Cheeks confident Wallace will make good coach

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Cheeks confident Wallace will make good coach

ORLANDO -- Detroit was playing Oklahoma City in the Orlando Pro Summer League on Tuesday, and sitting on the Detroit bench was Philadelphia native and Simon Gratz alum, Rasheed Wallace.

Wallace’s NBA playing days are over, but Tuesday he starts a new chapter in his basketball career, joining the Pistons as an assistant coach to Maurice Cheeks.

“He never expressed interest in coaching, but I called him to see if he wanted to do it. And he said he wanted to do it,” Cheeks said. “I am excited about it.”

Wallace played 16 seasons in the NBA -- two and a half of those were for Cheeks when the former Sixers guard was the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. In 2004, Wallace was traded from Portland to Atlanta and 10 days later, the Hawks moved him to Detroit.

The 6-foot-10 big man was the missing piece that helped Detroit secure the NBA championship later that spring.

Wallace was absolutely a special NBA talent, but he also had a tendency to lose his cool on the court and occasionally off the court as well. Many wouldn't look at Wallace as coaching material. Cheeks saw differently.

“If they looked at the way he played the game ... and not at some of the things that he did, they would know that he was a very valuable player on the court and he understood the game,” Cheeks said. “He was very smart in the game, and I am thinking he has the ability to transfer that over to a lot of guys we have.

“We have a lot of young guys. In particular, we have Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond,” Cheeks continued. “[Wallace's] forte, of course, was shooting the basketball, but for me his main forte was the way he talked on defense, covered the court defensively, getting to a certain area. I am hoping he will pass that on to our young big guys, and while it may not look like he would be an ideal coach, I think he will be very good at it.”

Wallace is not the only Philadelphia native venturing to the sideline for the first time this week. Germantown Academy and Villanova standout Alvin Williams, formerly a scout for the Raptors, is now an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics.

“Toronto management changed and they went a whole new direction and got new people,” Williams said. “When that happened, Jay Larranaga, player development for the Celtics, he gave me a call about working the summer league. So it is a trial period, but hopefully things pan out. But all the other teams are getting an opportunity to see me too.”

After finishing his nine-year NBA playing career, Williams said he was looking for an opportunity to stay involved in the game. Through scouting he got to know some younger players and realized the impact he could have on their careers, both on and off the court, if he went into coaching.

Should Williams’ trial period work out and land him a permanent coaching job in Boston, he sees in the Celtics an organization that, like the Sixers, is rebuilding with a plan.

“You have teams now that build through the draft -- it’s harder now because these guys are so much younger and also through free agency,” Williams said. “Fortunately, Boston has such rich tradition that it isn’t hard to attract free agents and Danny Ainge has been doing a good job through trades to also bring in talent, so we will see what happens.

“I think with the new coach (Brad Stevens), I think it is a brilliant thing or it can be. They can start fresh. He is a young coach. They got younger players, so that is a good mold because he has a good feel for younger players coming from college. Danny Ainge did his research and he has had his eye on him for a long time, so I think it is a good thing for the Celtics.”

And for those wondering if putting on a Celtics golf shirt is tough for Williams given his Philly roots, he admitted it is before smiling and saying, “I am getting used to it.”

Dario Saric hitting his stride, altering games on Sixers' second unit

Dario Saric hitting his stride, altering games on Sixers' second unit

There was skepticism as to whether or not Dario Saric would ever play for the Sixers. He spent two years overseas after the team acquired him on draft night 2014, and as each month passed, more and more uncertainty grew around his future in the NBA.

Saric told the Sixers all along that he would come to Philadelphia. He urged them, I will play for your team.

The 22-year-old rookie (and that term should be used loosely given his lengthy professional career) is proving the wait was worth it.

“They said he was never coming back,” Joel Embiid said. “But Dario’s here and he’s making big plays for us.”

Saric is averaging 9.7 points and 5.9 rebounds in 24.1 minutes this season. That includes a transitional period wherein Saric was moved in and out of the starting lineup and shifted from power forward and small forward as the Sixers experimented with different rotations. Saric looked out of sorts and frustrated with himself at times. The newness of the league, team and system took its toll on the player who is his own toughest critic. 

Saric's numbers are up since Brett Brown locked him in to the second unit. He is averaging 11.0 points and 6.7 boards during the Sixers' 7-2 stretch. 

“If Joel Embiid weren’t in the league, you’d have to talk about him in consideration for Rookie of the Year,” Brown said. “There is an appeal that he has developed, I feel, from our fans. They respect him. How can you not? He is so blue collar. I think the plays he makes, the effort-based plays, the physical plays just count for everything. ... I hope that he recognizes we appreciate his passion and we appreciate how he plays.”

Saric put on a show in the fourth quarter of the Sixers' statement win over the Raptors Wednesday. He had a pair of blocks in under a minute, including one against Jared Sullinger which sent Embiid into a frenzy on the bench (video here)

“Dario never blocks shots and he had two in a row,” Embiid said. “Especially at the rim like that, blocking Sullinger, that’s the type of play we need. The crowd obviously got into it. I’m just glad he’s here with us like he promised he was going to be after two years.”

