And WFAN's Mike Francesa knocks it out of the park. (via Jimmy Traina)
Ah, was it only a month ago that we feared signing up for $60-$80 million worth of Dion Waiters, a player who has barely (and rarely) scraped the surface of "good" over his four-year NBA career? A classic "Philly Guy" — which really makes you hope for an eventual reevaluation of our home city's cultural priorities — the perennially over-confident Syracuse swingman had been regularly (if erroneously) linked to the Sixers for the majority of his pro career, and the rumor mill began churning again this offseason, with the Sixers one of several teams linked to the free agent. Chances seemed at least decent that we would wake up to an Instagram of Waiters at Geno's signing his new contract in cheese wiz — one of those four-year, $70 million-type deals NBA teams seem to be giving out to middling players like complementary after-dinner mints this summer.
Well, turns out the Sixers didn't have any interest in giving Dion Waiters that kind of money, and neither did anybody else. Neon Dion ended up signing with the Miami Heat for a blockbusting two years and $6 million dollars, and Sixers nation breathed a collective typhoon of relief. Short of trading Jahlil Okafor for every Boston Celtic under the age of 25, this was just about the best news the Colangelos could offer us at this point in the offseason.
And speaking of: It might — might — now finally be safe to say that the Colangelos aren't as dumb as we feared. With Dion off the board, there just aren't any free agents left to worry about the Sixers overpaying. Well, J.R. Smith technically, but the chances of him leaving Cleveland for Philadelphia under any circumstances are even worse than him being the starting two-guard on a championship team to begin with. (And technically of technicalliest, LeBron James too, but we could give him all our remaining cap space and half the Liberty Bell to boot and he'd still be dramatically underpaid.)
Anyway, point is: We've worried since the Colangelo clan took over that they would make one dramatically dumb move to hamstring this team in the name of Winning Now-ish, and it would look silly in the short term and be absolutely befuddling in the long-term. The Sixers have even been attached to a couple such deals in reports from NBA experts, deals that had them offering Nerlens Noel and further bounty for the No. 5 pick, or offering absurd free-agent dollars to Jamal Crawford, or being in the mix for ol' DW. Maybe there was truth to some or all of it, but the more rumored deals that sizzle-then-fizzle, the less likely it seems that any of them were ever actually going to come to fruition.
Dion may represent the smoking gun. Here's a player, that as final evidence would suggest, the Sixers could have had virtually uncontested at any point this offseason — a player that ended up signing a two-year make-good deal for what essentially amounts to the veteran's minimum. Forget four years, $80 million, the Sixers could've offered eight mil for one and Dion probably woulda lunged at the opportunity. (Sure, there are market benefits that might've given Miami a competitive edge, but South Beach ain't what it used to be: With Dwyane Wade gone to Chicago and Chris Bosh unsure to ever even play again, the Heat are only predicted by ESPN to finish two spots ahead of Philly in the East next season.) There's really no conclusion to be reached except that the Sixers were never actually that interested in signing Waiters in the first place.
So, offseason crisis averted, time to rest easy as we count the days to most exciting Sixers training camp in franchise history? Perhaps, but there is still one shoe left to drop: The Sixers are all but pot-committed to trading one of Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor before the season proper finally tips off. It's mostly encouraging that the Colangelos have waited this long; they said that they weren't going to jump at an early deal that wasn't the right deal, and so far their patience has borne their words out. But as the summer begins to peter out and teams begin talking themselves into the roster they already have — while urgency increases for Philly to make a deal before their opening-night lineup is bottlenecked with blue-chip bigs — a desperation trade certainly isn't out of the question just yet.
Still, after a month of respectable draft choices, measured free-agent signings, and zero totally thoughtless panic moves (even if they tried unsuccessfully to make one or two) it's getting on time to start giving the Sixers' new front office the benefit of the doubt. It'll never feel quite as safe as we did with Our Once and Future Dark Lord — and the overflow of assets Hinkie equipped Jerry and Bryan with will be all the body armor they really need anyway — but we need no longer fear for our lives with every passing Woj Bomb, and we just might be able to root for the Sons of Sam next year without being constantly interrupted by pangs of crippling regret. Not having to watch Dion Waiters jump and shout for the ball so he can jack a contested 20-foot fadeaway is a pretty good start.
