Camden, N.J. - When it came time for the Miami Heat to make a selection in Wednesday's first round of the 2024 NBA Draft, the Sixers were anxious.

Starting late in the lottery, they needed a couple picks before theirs to go their way.

The Heat decided on Indiana big man Kel'el Ware, putting the Sixers in position to select Duke guard Jared McCain with the 16th overall pick. They were thrilled.

According to Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey, there was a "pretty interesting" player offered to Philadelphia while they were on the clock - one who they could still potentially acquire later, at that. That deal would've entailed moving back "a bunch of slots". Another scenario involved the Sixers moving far back in exchange for numerous future second-round picks.

"We liked some of the concepts where we moved back a little bit and picked up a guy who might be a little bit closer to ready to play," Morey told reporters late Wednesday night.

None of that mattered with McCain available to Philadelphia. "We were pretty surprised he was there," Morey said.

"Pretty rare to get a combination of both a guy who's got some skills that will get him on the floor earlier, including shooting, but also with a lot of upside and on a very steep improvement curve - even at his time at Duke defensively, which I think was one of the questions coming out of high school."

"We had McCain as a top-10 player in this draft and someone who, you know, we've got a lot of roster opportunity. So, if you can get a player who is hopefully rotation-ready at a very young age - I don't want to put pressure on him, but we think he's got that improvement curve, he's got the approach, he's obviously got a skill that the coach will turn around on the bench and say, 'Hey, I need that skill'," Morey said.

"He can really, really punish people in transition, really rebound. He's pretty special for a guy to get sort of in the middle of the first round. I don't want to put any tough expectations on him, but we really think this guy is going to be a 76er for a very long time, like some of our recent draft picks."

"Like some of our recent draft picks" is an obvious allusion to Sixers star guard Tyrese Maxey. The complications of the guards' size overlap was a topic of conversation throughout the night. For now, McCain is just eager to actually meet the guy with whom he could soon share minutes in the backcourt.

"For sure, man. I'm really excited just to get to know him. And then obviously ask questions just to see what he did to succeed so quickly. I'm just excited to get out there and get to know him," the 20-year-old told reporters moments after greeting commissioner Adam Silver on the draft stage.

With the superstar the Sixers have, they put a premium on shooting. Given the difficulty of earning minutes as a rookie in his draft slot, Morey doesn't anticipate McCain and Tyrese Maxey will be playing together much in the early-going. But, he imagines that the quality of shooting from two guys on the court will be difficult to defend. Not only that; both Maxey and McCain are adept at punishing ball pressure. McCain, acclaimed for his shooting, is capable of attacking closeouts and making plays.

But, you must learn to crawl before you can walk. Worry about earning minutes in games before worrying about sharing a backcourt with Maxey.

"I think so. I think it's a big bar, I think it's tough. Obviously, we're planning to be the best team in the East next year. Be right there with Boston and the other competitors. So, it's a high bar. I think, most likely, when you're in the 10-20 range, it's someone who's generally not starting the year in the rotation. But, you hope, by the end of the year, if they're contributing then you're in a really good spot as they show their work ethic," Morey said of McCain earning minutes as a rookie.

"Frankly, he sort of checked every box. That's why we're so high on him. He not only is someone who has a skill and the work ethic to get out there on the floor and also playing in high-level games. He's a combination of a guy who we think can get out a little quicker and, at the same time, a lot of upside given he's very young and has a great work ethic."

And when the time comes for McCain to get out on the floor, he feels that his experience next to Duke big man Kyle Filipowski will have prepared him for playing with Joel Embiid.

"I think it's a great transition for me. Obviously, playing through [Filipowski], I learned to create space for him and just be able to let him do his work and find gaps and find ways to get open," McCain said.

The Sixers are not blind to the fact that this selection only adds to the size issues they have in the backcourt. They're hoping that McCain can make up for his lack of height with his strength.

"In a perfect world, you'd have taller. But, I think you have to compensate that with strength. He's got a strong frame, very strong. Good rebounder," Morey said.

Rebounding has plagued the Sixers ever since Ben Simmons took off the jersey one final time. It also happens to be a facet of basketball that the 6-foot-3 guard takes tremendous pride in.

"It's something I focused on, especially towards the end of the year. Just something that felt like another way to impact winning. A lot of our wins and losses were won and lost on the rebounding battle," McCain said.

"So, wherever I go, I try to do something else that's going to impact winning other than scoring because your shot is not going to be on every night. So, if I can grab as many boards as possible, I think that helps myself."

The Sixers noticed his defensive progression at Duke. He went from being a target early on to one of the Blue Devils' better defenders by the end of the season.

"We think he'll be a solid defender in the league over time. He's got the attitude that Coach Nurse likes to bring, which is just get a little bit better every day. He's got 95th-percentile approach to the game; teammate, work ethic," Morey said.

