By Andrew Curran (@andrewjc417)
The rest of the world is storming the shores of the typically American dominated NBA. In the past year’s draft, nearly half of the 60 players selected were raised on foreign soil, with a ridiculous 8 players taken in the lottery, including Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Simmons. And with this new talent, comes a new style of play. The NBA has felt the emerging presence of the international game for years, but this year with players such as Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, and Sergio Rodriguez, with a hint of Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the Sixers will for the first time feel the effects of the international game as well.
It is imperative to distinguish what separates the American game and the foreign game, mainly the European game. As a whole, the European game is much slower and more team-oriented than what we are used to in the States. This style of play gets everyone involved and makes the game much more fluid. In the American game, it is normal to see one player be the focal point of a team, as seen by Steph Curry leading the league with over 30 ppg last year, while the best Euroleague players average around 15 ppg. The game length alone does not account for that difference.
This style of play is also partially responsible for why Olympic games are often much closer than they should be on paper. Serbia and Spain had no business playing with Team USA, but their teamwork clearly outmatched their American counterparts and caused some very close games. This pass first, shoot second approach of the foreigners brings us players like Simmons, Saric, and Rodriguez, who posses great court vision and passing skills.
All summer and preseason long, the members of the Sixers squad repping foreign flags dazzled with their flashy passing. It was almost like Simmons was too unselfish at times, but there was no denying his superb passing skills, especially for a man his size. We all knew what Simmons could do, but unless you watch European basketball for some reason, chances are you knew next to nothing about El Chacho before the summer, and for Saric, there is only so much you can learn from a 4-minute highlight tape. But once they stepped on the court, their vision and crisp passing skills proved superior.
Another key difference between the international and domestic styles of play can be seen in the way their young players are developed in youth programs. Here in the USA, I was 4 inches taller than everyone in youth ball, so naturally I was put at center. Because of my height, I was never taught to shoot or handle the ball properly, and this doomed me as 6’1 centers aren’t too common in high school ball. For the most part, that is how it is in the states.
However in Europe, they coach regardless of size. Even if you are 9 feet tall, you will be taught to shoot and pass, and if you’re athletic enough you might even develop some handles. This contributes to the surge in popularity of stretch fours. You see it in Kristaps Porzingis, a 7’3 seemingly uncoordinated brute, who is anything but, and can drain threes with the best of them. You see it in Dirk, Ersan Ilyasova, Nikola Mirotic, and hopefully Dario Saric. Simmons himself even praised the way he was developed to be a team-oriented player in his native Australia.
So how will all this affect the Sixers? The past few years we have seen the Sixers attempt to try a run and gun style of play, hoping to cash in on freakish athleticism but not much skill. In 2015 they were among the leaders in pace, trying to use players like Jerami Grant and Jakarr Sampson in transition. Last season, they slowed down a bit in order to feed Jahlil Okafor.
This season, the Sixers may still be amongst the fastest paced teams in the NBA due to players like Saric and Simmons who are bigs with the ability to push in transition. However, once the offense gets settled in the half court, the biggest change will be seen. Ideally, crisp passing thanks to our foreign friends will give the Sixers a more fluid offense with better ball movement. This will slow the game down, not in a give the ball to Jah and stand around for 12 seconds type of way, but in a getting everyone involved, keeping the defense on their toes, finding the open cutter kind of way.
Hopefully, especially as the rookies adjust to the NBA game, the presence of skilled passers should also help solve the Sixers’ frustrating turnover problem. Philadelphia has been 29th and dead last in the league in turnovers the past two seasons. Insert Simmons, Sergio, and Saric, and hopefully take away excess Hollis Thompson and Nik Stauskas, and suddenly you have a vast improvement in ball security and offensive efficiency. As soon as the team develops some chemistry, they should be able to play a much cleaner, effective game.
Those are just the direct effects of these new players. Finally, with Saric, a PF who can shoot, and even Embiid (who did grow up Cameroon, but plays very Americanized) demanding attention on the perimeter and down low, shooters like Robert Covington should finally be able to get some open looks. His career 3-point percentage is a few clicks above 36%, but don’t let that relatively average number fool you. Roco was deadly when he got open shots, the problem being they didn’t occur very often, as players like Noel and Grant did not demand too much attention last year.
The 76ers will definitely feel the fingerprints of the international game on their style of play this year, and, oh boy, am I ready for that change.