Do any of the Sixers have a legitimate case for making the All-Star team?

Do any of the Sixers have a legitimate case for making the All-Star team?

After his fine performance last night against the Nuggets in Denver, sideline reporter Molly Sullivan asked Philadelphia 76ers breakout performer (of sorts) Evan Turner about his All-Star chances. The question took me by surprise, but not Evan, who clearly had been given the question some thought himself, and encouraged the Sixers' PR peons to get out the vote on his behalf. (He also concluded that regardless of whether or not he was selected, he knew that he was "on [his] way to becoming one of the best players in the league," which...well, hold that thought, ET.)

I hadn't really thought about Evan's All-Star chances, but it's true that an argument could conceivably be made for such a selection, as is true for a number of players on the Sixers--surprisingly so for the team with the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers' three notable veterans and their star rookie all have put up numbers this year that might at least merit them discussion in the All-Star debate--even though it's far from certain that any of them actually get picked (and a virtual impossibility that any get voted in by the fans).

But do any of them have a real chance, and are any of them truly deserving anyway? Let's break it down a bit.

EVAN TURNER

Case For: Evan is certainly having the best statistical season of his career, averaging a robust 19.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists a game. The points per game ranks Evan in a tie for fifth with Dwyane Wade among East backcourt players, and the only three other players in the entire league currently with a stat line over 19/6/4 will all certainly be making an appearance on All-Star Sunday: LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. Evan is also posting career highs in PER, TS% and eFG%, and both getting to the line more than he ever has in his career (nearly five times a game) and shooting at a better rate once there (about 82%, easily the best among Sixers regulars). He's also assumed a leadership role on the Sixers, and hit some big shots for them down the stretches of games, including a takeover overtime period against the Bucks in Milwaukee, and the buzzer-beating, game-winning floater against Brooklyn in Philly.

Case Against: Well, Evan might be putting up career highs in all those advanced-stat categories, but on average, his numbers still ain't that great. His PER of 14.4 is nearly two points higher than any other season of his career, but it's still below the assumed NBA average of 15, and his offensive rating is still in the double digits, with 100 being a sort of baseline number for a productive offensive player. His superficial shooting numbers of 44% from the field and just 29% from deep are also pretty ugly, and though he's done a better job of protecting the ball in the last few weeks, his 102 turnovers on the season also rank him eighth in the entire league in total giveaways.

And there's also that pesky other side of the ball. Even if Evan is having a career season offensively, defensively he's been roundly deplorable, average as a one-on-one defender but utterly miserable as a team defender, consistently blowing rotations and serving as the most deficient cog in the Sixers' historically poor three-point defense. If there's one enduring image of the Sixers' 2013-14 season on the defensive side, it's a haggard-looking ET stumbling his way through a screen out to a shooter behind the arc, getting there a step too late as the shooter drains the trey and Malik shakes his head in disgust from the booth. You generally want your All-Stars to have a higher offensive than defensive rating, and Evan's 99 / 110 combo doesn't exactly make you feel particularly gooey inside.

Verdict: Unlikely. Evan has a better chance than he would in most years, given how miserable the East has been and how some of the East's traditional perennials in the backcourt--Boston's Rajon Rondo, Chicago's Derrick Rose, possibly now even Cleveland's Kyrie Irving--have been out with injury. But he's probably not even the best candidate on his own team, and if the coaches really wanted to grant a high-volume, low-efficiency scoring guard an All-Star bid, they'd probably select Toronto's DeMar DeRozan, who doesn't have Evan's all-around numbers but does have a higher scoring average, and more importantly, plays for a team that's actually winning, at least by crappy Eastern Conference standards. Evan may believe he's on his way to being one of the best players in the league, but he's probably not gonna get that validation from the league this year, and he doesn't quite deserve it anyway.

