Vander Blue in tight battle to make Sixers

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Vander Blue in tight battle to make Sixers

There aren’t too many secrets about the Sixers’ roster for when the team opens the season against the Miami Heat on Oct. 30. The starting lineup is basically set with Thad Young, Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, Michael Carter-Williams and James Anderson.

Off the bench, coach Brett Brown has been going with Royce White, Lavoy Allen, Tony Wroten and Darius Morris. With big man Daniel Orton recently picked up from Oklahoma City, the Sixers have some size to help in the post.

That leaves a handful of battles for the last couple of spots. And as the exhibition season has progressed, Vander Blue has given Brown exactly what he wanted to see.

“I think Vander is an in-your-face, full-court athlete who’s ready to get out, go and jump people,” Brown said. “I like Vander because there is no back-down and he has some dog in him and he has some athleticism.”

Brown says Blue has a “spark” to his game that could help as he vies to make the team along with players like Khalif Wyatt and Hollis Thompson. In three exhibition games, Blue is 6-for-13 shooting, with two highlight-reel dunks to go with three steals and two turnovers in 14.7 minutes per game.

Often, Blue, a 6-foot-4 guard who played three seasons for Marquette, finds himself picking up the ball handler full-court.

“Coach likes me on the ball and to pick it up full-court and use my speed and length to bother the smaller guards,” Blue said. “I have a lot of experience playing off the ball as well. I can guard a one through a three.”

Blue smiled when he was told that Brown said he had “some dog in him.” He’s always been that way, Blue said, but maybe he became tougher when he went undrafted last June. He hooked up with the Rockets’ and Grizzlies’ summer league teams before signing a partially guaranteed deal with the Sixers just before the start of training camp.

“The whole draft process just gives me more fuel to add to the fire so I can prove that I can make a team and help a team,” Blue said.

Since then, Blue has given the Sixers some energy in practice and in exhibition games, something that has made him stand out with the coaches and the Sixers’ veteran players.

“Vander has had a great couple of practices,” Young said. “He’s done a really good job as far as coming out and paying attention and doing the things he needs to do and make plays to help his team. Vander has really showed a lot of poise in practice.”

As for earning one of the last spots on the team, Blue says he hasn’t thought about it too much. The idea, he explains, is to focus on the immediate future.

“I just wake up every day and think about coming to work, not thinking about the next day,” Blue said. “I’m just coming in every day and trying to get better and play as hard as possible.”

Sixers-Raptors 5 things: Challenge awaits with DeRozan, Lowry

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Sixers-Raptors 5 things: Challenge awaits with DeRozan, Lowry

Sixers vs. Raptors
7 p.m. - CSN/CSNPhilly.com/streaming live on the NBCSports App

The Sixers (13-26) go for their second straight win and sixth in eight games as the Toronto Raptors (28-13) visit the Wells Fargo Center for the third of four meetings between the teams this season.

Here's what to look for in the Wednesday night duel:

1. Rollin' in the New Year
What a difference a year makes.

After an abysmal 2016, the Sixers look like a whole different team in 2017, winning five of their last seven games. While that run includes a win over the hapless Nets, it also features wins over a few playoff contenders, including the Hornets and the latest win over the Bucks.

Part of the Sixers' roll has been, of course, because of Joel Embiid. The center's highlight-laden January has seen an increase in his production. In six games this month, he averages 22.5 points and 9.2 rebounds to go with 2.3 assists, 2.5 blocks and one steal per game. In his last two games, the aforementioned wins over the Hornets and Bucks, he has dominated by getting to the free throw line 32 times, making 25 of his attempts.

One issue for the Sixers winning ways is Embiid's workload. The team plays four sets of back-to-backs in its next 10 games, meaning Embiid will likely sit at least four times in the next few weeks. 

Beyond Embiid, the Sixers' bench has been rolling thanks to some continuity. Nerlens Noel, who missed the win in Milwaukee with a sprained ankle, has nine points and 5.8 rebounds a game during the run. Dario Saric has averaged 11.1 points and has made 12 threes in the last five games.

The Raptors are the Sixers' biggest test since at least the Celtics game on Jan. 6, if not since the last Sixers-Raptors clash in mid-December. The Raptors have won both meetings this season by a combined 36 points. Toronto also comes in just as hot as the Sixers, having won four straight -- although Wednesday will be the second part of a back-to-back.

2. An All-Star worthy backcourt
The reason why the Raptors are such tough matchup for the Sixers begins with their vaunted backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, both of whom will likely make their third All-Star appearance in February.

DeRozan has cooled off a bit since his torrid league-leading scoring start, but the two-guard is putting up one of the best offensive seasons in Raptors history. With 36 points (not to mention 11 rebounds and six assists) on Tuesday night, DeRozan became the second player in Raptors history with 20 30-point games in one season. 