Saric followed up the blocks with an offensive rebound and layup that pushed the Sixers' lead back up to six points. He topped off his fourth-quarter spurt with a three-pointer from T.J. McConnell to put his team up seven. 

“Every guy has their own job,” Saric said. “Sometimes you can do it better but always you need effort. You've to give 100 percent, try to fight, try to win. Give everything that you have in that moment. Your whole body, just move it. ... I had a good game. Sometimes the game gives you open shots. Sometimes it gives you a situation where you cannot do nothing. I tried to come and bring some energy. I tried to change the game in that way.”

Saric finished with eight points, nine rebounds and two blocks in 24 minutes off the bench. He hadn’t recorded two blocks since Nov. 9 against the Pacers. 

“I think Dario is the key to helping us secure that win, big-time,” Nerlens Noel said. “I think he really took that game more toward our favor.”

There were bound to be growing pains for Saric with all the massive challenges involved in playing in the new league. His basketball world has been flipped upside down in less than a year, not to mention his adjusting to life outside of Europe. It took some time but Saric is hitting his stride, and it is led by his disciplined mindset.

“Sometimes when you're doing bad and you don't have an opportunity to do something, (you have to) give the team its energy," Saric said. "I tried to bring some kind of energy and I did that good. I don't know. Maybe it's because I want to win the game. That's the easy answer."

With something to cheer about, Sixers fans providing energy

With something to cheer about, Sixers fans providing energy

Toronto Raptors forward Norman Powell was ready to throw down a ferocious dunk with 8:48 left in the game with his team trailing the Sixers by six. That dunk could've silenced the crowd and gotten the Raptors right back in the game.

Instead, he was met at the rim and left feeling rejected. Not by Joel Embiid. Not by Nerlens Noel. But by rookie Dario Saric.

Saric wasn't done there. Jared Sullinger, in his first game with Toronto this season, was in the same position as Powell, with an opportunity to finish a big dunk less than a minute later. Like Powell, Sullinger was turned away by Saric.

In that moment, 17,000-plus went crazy at the Wells Fargo Center. The cheers were deafening for the 22-year-old Croatian.

"I try to give effort for every game," Saric said. "And I had an opportunity. I had an opportunity to get blocks. I did it and then it started to get crazy. Of course as a player, you like that. When you do a good move and the whole gym try to support you."

The Sixers rode that wave of energy to a 94-89 win over the Raptors on Wednesday.

Sure, some on hand were there to see Villanova product Kyle Lowry and the Eastern Conference's second-best team, but when the waning moments arrived, the crowd was in the Sixers' corner.

"Obviously it’s something new, something different, something I’m not used to but easily getting used to," Nerlens Noel said of the crowd support. "It’s the sixth man. They come in there and they give us a whole new spark of energy, especially that Dario sequence. The fans, every block, they were on their feet, they were giving him extra motivation to go get another one. They come up big for us."

That wasn't the crowd's only moment to shine. "The Process" gave them plenty to cheer about all night.

Earlier in the fourth, Embiid had a sequence where he was at the elbow while Sergio Rodriguez had the ball up top. Sullinger was draped over Embiid as Embiid called for the ball. Instead, Embiid spun away from Sullinger and toward the basket, leaving the bulky forward grasping at air. Rodriguez fed Embiid and the latter finished the play with a slam.

After another sound defensive possession, Embiid struck again, this time nailing his second three of the contest. It forced the Raptors to call a timeout and the crowd to erupt. Chants of "Trust the Process" could be heard throughout the entire arena.

"It’s amazing," Embiid said. "Even on the road, you hear 'Trust the Process' chants. I feel like everybody around the world is starting to follow and trust us and trust the process. The fans have been great. I’m glad we’re winning games for them. We’re doing it for the city."

While Embiid's global outreach may be somewhat exaggerated, there's no doubt this city has fallen in love with the charismatic Cameroonian. When it was time to close out the game, who else was in the middle of the action but Embiid.

After Robert Covington blocked a Lowry three with 30.1 left, Lowry was able to recover the loose ball and drive to the basket. The only thing he'd find there was Embiid waiting to swat away his layup attempt. Lowry then fouled Embiid, sending Embiid to the line to seal the game.

As the big man stepped to the charity stripe, a different chant broke out —"M-V-P."

"It’s amazing. Last year, that’s something I never thought would happen," Embiid said. "I never thought we would be winning so many games, especially so many games in a row. But what I’m trying to do is change the culture. I like to get into it with the fans. I don’t like it quiet. I play better when fans are into it, chanting ‘Trust the Process,’ ‘M-V-P,’ cheering for us. That’s what I love."

The Sixers have won five in a row with Embiid in the lineup and seven of nine overall. They have 14 wins with another month left until the All-Star break. They have a legitimate superstar and are garnering an identity as a strong defensive unit.

The atmosphere was electric in South Philly on Wednesday and it's been a long time coming.

"The fans are fantastic," said head coach Brett Brown, who entered this season with a 47-199 record. "We’re all kind of starving for some success, we’re starving for some good feelings, some wins. To feel it and feel it again, it’s addictive. This city and the fans deserve it. They really deserve it."