THADDEUS YOUNG

Case For: Well, if All-Star voting was weighted towards the later games, Thaddeus Young would have a pretty airtight case for inclusion. Thad has been playing on a pretty inarguable All-Star level over his last five contests, as I already broke down earlier this week, making up for his slow-ish start to the season and then some. As currently stands, he's one of only six Eastern Conference forwards averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 rebounds a game, and of those six, only LeBron James has a higher FG% than Thad's 49.5%, and only LeBron and Atlanta's Paul Millsap have a better three-point percentage than Thad's 40.9%. Throw in a steal-and-a-half per game, and above-average team defense--a rarity on the Sixers for sure--and Thad's got a compelling resume, for sure.

Case Against: Well, those are all pretty good numbers that Thaddeus has on his resume, but none of them are really eye-catching or jaw-dropping enough to capture the attention of voters that probably haven't watched a ton of Thad this year, or really know the little things he does on a night-to-night basis to help the team win ballgames. And as with everyone else in this column, the fact that the team hasn't actually won a whole lot of ballgames hurts his case, especially as compares with someone like Millsap, part of an overachieving Atlanta team fighting for home-court advantage in the East.

Verdict: Thad probably falls just short, both in theory and reality. If you figure the East takes about five forwards, three of those slots would unquestionably be taken by LeBron, Indiana's Paul George and New York's Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron's frontcourt mate Chris Bosh and the previously mentioned Paul Millsap both have stronger cases for better teams than our Thad. An injury or a lack of acceptable centers could give Thaddeus a sliver of opportunity, but he'll probably have to wait for another year--maybe on a better team--before being given serious consideration.

SPENCER HAWES

Case For: Like ET, Spence is having easily the best offensive season of his career, a make-good campaign that finally validates his high draft selection seven summers ago and proves he does have a ceiling somewhere near where his boosters initially predicted. His 14.9 points per game rank him third among East centers--with both the players ahead of him, Atlanta's Al Horford and Brooklyn's Brook Lopez, being out for the season with injury--while his 8.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game rank him third and second among the same pool. Most impressively, Spence has by far the best three-point percentage of all centers with his 44%, which is actually tenth-best in the whole league, and his true shooting % of 59.4 is also best of East centers besides the injured Lopez.

Case Against: Well, again as with Evan, defense is kind of a problem. Spence does have the blocks to his credit--1.5 a game, among the best for Eastern centers--but his actual nightly team defense can be problematic, as you saw last night against the Nuggets, when his inability to move while defending the pick-and-roll resulted in a lot of open jumpers for the Denver guards and easy dump-off opportunities for their big men. When you're the defensive anchor for what has to be considered the league's worst defensive team, you tend to get a little of the blame for that.

Verdict: Well, it's going to be interesting. Spence definitely benefits here from playing in the crappy, injury-decimated East, where he a has a quasi-legitimate claim to being the second-best center in the conference this year, but given that neither the coaches or fans have to name even a single center to the East squad--the only requirement is six "frontcourt players," with two wild card players, none of whom are required to be a true pivot--it's entirely possible he gets left out anyway.

If the coaches do insist on having two centers for tradition's sake--because there certainly aren't any getting fan-voted in--they'll probably choose Indiana's Roy Hibbert, a true defensive anchor for the league's best D, and then they'll have their choice of Detroit's Andre Drummond, Chicago's Joakim Noah and Hawes. I'd say Hawes beats Noah thanks to his superior offensive numbers (and the perception that Spence is having a career year, while Noah has struggled to match his previous bests), but Drummond's insane rebounding numbers (12.4 a game in just 32.5 minutes) and insaner field-goal percentage (61.3%, best in the entire East) makes him a real threat to Spence's candidacy, despite Drummond also playing largely subpar defense on a struggling team.

I'd peg Spence as having about a 25% chance of making the squad at the moment, with a chance for that number to go up or down a bit depending on how both he and the team do in the next few weeks. Those aren't overwhelming odds for Spencer, but that's about infinity times better a chance than he's had in any season prior, so he should take it and like it just the same.

