3 things I liked and didn’t like from the Sixers’ preseason, including Kelly Oubre Jr.’s cutting clinic
The NBA preseason is mercifully over. There is no better way to bridge the gap between the final rehearsal and opening night than with a recap of some of the trends from the Sixers' preseason docket. Despite the backdrop of James Harden's trade request, there were a number of developments to take note of and storylines to follow.
Here are six things I saw.
Like: Jaden Springer threading the needle
I've written about it as a large bullet point item in at least two different game stories this preseason, but I just can't get enough of it. Jaden Springer is sneakily a good passer.
I don't know whether I was so caught up in his shooting or looking like dribbling a basketball was as challenging as dribbling one of those miniature bouncy balls that I never realized he had an underrated passing game or what. But, I found myself giving nods of approval at his passes at least once in each of the four preseason games.
The ball wasn't and likely won't be in his hands enough for Springer to flip games on offense anyway. But, I think there's a strong case to be made that Springer is a better passer than Maxey is. He takes risks with the ball that Maxey simply isn't comfortable taking yet:
Springer is built like a running back. His shoulders are bulky and his torso is a brick wall. He will bowl into individual defenders before picking up his dribble, taking one or two angles that he could've used to thread a pass to a cutter and bashing open another angle by knocking his man off balance and out of guarding position.
His teammates, Danuel House Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr. chief among them, feel empowered to cut around him, feeling that their efforts to sprint through the spaces in Springer's line of vision will be rewarded and they'll get easy baskets.
His passing connects one side of the floor to the other, all the while keeping the back line of the defense honest. Beware, if you lift from your guarding position to threaten the ball, you will get back-cut. Vertical spacing heaven.
Springer's build, low center of gravity, and motor help him annoy the hell out of anyone who tries to take advantage of his guard-like size. What he did to Nic Claxton in Brooklyn the other night makes me think maybe, just maybe he can guard fours and fives at the NBA level:
Claxton isn't exactly a world-beater on offense. Any big who can simply pivot into a face-up and shoot will have Springer dead to rights because of the size advantage they'll have. But, Claxton has approximately seven inches on Springer. Yet, Brooklyn refused to even try to get the ball inside to him when Springer was guarding. He couldn't get inside position, Springer denied him the whole way, forcing the Nets to look for a shot elsewhere.
He can hold his own in the post on defense, and that has me wondering whether Philadelphia could go ultra small in some lineups and have Springer guard fours or fives. It won't be as easy as it was above against more talented offensive players. But, the Sixers are all about pressuring the ball and denying under the Nick Nurse regime.
On the other end of the floor, I'd like to see some experimenting with Springer as a screener and short-roll passer. Let him catch in space and make decisions. On other actions, put him at the elbows and see if he can find cutters as the ball moves quickly within the grand scheme of the offense.
Again, we're not talking about running the offense through him. We're talking about using Springer as connective tissue within the Sixers' offense.
Didn't like: Paul Reed, still unsure of what to do with the ball
The Sixers want Paul Reed to take threes. Nick Nurse has been saying it for months. Reed's teammates have said it on numerous occasions. Hell, the Wells Fargo Center security guard you've interacted with most has probably said it.
Reed attempted just four triples - all off the mark - across the four preseason games. There were looks he had that he simply turned down, letting a lack of confidence get the best of him and trying to hide it by driving to nowhere or advancing the ball to the next man.
When you work on your jump shot like I know he does, you tend to get off the schneid when you hit the target just one time. I think when he sees one go down, he'll start to get more comfortable. But, the preseason certainly didn't yield positive results on the long-range shot.
I'm not going to try to sell anyone on some dream that Reed is going to shoot even 35 percent on threes this season. Mostly because I wouldn't be able to sell myself on it if I tried. But, despite what Nurse and the players say about the necessity of shooting, I think there's a place for Reed in the rotation even if his long-range jumper never breaks out of its shell this season.
That place, however, exists only in a world in which Reed makes good, quick decisions. No more of this scatterbrained stuff:
Reed loves the phrase "out the mud". It's so synonymous with his name that he's sort of made a brand out of it. No, really. But, he literally looks as though he's stuck in the mud on the play above.
Does Reed know he can dribble and move his feet? Does he know moving either left or right will not send him falling through a trap door in the Barclays Center hardwoods and into a pool of hot lava?
It's things like that that make him hard to trust with the ball in his hands unless his decision-making is simplified to catching and shooting or screening and rolling.
