Sure, they took the loss, but they played the better team. With the box score being a bit misleading in a few different ways, the overall feeling coming out of the first game of the season for the Philadelphia 76ers is that of optimism.
Not only did the team hang with a good Oklahoma City Thunder squad, but Brett Brown trusted his rookies enough to give them key minutes during the end of the game.
Hell, the Sixers closed the last 45 seconds of the game with four players on the floor who were not active members of the roster last season (Robert Covington the lone holdover on the hardwood).
It was an unofficial passing of the torch. Despite the foundation still being very, very much built by Sam Hinkie and a fan base faithful in trusting the process, guys outside of the young rookies like Sergio Rodriguez and Gerald Henderson — and even afterthoughts such as Nik Stauskas — all kept Philly fighting for a win late in a game against a team it probably does not yet belong challenging.
While there are other players who played a vital role in the outcome of the game, and the thousand other variables involved that we won’t discuss, using the incredibly small sample size at our disposal, the people in the City of Brotherly Love should have left Wells Fargo Arena with a positive poop-eating grin on their faces.
Instead of burying the lede more than it already has been, let’s take a gander at how two of the Sixers’ rookies did during this nationally televised debut for them.
Joel “The Process” Embiid
Speaking about not burying the lede, Sixers fans literally chanted “trust the process” as Embiid began to show flashes of the brilliance many of us originally fell in love with while he was at Kansas. Who knows if that is something that becomes a running shtick during home games for the franchise, but we sure as hell should hope it does.
More important than catchy chants, Embiid looked fluid, athletic, healthy, dynamic and like the player many were hoping he would be — which is a combination of already years ahead of pace in the footwork department, but showcasing some crazy sorts of things that can make one ponder the idea of him as a future top-15 player.
It is worth noting that Embiid was on a minute-watch entering the game. Brown claimed he did not want to play the “rookie” more than 20 minutes in his first outing, as he’s coming off lingering foot issues, and compounding his hype with too many minutes when Embiid’s body might not have been fully healthy was certainly the right decision. Plus, you know, the season is longer than one game.
Maybe it was because the game was close, or because “The Process” was exceeding some expectations, he did wind up playing two minutes over that fictional 20-minute ticker Brown placed on him.
The center finished with a rather impressive line of 20 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in those 22 minutes, but it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the former Jayhawks star.
Embiid was 6-16 from the field. On the surface, those numbers look pretty awful when you consider he is a center, and by no means is it an efficient way of getting buckets. But evaluating him as a player at this point has less to do with what he does in actuality, and more so in how he looks in trying to do so.
All of that circles back to how fluid, athletic and marvelous he looked during Wednesday night’s game. Not to mention the fact that Brown — and, presumably, his teammates — trusted Embiid enough to run the offense through him for the last four minutes of the game:
America’s best NBA Twitter follow, and a hero to those in need, also hit seven of his eight free throw attempts (he’s always been good from the charity stripe) and went 1-3 from beyond the arc, which adds more credence to the idea that Embiid, despite being hurt, has already evolved beyond being a big man with “just” great footwork.
As for his defense, save for his blocked shots, he sometimes got lost in the shuffle, and OKC’s Enes Kanter did do a good job (several times) boxing him out while the Thunder were on offense. Considering it was Embiid’s first earnest game in over two years, I think it is safe to say a lot of that is just him getting a feel for the NBA game and working off rust.
Biggest takes (simplified): Embiid might have been relatively inefficient making buckets, but his footwork looked as good as nearly any other big man’s in the NBA; he looked incredibly good on his jumpers; appeared to belong underneath with OKC’s more veteran and supposed stronger frontcourt; his defense was imperfect, but that was to be expected; and his hype is about to hit other-worldly levels:
“The Homie” Dario Saric
Oh, Dario. It wasn’t the greatest night for the “other important” Philly rookie, but how Saric played on Wednesday wasn’t all negatives.
From the stat line alone, it is ugly, however. He finished the game with five points on 2-12 shooting from the floor, but managed to grab seven rebounds. Brown did trust him enough to have him finish the game for the Sixers, though — which, given that he knows more about Saric than we do (via practices, etc.), should be taken as a good thing.
As it is with Embiid, especially this early in the season, we can’t really dissect Saric’s play by way of his numbers. It’s as much about how he looks during the games — is he confident, can he keep pace, his athleticism compared to others, etc. — as it is about his production.
Being a firm believer that Saric has the sort of natural skill set than can result in him becoming a 13-6-6 type of talent, it isn’t a shock to see him struggle during his first NBA game. Most guys in his position would, as the offense was mostly running through Rodriguez and Embiid, leaving the combo forward in a position to learn his niche on this specific roster on the fly.
It’s going to take a little while, basically.
The good news is that Saric didn’t look non-athletic. That was one of the few concerns people had of him when he was coming from overseas. That his style of play wouldn’t translate as well because he’d be unable to create space, or his own shot, or he’d simply be over-matched by other small forwards’ athleticism or be too banged around underneath by bulkier power forwards. Neither of which were things that happened.
Biggest takes (simplified): Don’t sweat the poor shooting numbers too much. They should improve as he gets more comfortable in the NBA, as there’s too much evidence from his time overseas and in the Olympics that he’s capable of hitting open jumpers. In the tangible areas, he looked solid, though his passing — which is one of his strengths, were not able to be highlighted thanks to how well Rodriguez was playing (which led to the point guard being ball-in-hand-heavy).
Everyone who has trusted the process should feel good about themselves.
As for the two rookies specifically, if Embiid continues to be the kind of player he looked like he MIGHT be on Wednesday, many of Saric’s concerns, primarily his ability to create his own shot, will be lessened due to teams potentially being forced to focus on the center’s scoring ability.
Funny how things like that work out. Almost like the Sixers once had a general manager with a plan or something…