MICHAEL CARTER-WILLIAMS

Case For: Well, if you're judging him in comparison to all other first-year players, not only is MCW the clear Rookie of the Year, he's basically an MVP candidate. He's leading all rookies in points, rebounds, assists, steals and PER, and there isn't even a particularly close second. True, this is a historically weak draft class that Carter-Williams is competing with, but even if you hold his numbers against all rookies from every year, they stand up--the only two other players to ever average 17 points, seven assists and five rebounds in their debut season are a couple guys you probably heard of, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. Oh, and if you factor in MCW's league-leading three-plus steals a game, he's putting together a stat line that no basketball player has posted at any point in their career, like, ever.

That's all pretty good, and so is this: When Michael Carter-Williams plays for the Sixers, they're 9-11, which in the East would be a winning percentage that would easily get them into the post-season. Without him, they're 1-10. So that means so far this year, MCW is the difference between the Sixers being a playoff team and them being historically awful--a perception that also passes the eye test when you watch the team play with and without him. If that doesn't make him one of the 12 most valuable players in the talent-and-injury-depleted East, it's hard to say what would.

Case Against: Well, even though they did a brilliant job of demonstrating just how important he is to the Sixers by virtue of his absence, the 11 games MCW missed with various lower-body maladies does hurt his campaign a little, since that's a pretty large percentage of games to be sitting out pre-All-Star break. And even though he's actually been better than a lot of us predicted in terms of shooting the ball in his rookie season, a 41% FG percentage and 31% conversion rate from deep is still probably gonna stick out to some people as a negative, as are his 3.6 turnovers per game, which is currently the highest TOV rate in the whole league.

And despite the 3.1 steals a game, the defense still comes and goes a little with MCW, as he's had some trouble adjusting to Brett Brown's team defensive scheme coming from two years of playing zone in Syracuse, often finding himself lost or behind the play. The steals absolve a lot of sins, but as with Spence, playing point for the league's least-efficient defense has to be held against him to a certain extent.

Verdict: You know what? I'm saying he goes. If the East has to bring at least four backcourt players to the game, I'm not sure that you can make a case that there have been four better guards in the Eastern Conference this year than Michael Carter-Williams. Miami's Dwyane Wade will certainly be there, as will Cleveland's Kyrie Irving if he's healthy enough to play, and you have to think that Washington's John Wall, averaging 20 and nine for one of the East's only competent teams, will get his first All-Star bid as well.

But after that, who's beating out MCW? It's pretty slim pickings--the only player with a real argument is Atlanta's Jeff Teague, but even that is mostly record-based, as Carter-Williams is out-rebounding and out-stealing Teague about two to one, and out-scoring him on comparable field-goal percentages, despite being the nominally inferior shooter. It might still come down to record, but you tell me what's more impressive--getting a team that's made the playoffs each of the last six seasons to a handful of games over .500, or getting a team that everyone expected to be near-unprecedentedly horrific to double-digit wins by Jan. 1st, despite missing 11 games?

And then there's this: Who's the real story of this NBA season? Michael Carter-Williams has been one of the headliners of 2013-14 since he went toe-to-toe with LeBron and came out on top on opening night, and he's barely let up since then, blowing away the rest of his rookie class, making it to the top 15 in league jersey sales despite the official NBA Store not even selling his jersey, swinging fantasy leagues and making the Sixers an unexpected League Pass must-watch. I know these things aren't supposed to matter, but you tell me who NBA fans would want to see playing in this game with the league's best, Michael Carter-Williams or Jeff Teague? Brandon Jennings? DeMar DeRozan? Get that weakness outta here. It's gotta be MCW.

So, apologies Evan, but if we're gonna stump for any Sixer's All-Star chances, it's gonna be our rookie phenom. Tell your friends, write your local congressperson, tackle Mike Brown or Randy Wittman if you see them on the street and make sure they know what's what. Michael Carter-Williams deserves to be playing on that Sunday in February, and it's up to us to make it happen. Or at least to whine about it loudly and interminably when it doesn't.