The hardest days were game days. Sunday afternoons. When his teammates were playing football and JaCorey Shepherd was stuck on the sidelines watching.
“It was tough, man,” Shepherd said Monday. “I never had to miss a season. I never had to really miss a game. Missed two games in college but other than that, I never missed anything.
“Game days were the toughest. Sitting on the sideline and I couldn’t do anything. Practice was tough, but I got used to it. But games? That was the hardest.”
Shepherd, then a rookie sixth-round cornerback out of Kansas, was having a very good preseason last year when he tore his right ACL during practice in early August in a sideline collision with running back Darren Sproles.
“Second half of the season it started to get easier because the season was starting to wind down,” Shepherd said. “I’m in the moment, but I was also looking forward to moving forward.”
There are two ways to go when you’re hurt. You can feel sorry for yourself, tune out and wait to get better. Or you can make use of every single moment available to you during your rehab.
Shepherd, always a workaholic, always a film hound, always the hardest worker on the roster in college, didn’t hesitate to make the right choice.
As disappointed as he was, he made sure his 2015 rookie year didn’t go to waste.
“JaCorey, you could tell it was really hard for him to not play,” said veteran corner Nolan Carroll, whose 2015 season was also cut short. “But he made the best use of his time last year.
“Chip (Kelly) let the injured guys stand on the sidelines for games and even brought them to road games, and when me and Walter (Thurmond) and Malcolm (Jenkins) would come off the field, he was always right there listening when we went over what just happened with (defensive backs coach Cory Undlin).
“You could see that he wanted to make the best of his situation and learn as much as possible, even though he couldn’t play. That’s not always easy for a young guy to do, but JaCorey, you could tell he just wanted to learn as much as possible.”
You have to give some credit to Undlin — Kelly’s defensive backs coach last year and still here this year under Doug Pederson — for taking the time to coach up a rookie sixth-round pick who was on injured reserve.
“Coach Cory, he always made the time for me,” Shepherd said. “The defense would come off the field and he would be like, ‘Watch this on this side,’ ‘Watch this route concept,’ just making sure I’m staying in tune.
“They kept me occupied and busy and preparing like I was still playing. ... The older guys would always question me to make sure I was on my P’s and Q’s so that way when I got back, I had the mental part down and it was really just a matter of getting my feet down under me and I’d be ready to go.”
Now that training camp is here, Shepherd is fully healed, 100 percent healthy and certainly not lacking in confidence.
His practice Monday on the opening day of training camp for rookies, quarterbacks and players who finished last year on injured reserve was his first real workout in a year.
“Two years I haven’t played in a game, man,” he said. “So it feels real good just to be out here. This has been a big test for me, but I think it’ll pay off. I learned some patience. That’s one thing I’ve always needed to work on, my patience, and being a smarter player.
“I feel like I’m a lot smarter than last year after sitting on the sideline for a year having to pay attention and learn. I feel like I’m a better player this year than last year even though I didn’t play a snap.”
Along with guys like Jalen Mills, Randall Evans, Jaylen Walker, Eric Rowe and Denzel Rice, Shepherd is one of a number of promising young corners on the Eagles’ roster.
Shepherd loves the competition. He embraces it.
“All of us love to compete,” he said. “That makes it fun. It’s not like, ‘Oh man, it’s a job.’ It’s fun because we’re all out there competing against one another and having fun together.
“We know we’re fighting for spots, but at the end of the day, if you’re having fun and just competing? You don’t want to be thinking about that. Especially around this time. You really can’t afford to because why are you worried about something you can’t control?”
How can Shepherd separate himself from all the other young corners?
After all, he’s not one of Pederson’s guys, he’s not one of Jim Schwartz’s guys. He’s a Chip Kelly draft pick, so he may have to do a little bit more than others just to open some eyes.
“All I can do is continue to do what I do and control what I can control,” he said. “You know? That’s the way the game is. There’s always going to be competition. Frankly, I love competition, so that doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve never been worried about competition, and I’m not going to start now. Just going to do what I do.
