Sixers end camp, take classroom overseas

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Sixers end camp, take classroom overseas

Sixers training camp, the first under new head coach Brett Brown, is complete.

Players seemed relieved that the eight practices over the past five days were in the books.

“It went well,” Thaddeus Young said. “It is an unfortunate situation us having so many guys down as far as the bigs, but for the most part each guy came out here having something to prove and they showed what they can do and had great impression of all the coaches.”

Spencer Hawes is among the frontcourt players ailing for the Sixers. However, the center’s sore knee is progressing each day.

“It feels good,” Hawes said. “I went through non-contact drills today and I had no restrictions there. I am going to keep at it and hopefully be full-go when we get over there.”

Hawes was referring to the Sixers’ upcoming trip overseas. The team departs for Bilbao, Spain on Thursday morning. The Sixers will play a Spanish professional team on Sunday before facing the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday in Manchester, England.

Brown thinks his team is where it should be for this overseas portion of the preseason given all the new faces from management to coaches to players.

“We have a side out-of-bounds play, underneath out-of-bounds [play]. We have a semblance of running. We have a little bit of defensive principles in place,” Brown explained. “At this stage, I think they have done a remarkable job of absorbing a lot in a short period of time.”

That said, there are still youthful mistakes that Brown is demanding be diminished.

“I am always trying to walk that line, avoiding talking all the time. You want to cut to the chase and get to the point, but you want to teach,” Brown said. ‘“Hey, that’s not the way we do it. We just got done telling you this. We showed you on the tape, we showed you on the floor. At what point is this enough for me to give you for you to do it right?’ There is a responsibility on their part to pick it up, too.

“You could stop at every play with us and say something that is crucial. These are the kinds of assessments you make between every practice and when you go to bed. How do I make things a little bit better?”

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 seconds 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 him 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."