What I'm about to say might shock you. Let me beat you to the punch here - yes, I've probably lost my mind. But, here it goes.
I think Reed should study film of Draymond Green.
No, I'm not expecting him to evolve as the playmaker Green is. Nor am I expecting him to blossom into one of the best quick-decision forwards the league has ever seen. But, there could be a ton of value in Reed learning how to intuitively connect the offense with DHOs without wasting a precious second of thought.
No need to shoot. Just get the offense flowing in the other direction. If a defender overplays, lead your partner to the rim with a bounce pass ahead as he cuts. If he can take the ball on the screen, set a hard pick, swing the back foot around, and open to the basket in case the ball-handler sees you open with a lane.
Whatever the next action is, it is. It's better than getting stuck in the mud.
Like: Kelly Oubre Jr. and the art of cutting
I was banging on the Kelly Oubre Jr. drum since before Trea Turner's season shape-shifted into a fairy tale with a series of standing ovations at Citizens Bank Park. That the Sixers landed him for the veteran minimum was highway robbery. Their best move of the offseason by a mile. Maybe amongst the best moves anyone made if you factor in price.
Oubre Jr. became an effective cutter when he got to the Golden State Warriors, ironic given that his fit with the Dubs was clunky to say the least. But, it's stuck with him over the last few seasons.
He'll be one of a select few bench players in the NBA with the physical gifts and basketball skills to average 20 points per game. Although, I'm skeptical his shot selection will be consistently good enough to make the most of his minutes. There's going to be a 4-for-13 for every 6-of-10 from deep. But, Oubre has the instincts to get himself in position for easy buckets.
The urge to call his own number at any time is what it is. He does some of the things that you typically only see from poised veterans. Kids, if you're not going to follow your own shot, take note of what your defender does if you miss:
If a teammate missed him when he was wide open in preseason, he didn't hang his head or get frustrated. Instead, he diverted his attention to what the defense was doing when the shot went up elsewhere:
The Sixers were an extremely prideful bunch on the offensive glass in the preseason, working together often to end possessions for the opposition and create additional opportunities for themselves. Oubre, with his length and athleticism, was one of the Sixers most dedicated to creating additional plays on offense.
I would love to see Nurse get creative with the Embiid-Oubre pairing. Use the big man as a back-screener for Oubre to cut along the baseline, akin to a wide receiver trying to lock eyes with his quarterback on a deep ball. See what opens from the confusion that generates.
Didn't like: Tobias Harris going against the flow of the offense at the wrong time
From Tyrese Maxey to the 15th man, the Sixers are trying hard to adjust to what Nurse wants to do on offense. They're trying to play faster, taking bold shots earlier in the shot clock or earlier in their touches than they previously might've been used to.
It's hard for some of them to re-wire their brains in that way, but they're buying in and trying to get into the habit. Even Joel Embiid - the guy perhaps most licensed to oppose Nurse's ways - is trying to adapt, although he only demonstrated it in a sample size of one preseason game.
But, there are growing pains. There are moments when things are moving fast and then the ball reaches someone who slows the game down. One of the biggest offenders is Tobias Harris.
Nurse wants quick threes; Harris enjoys a slow dance, sizing his defender up before backing him into the paint, creating space with a heavy shoulder, and pivoting into a fadeaway jumper some 12 feet from the basket.
It's a fine shot for the right players. Harris - consistently amongst the best forwards at jumpers between four and 14 feet over the last several seasons, and 88th percentile on points per post-up last season, according to Synergy - meets the qualifications of 'the right players'.
But, he has to read the floor much better than this:
Harris' best post-ups come when he finds himself guarded by a size mismatch. That's when you want him to play the bully ball card. De'Andre Hunter might not have the height advantage, but he beats Harris in wingspan.
Beyond the threat of this slow dance not going in Harris' favor, he has Saddiq Bey pinching hard on his left side, over-helping at the elbow and leaving Tyrese Maxey open on the perimeter one pass away. He also has De'Anthony Melton flashing right into his line of vision, making a sneaky zipper cut into the vacant area in the middle of the paint.
Harris can opt for the kick-out to Maxey for a likely open three, or he can feed Melton, opening up a couple different options on the second side of the floor depending on how Atlanta reacts.
Harris could've revived the clunky pace he created with a pass to either option, but especially to Melton. Instead, he calls his own number and gets blocked.
