By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
With the season at the end and the draft lottery still a month away, let’s take a look at reasons to be optimistic about the future based on what transpired this past year. I’m only examining things that happened since the beginning of the season (so not transactions from last offseason).
Nerlens Noel being a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate
If the Sixers are ever going to make that jump down the road from respectability to contention, they’re going to need some stars. The biggest reason for positivity from this season was Nerlens Noel showing flashes of potential to be one of those stars. His impact on the defensive end has been well-documented. He was top-10 in the entire league in both steals and blocks as a rookie, opponents shot just 45.4% at the rim against him, one of the better marks in the league, and all the advanced statistics showed him being a force on the side of the ball.
More encouragingly, his offensive game went from awful to respectable as the year progressed, especially after pairing him with a pass-first point guard like Ish Smith. Noel somehow got over his inability to catch the ball, improved his free throw shooting to a respectable 60% on the season, and shot 50% from the field during his outstanding month of March. It remains to be seen how effectively he would be able to pair with Joel Embiid, but if Noel can just not hurt on the offensive end like we saw after the All-Star break, his defensive capabilities alone make him a great player.
Robert Covington’s Arrival
The Sixers signed Covington out of the D-league in mid-November and he an immediate impact for what was a torpid Philadelphia offense. Initially just a spot-up shooter for the Sixers, Covington did a great job of that, hitting 37.4% of his threes on the season while hoisting more than 6 attempts per game. As the year went along however, Big Shot Bob began expanding his offensive game and was regularly driving to the rim and scoring by the end of the season. He finished the year as the team’s leading scorer (not getting the injured Tony Wroten or the departed Michael Carter-Williams) and at the very least, has proved he’s a solid rotation guy. Great work by Sam Hinkie to identify a guy from the D-league who would go on to participate in the Rising Stars game and be one of the best players on the team this season.
Hollis Thompson’s Revamped shot
The organization completely reworked Thompson’s shot to feature a quicker release, and there was concern after Thompson struggled in summer league and the early part of the season, followed by his battle with an upper respiratory infection. However, to his credit, Holliswood kept working and finished the season hot, ending with a 40.1% mark from behind the arc, the exact same percentage as his rookie year. A guy that consistently shoots 40% from three will have a long career in this league.
The Relevance of JaKarr Sampson and Jerami Grant
#Sixers Brett Brown mentions Grant and Sampson as possible keepers.
— Tom Moore (@tmoore76ers) April 16, 2015
Sampson was a guy I was adamant shouldn’t be on the team through training camp and the first few weeks of the season. Turns out professional coaches might know a bit more than I do. Sampson continually improved as the season progressed, showing off a good nose for driving to the rim and great athleticism finishing in transition or on putbacks. He still has a long way to go, but just the fact that he’s a legitimate NBA player is a credit for all parties concerned.
As for Grant, he’s still very inconsistent, but if you squint hard enough, you see the outline of a future 3-and-D guy. Grant upped his average from behind the arc to a somewhat respectable 31.4% and showed off crazy rim protection skills for a guy his size (remember his 8-block game!?!). His ball-handling still needs work and he can get lost at times defensively, but it was a very solid campaign for a 2nd-round rookie.
Joel Embiid not suffering any setbacks
After going through the Andrew Bynum saga, Sixers fans have learned to fear the worst when it comes to big men and injuries. Remember the week when Embiid was back in the boot and the fanbase treated it like the coming of the apocalypse? Just the fact that he was still out doing his pregame dunk routine prior to the season finale is a hopeful sign for the future.
Jason Richardson returning to the court
It wasn’t meaningful for the franchise going forward, but just seeing J-Rich back out on the court after a 2-year absence had to put a smile on your face. Nobody would have been surprised if Richardson called it a career with the number of setbacks he faced in his injury rehab, rostered on a team a few years away from being relevant on the court, but he just wanted to get back out there and play ball. His 29-point performance in Oklahoma City was one of the highlights of the season.
JaVale McGee trade
I thought this midseason trade by Sam Hinkie was one of his better moves. He picked up Oklahoma City’s protected 1st-rounder (and the rights to the wonderfully named Chu Chu Maduabum) just by paying the final $12M on JaVale McGee’s contract next season (for the rights to Cenk Akyol). Don’t let the fact that the team won’t get the pick this draft bum you out, it was still a great use of all the cap space Hinkie has built up for such a purpose.
Brett Brown looks like a keeper
Odd to say for a coach who currently sports one of the worst winning percentages all-time (.226), but management seems to have chosen the right guy to oversee this rebuild. The development of all the guys mentioned above has to be at least partially credit to the work of Brown and his staff. Also, guys like Ish Smith and Thomas Robinson have commented publicly that they changed their minds about the atmosphere of this organization after arriving and actually going to work here in practices, the locker room, etc. Most importantly, despite the ‘band of gypsies’ constantly coming through the turnstile, Brown had this team playing hard. Nights where opponents could say the Sixers had packed it in were few and far between. Let’s give this man some talent and see what he can do.
Any others you would include? Let me know in the comments section.