“If there’s not a job here, there’s a job somewhere else. All I can control is give it my all on every play.”
Shepherd said Monday’s initial practice was a big step for him, and another comes Saturday, the first practice of the summer in pads.
But the big one, the date circled on his calendar, will be Aug. 18, the preseason opener and Shepherd’s first game since Kansas-Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas, on Nov. 29, 2014.
“Everybody wants to know what JaCorey is all about,” he said with a laugh. “Keep watching. I’m planning on showing them.”
Shortly before 9 a.m. Monday in Toronto, Brayden Schenn was already sitting in the arbitration room, awaiting his agent Don Meehan and Flyers general manager Ron Hextall.
This was a first for the soon-to-be 25-year-old forward. He wasn’t necessarily nervous or even excited.
“It was a matter of my agent talking to Hexy outside and if they were coming into the room or I was going out and a deal would be done,” Schenn said.
They entered. He exited.
Within the hour, Schenn had a new four-year, $20.5 million contract, avoiding arbitration (see story).
“I’m extremely happy to be signed on for another four years," Schenn said. "I don’t think anyone wants to go through the arbitration process.
“It’s all part of the business. Whatever happens, happens in arbitration. I don’t think whatever is said [in hearings] is meant. It’s just part of the business. The money side of things.
“I think the Flyers like me as a player and to take it to arbitration, I don’t think it’s anything against me. It’s just part of it.”
While Schenn had never been through this, Hextall has. As a player here, the former goaltender took the Flyers to arbitration two decades ago, but settled in a marathon, six-hour meeting the day of his hearing.
“I would not have had an issue with it,” Hextall said when asked if he was prepared for the bad feelings that often accompany such hearings (more from Hextall here).
“Arbitration is part of the process … sometimes it can be difficult for the player. If you can avoid, you want to avoid it.”
The Flyers were prepared for a two-year ruling which would have left them having to attempt to re-sign Schenn as an unrestricted free agent after 2018-19.
Hextall said the club has seen consistent improvement in Schenn, even though this contract overpays him at the start for just one very good year of the past five he’s had as a Flyer.
Obviously, the Flyers are banking on him to become a 30-goal, 70-point player from here.
“Four years is showing confidence in me that they believe in me,” Schenn said. “For me, four years I have to continue to prove myself and get better year by year and I expect to be better next year.
“I’m happy with a four-year deal at a fair number. The team is only getting better and I’m happy to be part of the plan.”
Consistency will be the key as to whether the Flyers' investment in Schenn was worth it.
From a points standpoint, he’s increased his production every season as a Flyer, from 18 points, to 26, to 41, to 47 and this past season, 59. But his every-night play on the ice has often waffled. Then again, the club has waffled, too, as to whether he’s a center or winger.
He spent the bulk of the past season proving he could play on the wing with Claude Giroux in Dave Hakstol’s system. That wasn’t always the case under Craig Berube or even Peter Laviolette.
“Every player has his ups and downs through 82 games,” Schenn said. “Consistency, you try to find it as much as you can throughout the year. I feel I’ve continued to get better at both ends of the ice.
“I still feel I can get better defensively and be more reliable. That is something I definitely will improve on. This past year, I had great opportunity to play with great players.
“Guys like [Sean] Couturier, Giroux, [Wayne] Simmonds, whoever it may be. It’s all about opportunity and I got opportunity last year.”
Which resulted in career highs in goals, assists and points. Hextall expects Schenn to make bigger strides over this contract as he reaches the prime part of his career.
When the Flyers held breakup day in April, Schenn said he enjoyed the pressure of being “counted upon” as a core player. He is now the third-highest paid Flyers forward behind Giroux and Jakub Voracek, so the “core” sticker is on his jersey for good.
“I said at the end [of the season], I have to be counted on each night as part of the core group,” Schenn said. “There’s a bunch of us who have been there for a while now.
“I’ve gotten better year after year. I expect to come in and improve my game in all areas of the ice. When you get the chance to play with good players, they obviously make you better, as well.
“We’ve got some good pieces. We have a good team moving forward … you want to get better individually, but I think the team will be better as a whole this year, as well.”