The high-volume shooter makes over 21 field goal attempts a game, almost all of which are inside the three-point arc. He averages 28.1 points, tied for fifth-best in the NBA, by burying a steady stream of mid-range jumpers and by getting to the free-throw line, where he shoots 84.5 percent.

Lowry, who didn't play on Tuesday in order to rest, is the yin to DeRozan's yang. The former Villanova point guard has been electric this year from three, shooting a career-best 44.4 percent. He also takes a lot of shots (14.7 per game) but also dishes the ball out well, averaging 7.2 assists. Some of the Raptors' best units have been Lowry with Toronto's bench players as the veteran point guard facilitates the offense and shows off the defense that made him a key part of Team USA's gold medal in 2016.

Lowry not playing on Tuesday likely had to do with the large load that he shoulders for the Raptors. He averages a career-high 37.2 minutes per game and has played at least 40 minutes 12 times this year, including four times this month. The Raptors hope to compete for the No. 1 overall seed (they're 1.5 games behind the Cavaliers), so Lowry may not get the chance to rest that often in the second half of the year.

3. Getting defensive
The challenge for the Sixers' defense goes well beyond DeRozan and Lowry. The Raptors' full offense is not fun for any team to oppose. In fact, according to advanced statistics, Toronto -- not the high-flying Golden State Warriors -- are No. 1 in offensive efficiency.

As one could guess with a team led by DeRozan, its No. 1 ranking isn't because of three-point shooting. Like their leading scorer, the Raptors are one of the best teams in the league of getting to the free-throw line. That could be bad news for Embiid if he plays because he's been averaging north of four fouls a game in his last 10.

While the Raptors are solid at getting to the free-throw line and inside the arc, they do have some deficiencies. A big one is rebounding. They have a relatively high offensive rebounding rate, but they're near the bottom in the league in allowing opponents to pick up offensive rebounds. 

If the Sixers to make tonight's game competitive, they'll need a collective team effort on the glass against a front-line devoid of two potential starters, Jared Sullinger and Patrick Patterson.

Beyond their big two, the Raptors have a few other scoring options. Cory Joseph scored 33 in place of Lowry last night in Brooklyn while Terrence Ross averages over 10 points a game off the bench. Small forward DeMarre Carroll is finally healthy and bring a solid three-point shot along with his trademark defense.

4. Injuries
T.J. McConnell (right wrist) and Embiid (flu) are questionable for the game (see story). Ben Simmons (foot) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are out for the Sixers.

Sullinger (foot), Patterson (knee) and Delon Wright (shoulder) are out for the Raptors.

5. This and that
• The Raptors have won 14 straight against the Sixers. Their last loss to Philly came on Jan. 18, 2013, exactly four years ago. 

• With McConnell questionable, Chasson Randle may see more of an opportunity (see full story) while nearing the end of his 10-day contract signed on Jan. 10. Randle impressed in 16 minutes off the bench vs. the Bucks, scoring 10 points while draining two threes. He also committed five fouls in the process.

• The matchup with the Raptors begins a four-game stretch against teams that made the playoffs last season, culminating in a game against the Clippers next Tuesday. Luckily for the Sixers, only one of the games (Atlanta on Saturday) is on the road and the Clippers are missing two of their top players with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin out.

Joel Embiid questionable with flu; T.J. McConnell (wrist) upgraded

Joel Embiid questionable with flu; T.J. McConnell (wrist) upgraded

CAMDEN, N.J. — Whether or not Joel Embiid suits up against the Raptors tonight remains to be seen. He is listed as questionable because of illness and did not participate in shootaround. On Tuesday, Brett Brown said Embiid was dealing with the flu

If Embiid is unable to play, Jahlil Okafor would see more playing time. After four straight DNPs, Okafor started in Embiid’s absence on Saturday against the Wizards and had 26 points and nine rebounds in 35 minutes. The following game, he came off the bench against the Bucks (10 points, two rebounds, 20 minutes) without Nerlens Noel (sprained left ankle).

Noel went through shootaround and is probable for Wednesday.

“I know I can’t control what’s going on with all the DNPs,” Okafor said after shootaround. “I just try to work as hard as I can to stay prepared for whatever happens.”

T.J. McConnell has been upgraded from doubtful to questionable after he was able to go through shootaround with a right wrist sprain. He wore a splint on Tuesday but just had his wrist wrapped to limit swelling. The Sixers' medical staff will evaluate McConnell before the game to determine his status.

“A lot better today,” McConnell said. “Optimistic about tonight. We’ll see how it responds this afternoon during warmups and make a decision there.”

Richaun Holmes remains on assignment with the Delaware 87ers. He is currently participating in the NBA D-League Showcase, which runs Jan. 18-22 in Mississauga, Ontario.