The 2021 NBA Draft is just over a week away, which seems both impossible and long overdue at the same time. Philadelphia figures to be one of the busiest teams in the league as we head into the draft, with the Sixers actively working the phones looking for trades to push them toward title contention.
If one doesn’t come to fruition, they’ll be left with picks No. 28 and 50 on the 29th, not exactly reliable wells of NBA talent. And a good place to start is with the most simple roster evaluation question there is — what do the Sixers need in order to get better?
Frankly, this question is complicated (as the rest of the offseason is) by the uncertainty surrounding Ben Simmons’ Sixers future. While a team built around Joel Embiid and Joel Embiid alone shares some of the same needs of an Embiid/Simmons tandem, a trade that sends Simmons packing would have significant repercussions across the roster, some good and some bad. For this exercise, we will mostly operate as if Simmons will still be here, while affording that the outlook on certain positions (predominantly in the frontcourt) would change big time if he ends up somewhere else on or around draft night.
With a core duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Philadelphia’s calling card has been (and should be) defense. Their floor on that end is extraordinarily high, but even with the addition of multiple shooters and an MVP leap from Embiid, the Sixers still hung around the middle of the pack on offense. That’s not going to cut it for a team looking to to contend.
Presumably, the Sixers are going to lean on Tyrese Maxey more next season in both the scoring and playmaking departments, but he shouldn’t be expected to push them forward on his own. The Sixers will likely be saying goodbye to at least a shooter or two this offseason, pending decisions from/on Danny Green and Furkan Korkmaz, but they at least have some shooting depth to give minutes off the bench. What they need are three-level scorers, or at least potential three-level scorers, who can bend defenses and open things up for the entire second unit.
In an ideal world, this sort of player would come in a bigger package than the guards they have on hand. Maxey has shown real promise as a lead guard, but smaller guards without insane range tend to run into roadblocks the deeper you go in the playoffs. At shooting guard size or larger, you can (at the very least) get your shots up without constantly fearing that a defender will alter it or outright prevent you from taking it in the first place. Even the highest-level guards, a la Chris Paul, have run into issues in certain matchups when teams are able to throw bigger and stronger guards at them.
Doc Rivers has already lamented Philadelphia’s lack of size on the perimeter, and while the league has skewed more toward offense than ever, it’s hard to see a future where they draft another diminutive guard and Rivers actually decides to play him. That’s something to take into consideration.
Names to watch in this draft: Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland (VCU), Tre Mann (Florida)
A lot of the guys we thought might be eligible for the size qualifier disappointed with their measurements at the combine. Rumors that Tre Mann had grown a bunch since arriving at Florida were shot down when he measured in at 6’3.25″ (without shoes) at the draft combine, and his wingspan is less than an inch larger than that, which will inspire some reflection on his stock from a lot of teams.
Hyland clocks in at only 6’2″, but he has a huge wingspan for a player his size (6’9.25″) that should help offset that a good deal. Hyland had arguably the best draft combine of anybody in attendance in Chicago, excelling in scrimmages to reaffirm what he showed on the floor in the A-10. He’s a confident shooter from deep range off-the-dribble and off-the-catch, offering a bit more upside than some of the other candidates this deep in the draft. We didn’t get to see him play in the NCAA Tournament as a result of COVID issues shutting things down for VCU, but the tape says he is a bucket getter.
A riskier option would be a guy like Josh Christopher, who disappointed at Arizona State and has a few red flags coming out of college. He’s a black-hole player once he gets the ball, isn’t a great shooter, and his coach at Arizona State, Duke legend Bobby Hurley, stealthily threw him under the bus for issues the Sun Devils had last season. But he can beat guys off of the dribble and get to the rim, has some defensive promise, and could be a smart buy-low option depending on how much stock you put into his five-star status coming into college.
(Nobody is more of a “bucket” than Cam Thomas out of LSU, but his draft range seems volatile. He would fit the bill from a skill perspective for sure.)
A little more than 3&D
I don’t bring up his name to rub salt in the wound, but watching Mikal Bridges in the playoffs, it is striking how badly the Sixers need a player like him, someone capable of defending top assignments who can take a defender off-the-bounce when the ball swings their way. Let’s try to forget that they had that exact guy on the roster, even if it was for a brief moment.
Most of the league’s best teams have several sharp decision-makers on the floor at a time, which makes life easier when you’re in constant late-clock situations in tight playoff games. The Nets are the most extreme version of that, with the Durant-Harden-Irving trio an embarrassment of perimeter shot creation riches, but you don’t need everyone on the floor at that level to compete for a title. To use another Villanova example, Donte DiVincenzo (who has missed most of the playoffs due to injury) had an excellent season for Milwaukee this year, shooting above average from deep while posing a threat off of the bounce and offering solid, switchable defense.
One thing has remained true about the Sixers from the start of the Embiid/Simmons era to now — they have very few players who bring you something on both ends of the floor. If you can talk yourself into Maxey becoming a decent point-of-attack defender or Thybulle becoming a trustworthy three-point shooter, that might change in the future, but the Sixers are constantly moving through bad options and even have them in their starting lineup. Seth Curry was Philadelphia’s second-best player against Atlanta, and he absolutely bled points to the Hawks on the other end of the floor, unable to be taken out because of how much he meant to the offense.