You can live with that decision if you're operating against the shot clock or if he has the mismatch. But, in this scenario, Harris needs to make a better read. They're right in front of him.
Like: The Sixers taking shots early in the clock
The Sixers ranked eighth in the league in three-point attempts per game in the preseason, chucking up 41.5 per game. They finished 16th in three-point attempts last season, hoisting 32.6 per game, according to NBA.com.
We can debate the credibility of that variance in volume because Embiid only played in one preseason game. The team's top option is a midrange savant, so logically at least a couple of those threes will become twos when the dust settles. However, the Sixers attempted 40 threes in Friday's finale against the Hawks, the one game Embiid played in (and he played 33 minutes, at that).
It's a chain reaction in some ways. The Sixers have cobbled together this mix of young, athletic types and older, less athletic types. There's a contingent that wants to play faster and a contingent that has to play slower. So, how do you up the pace without trying to fit a square peg into a round hole?
You encourage threes earlier in the clock.
Not everyone can run at the same pace. Not everyone can move with the same agility. But, everyone can be more liberal in their shot selection.
That's what the Sixers were in the preseason. Melton was one of the least disciplined triggers (or most, depending on how you look at it!):
This shot isn't all that much of a tone-setter for your pace. Shooters are often most dangerous on long offensive rebounds. It just so happens that the shot clock resets in this example. But, this attempt was a couple steps beyond the line. Quite deep for a player of Melton's shooting skill. Last season, he might've swung to Embiid or Harris to reset the possession. This season, he's open and he's authorized.
There are quite a few instances of him letting fly without the scramble of an offensive rebound:
Although players of Melton's caliber probably prefer to catch passes in certain spots, it doesn't take your finest playmaker or screener to get a look this good. They're just catching a defender slightly off guard, separated enough to get a good look if you get the shot off quickly.
Melton was on a heater in this game, so he might've felt more empowered to chuck up anything he could get his hands on. But, if he has authorization to shoot any time he touches the ball, most everyone else on the roster will, too.
"Even when Nick first came in, he was just saying, 'Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it. Like, fire 'em up. Don't be scared to shoot early on'. He said, 'If you want to play, you got to be able to shoot the ball'," Melton said after Friday's preseason finale.
"Obviously, his emphasis is defense. But, on the other side of the ball, he wants guys to shoot the ball. He wants guys to be aggressive. Even guys like Jaden Springer, Paul Reed; he wants them to stay aggressive. He knows their role and what it was last year. But, this year, we need them more and more."
Melton knows any movement down in the rotation could cost him in free agency next summer. He appears poised to launch at any turn. The rest of his teammates need to follow that lead.
Didn't like: Tyrese Maxey's playmaking isn't where it needs to be - yet
If the Sixers get out to a slow start, everyone is going to talk about James Harden being away amid his trade request - if that is the case. But, it'll be at least one of three factors. First, of course, is Harden being out. He's the second best player on the team on an average night. Not having him hurts. Duh. Second will be that Embiid played in only one preseason game. He's trying to navigate a new system. There will be some growing pains for everyone. That might mean a few more miserable nights for Embiid than normal at the start of the season. It's preventable. It's annoying. But, crying won't put the spilled milk back in the carton.
Third will be not having a point guard. No, that isn't the same thing as not having Harden.
I'm talking about the skill set of a point guard, someone with the DNA needed for that job. The Sixers are ostensibly going to put the ball in Maxey's hands, hoping that he has grown enough as a playmaker to run the offense. I don't see it yet.
Maxey had 22 assists against 6 turnovers across the four preseason games. That's a ratio of nearly 4:1. Objectively excellent. But, that doesn't mean his playmaking has evolved.
He racked up a lot of those dimes within organized offensive structures:
Don't get me wrong, Maxey is making great reads. This is the right pass. Dejounte Murray is the low man. He's stretched two strides away from Melton, who is ready to catch and shoot in the corner.
But, making programmed reads within an organized offense doesn't make you a point guard. To be a legitimate point guard, you have to make great reads when there is no structure.
I need to see more of this from Philadelphia's rising star:
Being a point guard is about more than calling out sets on the court. It's about creating open looks for others, looks that present only after a number of layers are peeled back. It's about using your own tools to draw two defenders and then punishing them for giving you too much attention, as Maxey so kindly illustrates above.
More plays like that, and the Sixers might be just fine. The thing is, there weren't enough plays like the one above in the preseason. And when things get cramped, I don't know how they're going to generate sustainable offense in the early days of the season.
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