists in the contests, the Pittsburgh area product was denied a surplus of stats from empty shot attempts and poor awareness by bigs. A coach’s son, McConnell has shown great presence in pushing tempo and taking command of the first team out on the court. To give you an idea, at one point in the game against the Spurs, San Antonio had a 2-on-0 fast break off a Holmes turnover and McConnell sprinted back, knocked the ball free and while falling out of bounds threw it off a grey uniform to regain possession for Philadelphia. That’s the type of grit this city needs. Expect McConnell to earn himself one of those sleek new jerseys this season.
To run through the rest, returning forward Furkan Aldemir has shown little to impress outside of flailing his arms into gathering a few rebounds and knocking down some threes, and second-round pick J.P. Tokoto out of UNC needs to continue to work on his jump shot if he is going to find a spot in this Sixers rotation come October.The NBA season is officially underway and for the Sixers, it looks like Coach Lange’s mantra of focusing on development is something that should excite fans sooner than they imagine.