Philadelphia’s second unit options are limited in some part due to this problem (though you could argue some of this is due to Rivers’ unwillingness to try out different combinations). I’m half-kidding when I say they should just draft a ‘Nova player at some point, though with their luck they would finally take one and land a bust.
Options in this draft: Kessler Edwards (Pepperdine), Trey Murphy (Virginia), Joel Ayayi (Gonzaga)
The tricky thing about picking in the late ’20s is that you have to prioritize which weaknesses matter more to you. One of the hang-ups with the current roster is that it’s hard to make bets on players who are iffy shooters but good at a lot of other things, even if those guys are the best prospects in a vacuum. Most of the guys in this range are either not trustworthy shooters or liability when trying to take guys off of the dribble.
Edwards is viewed more as an early second guy, a designation that’s understandable given where he played and his, well, we’ll call it “interesting” shooting form. His body seems to move in three different directions, but it didn’t stop him from shooting 39.5 percent from three across three seasons at Pepperdine on relatively consistent volume. He’s big enough to play switchable defense across multiple forward spots at the next level, and though he’s not a defensive stopper, many scouts believe his intelligence will make him a useful team defender at the next level. On the minus side, he’s only dangerous attacking with his right hand off-the-bounce and he’ll probably get bullied by stronger players early in his career.
Murphy has been a mock-draft favorite for people discussing the Sixers, though I’m unconvinced he’s the sort of guy the Sixers need. Yes, he looks like a good team defender and a high-level shooter, but his self-creation ability is almost non-existent. Perhaps the Sixers are willing to wait it out and develop his ballhandling, but I’m more skeptical of him than most — Murphy’s complete inability to separate at the college level doesn’t bode well if teams crowd him with pro defenders.
Ayayi necessitates a bit of projection on multiple fronts. He took a step forward as a shooter during his senior year but lacks the history of touch from deep and can load up a bit slow, especially off-the-dribble. Defensively, he had some trouble navigating through screens, a hugely important skill in today’s NBA. But he’s a smart help defender with the length to bother guys on ball, and Ayayi excelled in a role that at least partly resembles what he’d do for the Sixers on offense. He’s comfortable shooting out of dribble handoffs, relocates well off of post-ups, and he was excellent as a secondary pick-and-roll player for Gonzaga, showing off the handle and the finishing ability at the rim (75.2 percent last season) to lend hope he can be a useful secondary option at the next level. He profiles more as a guard and small wing defender compared to guys like Edwards and Murphy, but that’s an area where the Sixers need help.
Backup big/frontcourt flexibility
There are members of the fanbase who believe this should be the top priority in the draft, and I can’t get there in any future, Simmons on board or not. You are simply not going to play a backup big man many minutes in the playoffs as long as Embiid is on this team, and Simmons’ limitations on offense impact the sort of players who can even take the floor with him. You don’t want to reach on flawed stretch bigs because you’re fearful of how better bigs with different skill sets will wither next to Simmons.
That said, you don’t have to be a big with range out to the three-point arc to open things up ever so slightly for the second unit. A center with the ability to put pressure on the rim while still knocking down a jumper from the free-throw line would be welcome in Philadelphia. Heck, a rim-bound center with soft hands and any form of passing ability would be welcome, as we saw Tony Bradley excel in a limited role for Philadelphia before being shipped out as part of the George Hill trade last year. I’m not of the mind he would have saved them in the playoffs, but Bradley’s presence would have at least given them an option Rivers showed he was comfortable with.
Splitting the difference here is going to be tough, and this is probably the hardest position to pin down without a decision on Simmons.
Options in this draft: Greg Brown (Texas), JT Thor (Auburn)
Both of these guys share something in common — their range is all over the map if you talk to scouts and comb through mock drafts. The Sixers could go for a safer, less volatile option in someone like Day’Ron Sharpe from North Carolina, who fits in the more “traditional” big man role, but he’s a non-entity as a shooter and a tougher sell on a team with Simmons. So while affording that he might be a decent pick at No. 28, let’s skew toward the wild cards who could be available even if they trade back or trade up in the second round.
Brown is an absolutely ridiculous athlete, the sort of player who can go up over you and finish if you hit him with a head of steam on a cut or a transition possession. And he’s already shown off decent touch from outside, knocking down a third of his attempts during his freshman year at Texas while shooting over 70 percent at the line. Defense is where he’s really going to earn his keep, though — Brown proved capable of staying in front of smaller perimeter players, including potential lottery picks like Baylor’s Davion Mitchell. Proponents of small ball around Simmons have long desired for Philly to go switch-heavy in that setup, and Brown fits the bill for what you want in the frontcourt.
Thor has the makings (if not the production) of a reliable shot from deep, the ability to attack closeouts, a strong (but not elite) athletic base and the length to potentially be a rim protector — either as a weak-side helper or a smaller primary big — at the next level. A team that thinks it can fix his base mechanics on his shot and improve his functional strength may get a unique talent, but it’s likely going to take a bit to get him there. The question for guys like Brown and Thor are more about what Philadelphia thinks of their talent on-hand. Are the Sixers willing to bet on another project big with Paul Reed already on hand? It doesn’t seem especially likely, even if it’s worth considering.
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