Fully healed from torn ACL, JaCorey Shepherd out to prove he belongs

Fully healed from torn ACL, JaCorey Shepherd out to prove he belongs

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.

Season over.

“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 Cory 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 some 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.”

Brayden Schenn out to prove himself after new deal with Flyers

Brayden Schenn out to prove himself after new deal with Flyers

 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.”

Eagles rookie Isaac Seumalo passes 1st test in return to practice

Eagles rookie Isaac Seumalo passes 1st test in return to practice

As far as tests go, Monday was a pretty good one.
 
While the Eagles’ kicked off training camp in 90-degree weather, all the early-morning thunderstorm did was raise the humidity level to the point where it felt like the team was practicing in thick, hot gelatin.
 
So, yeah, pretty good test. And Isaac Seumalo passed with flying colors.
 
“He’s sharp,” head coach Doug Pederson said about the third-round offensive lineman. “He picked up where he left off back in rookie camp.”
 
That was the rookie camp way back on May 13-15. It was the last time Seumalo practiced with the team thanks to the arcane NCAA/NFL rule that trapped him at Oregon State, one of the schools that operates on a quarters system.  
 
So while the rest of his teammates and fellow rookies went through OTAs and minicamp, Seumalo was thousands of miles away, just trying to keep up.
 
“It sucked,” Seumalo said, just off the field Monday, after his first practice in over two months.
 
“I wanted to be here and practicing. I just tried to work out and get in shape, gain weight, get healthy, do as much as I could to come back ready to go.”
 
While stuck at Oregon State, Seumalo worked with a strength coach to put on some muscle and studied his Eagles playbook as much as he could.
 
The rookie also had lengthy Skype sessions with offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland. According to Seumalo, he Skyped with Stoutland for a half-hour to an hour, four or five times per week. The two would go over the playbook install for that day and whatever tweaks were incorporated.
 
No, not live reps, but still pretty valuable 1-on-1 teaching time from position coach.
 
In addition to his sessions with Stoutland, Seumalo also kept in touch with fellow rookie offensive lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai and his former college teammate, guard/center Josh Andrews, whom Seumalo calls “Juice.”  
 
On Monday, thanks to a lack of numbers (there are just 38 players in camp until the rest of the veterans report on Wednesday), Seumalo played all three positions on the offensive line: guard, center and even tackle for a few snaps to give Malcolm Bunche a breather.
 
But Seumalo’s certainly more comfortable at guard and center, and he said Monday the Eagles want him to work on playing left guard.
 
It’s not too hard to figure out why. While Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson all seemingly have their jobs completely clinched, incumbent left guard starter Allen Barbre is still working with the first-team after a disappointing 2015. While Pederson was quick to name Barbre the starter this spring, it seems like Seumalo will have a chance to at least compete for the job, along with veteran Stefen Wisniewski.
 
“Last time I checked, in the NFL, the five best play,” Seumalo said. “If I’m one of those, it’s me. If not, I’m going to bust my butt to help this team in any way I can.”
 
It’ll certainly be somewhat of an uphill battle for Seumalo as he returns from his long stay away from the team. Pederson admitted as much Monday morning.
 
“But he’s such a hard worker,” the head coach quickly said. “He’s smart. The time spent with Coach Stoutland in the offseason, he proved himself today coming back. It’s almost like he’s gone through a whole offseason of the information. I don’t have any issues with Isaac.”
 
Through some heavy breathing, Seuamol admitted the first day back at practice was a little rough on him, saying it doesn’t matter how good of shape anyone is in: the first day back is always tough.
 
The heat made it even tougher. How did he get through it?
 
“Just like everybody else, man,” Seumalo said. “One day at a time.”
 
It was a tough test, but he passed it. Many more to come.