"We've had some good luck with taking the kids with a real base of potential and a strong work ethic. We were really happy. I'm excited for Philadelphia to get to know him."

The Sixers passed on Tennessee sharpshooting wing Dalton Knecht, who fell all the way out of the lottery and to the Los Angeles Lakers at the 17th overall pick due to concerns about his age and defense. Knecht has three inches on McCain, slotting in nicely on the wings and avoiding the size-related concerns you might have about the Duke guard on either end of the floor.

For the Sixers, it was simple. In their minds, Knecht wasn't the best player available.

"We're pretty 'best player available'. I think, yeah, perfect world. I get people sometimes get on me when I say this, but it's true - we're always trying to map forward to the team, start of the season or end of the season and how it might map forward. We're not really looking at the roster right now. There's so many opportunities, so many permutations of what could happen," Morey explained.

"When someone looks back at a draft, they almost never go, 'Well, how'd that guy go ahead of that guy? Oh, they had this guy. They had a wing in front of him'. That just never happens. What always happens is, 'Why didn't they take that guy? That was pretty obvious he was the best guy'. So, we just go with the best guy. I know it's cliche, but it's also true."

The Sixers felt McCain was the best player available despite never having met with him during the pre-draft process. Intentional or not, running a covert operation creates optionality.

"We try to mostly be a black box for the other teams. There's a lot of gamesmanship that goes on if teams know where you're heading. I was really disappointed a lot of people were mock [drafting] him to us. So, that was bothersome," Morey said of the calculus that goes into drafting a player without having met with them in the pre-draft process.

"Yeah, I like to be a black box. I think it creates trade optionality. So, tend to do all our evaluation during the season, during the period where everyone else does it."

In that period between the end of the college season and draft day, McCain spent time working on his on-ball game.

"During this process, I think just showing that I can be on the ball, make reads off pick-and-rolls, and obviously continuing to level up my footwork shooting and movement shooting," he said.

"I know it's going to be challenging with defending. I think that's the biggest challenge I get thrown at me a lot. I'm just excited to get to learn more, and a new challenge is something I'm always accepting."

McCain has more in common with Maxey than just basketball skills. The two seem to have identical mindsets.

"I credit my parents, my brother. They've instilled in me from a young age that just having a positive mindset can bring you a lot of places. I try to do that everywhere I go. It's gotten me this far in my life, so I won't stop now. Even if there's a bunch of hate coming my way, I try to be as positive as possible and just continue to work and trust my work," McCain said.

He's brought that positive energy to the internet, where McCain has amassed nearly three million followers on TikTok. That and painting his fingernails have exposed him to hatred and scrutiny. But, he doesn't let any of it dim his light.

"I do the social media, the nail-painting, I do all that stuff. But, basketball is obviously my main focus. And this has been my dream since I was literally, like, five, four years old. So, I'm going to do whatever I can just to win and bring a positive attitude and just have fun, man. I'm just joyful with life, and I try to bring that everywhere I go," McCain said.

Playing for Duke invites its own level of toxicity. McCain thinks that is exactly what's prepared him for the next level.

"I think it's everything. With Duke being such a big platform in college, obviously that comes with a lot of hate and a lot of scrutiny wherever you go. But, I think that's prepared me for where I'm at, especially with Philly. So, I think I'm ready for it," he said.

The dream that McCain lived out on Wednesday night wasn't one he shared with just 29 other young men. He's been preparing for his name to be called for both himself and his brother, Jayce.

"He's the reason why I play. He got blood clots in high school, so he had to stop playing. He's literally the reason why I play. He stopped playing and came to Duke to be a grad assistant with me and to have him around was everything for me. So, that's my main motivation, to do it for our dream. It was our dream to get drafted, and so we both did it," the newest Sixer said.

"You want to go as high as possible. You obviously know who goes before you. You remember that each time you play everybody. But, obviously just honored to be here."

McCain is heading to Philadelphia because the Sixers believe he walks the line between upside and win-now skills. He shot 41 percent from three on 5.8 attempts per game at Duke in 2023-24. He averaged 21 points in the 2024 NCAA tournament, connecting on 50 percent of his eight three-point attempts per game. He contributed a pair of 30-point games as Duke made a run to the Elite Eight. One of those games featured an 8-for-11 shooting clinic from three-point range.

"I've been working on it for my whole life now. I think shooting has always been something I've loved to do and been good at. So, I think having a quick release is going to be extremely helpful, being a smaller guard in the league. Just being able to get it off quick, it'll help me a lot," McCain said.

Morey is well aware that the two-day draft process is merely the start of what has to be a busy offseason for Philadelphia. "I don't think the draft is going to inform what we do in free agency very much," Morey said, just before the clock turned over to the second day of the 2024 NBA Draft.

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Gallery Credit: Josh Hennig/Townsquare Media

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