Nerlens and MCW, But No More Jrue: Some Thoughts on What It All Means for the Sixers

Nerlens and MCW, But No More Jrue: Some Thoughts on What It All Means for the Sixers

First of all, and this will certainly be far from the last gushing eulogy I write for his time on the Sixers, let me just say one more time for the record: I LOVE Jrue Holiday. He was, without a doubt, the best thing about watching the Sixers the last four years, from his days toiling for minutes under Eddie Jordan to his first triple-double to coming alive in the Boston series in '12 to him repping Philly at the All-Star team last season. He was a joy to watch on the court, an absolute sweetheart off the court, and I would have loved to watch him develop over the next five to ten years, as he filled out the holes in his game and hopefully grew from a fringe All-Star into a legitimate franchise player.

I will miss him terribly, and I will probably sob myself to sleep in my #11 Holiday jersey I purchased before Game Four of the Miami series two years ago. But I can't really fault Sam Hinkie's logic in making him available. By trading Jrue, he sends the clearest message possible to the league, to the fanbase, and to the team itself: The Sixers aren't that good, and have to get considerably worse before hopefully getting a whole lot better. And everyone--absolutely everyone--is expendable.

Jrue Holiday was the closest thing we had to an untouchable player on the roster, an All-Star point guard with room to grow and an imminently reasonable contract. But if we're attempting to be reasonable here, Jrue wasn't Kyrie Irving, or even John Wall, nor was he likely to reach those guys' level. He's achieved a ton for a 22-year-old, but as superficially excellent as his stats were last year, his numbers came rather inefficiently--his lack of free-throw shooting and high turnover rate meant that his PER was a good-but-far-from-elite 16.7, and according to advanced stats, he was worth just 3.3 Win Shares last year, fewer than even Spencer Hawes or Dorell Wright. He also occasionally lacked discipline on defense, and was prone to the sporadic playmaking mental lapse in late-game situations.

Of course, nearly all Jrue's flaws could have been correctable, and at just 22 with a notoriously conservative head coach, it wouldn't be reasonable for him to expect him to do any better just yet. But does he have the ability, the athleticism, the supernatural talent to be the guy that the Sixers build around? Probably not. Preferably, Jrue would have been a second or third option on a contending team. Trading him will very likely haunt the Sixers in the short term, but it wouldn't be shocking if he stayed his whole career at that kind of borderline all-star level, always top ten at his position but never top five. That's a great player to have, but it's not one who you hoard at all costs.

So once we write off Jrue, we have to turn to the new guys we now have in his stead: Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams. Noel, a power forward from Kentucky, was pegged before the year as the likely #1 overall pick, and though he didn't get a tremendous amount done in his Freshman year at UK --about 11 points and ten boards a game, going 17-7 in his 24 games--he put up very good peripherals and defensive numbers, shooting nearly 60% from the floor averaging not only an incredible 4.4 blocks a game, but 2.1 steals a game as well, a rare-to-find combination in a big man. Consequently, analytics guys love Noel's potential--ESPN's Kevin Pelton ranked him #1 in projected WARP among rookies next year, and he only turned 19 in April.

Pretty cool, right? So why was he taken at #6 by the Pelicans, and not first overall? Well, he tore his ACL in February in a gruesome in-game incident that will knock him out of game action until at least December, if not longer. (When last reported, Noel was targeting a Christmas return.) This is no small thing for NBA teams drafting in the top five, since even if he does come back promptly, there's no telling if his athleticism will still be 100% in tact, and as any team (and particularly the Sixers with their recent experience) will tell you, when you start messing with big men's knees, there's no telling what kind of long-term fallout will result.

What's more, Noel is still very raw offensively. He won't be able to score in the pick-and-pop like so many Sixers men of years past have been, and even in the low post with his 7'4" wingspan, scoring against elite NBA defenses will be a challenge for young Nerlens, especially at first. Defensively, he should be able to contribute pretty immediately, but even his Kentucky big man predecessor Anthony Davis wasn't particularly prodigious in his scoring his rookie year, and he was far more offensively versatile than Noel. He's gonna take a while for sure.

Meanwhile, there's Michael Carter-Williams, who, pending some moves in free agency, will likely waltz in unopposed as the Sixers' starting point guard. Carter-Williams is also a favorite among the analytics set, ranking ninth in Pelton's rankings, and had a much more obviously productive college career at Syracuse, averaging 12 points, seven boards and five assists (as well as almost three steals a game), while leading the Orange and their crappy offensive attack to the final four. With MCW and Noel, the Sixers will now have two long, range-y, defensively minded athletes at their respective positions, and high IQ guys to boot.

However, as you might have guessed from him being available to the Sixers at #11, there's a catch with all this, and it's this: Shooting has been a bit of an issue for Carter-Williams. Last year, MCW shot a painful 39% from the field, including 29% from deep.He also turned the ball over 3.5 times a game, which, when combined with the bad shooting, is undoubtedly going to cause problems in Philadelphia's already low-efficiency attack. Still, unlike our other tall ball-handler with a successful college career, MCW is seen as a pure point, and he has the athleticism to compete and grow at the NBA level, rather than hitting the pro ceiling the way the Extraterrestrial did.

If it seems like neither of these guys are going to come in and contribute a ton to the Sixers winning right away...well, they probably won't. But therein lies the grand plan of our new GM Sam Hinkie. As we suspected he would, Hinkie has taken a look at the Liberty Ballers' roster and concluded--rightly--that it's nowhere near contention. He has thus decided that rather than try to augment the existing pieces on the roster and push to make the playoffs again next year, the Sixers are in a full-on rebuild, going even younger and stripping the club of all inessential pieces--which, in this case, would appear to be everyone.

Basically, the plan is this: Rebuild around youth, and lose a lot. By shedding the Sixers' most productive offensive player and adding two guys that aren't going to be contributing a ton next year (one of whom might not even be playing at all), they're basically guaranteeing a losing season, and a dramatic one--by the time Hinkie is done, the Sixers might most closely resemble last year's Orlando Magic in terms of roster strength. But that's where the plan really kicks in: Not only will the Sixers likely have a high pick in next year's draft--said by many to be one of the strongest in recent memory, and capped by Canadian phenom Andrew Wiggins, on pace to be the most coveted prospect since LeBron--but they'll have a pick of secondary value from the Hornets as well, which is reportedly top-five protected, but might still be a lottery pick in a stacked draft.

Needless to say, this also gives us a pretty clear plan of what the team's off-season strategy from here will be. I wouldn't call this the death knell on a Bynum signing necessarily--if the Sixers are confident in his recovery and feel they can get him for below market value, I believe they still will, though that's such a big if it almost doesn't matter--but you can basically throw out any visions you might have of the team going after an Al Jefferson or J.J. Redick or any other veteran to "put us over the top." And in the meantime, expect more roster-shredding trades to come--by opening night, I would be surprised if Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young were all still on the roster; it wouldn't be hugely shocking if none of them were.

Bottom line: This was the Sixers' best chance to jump-start the rebuilding process, to immediately put us on a five-year path rather than waiting another year or two (or five) to tap out this core and hit rock bottom, and damned if Hinkie didn't grab it with both hands. It's going to be a rough year of Sixer basketball, and Hinkie is going to catch hell from a lot of Philly fans who (understandably) don't want to part with the one unreservedly good thing the Sixers have had going for them the last few years. But even though I'm devastated to see Jrue go, and though the next season will undoubtedly be a soul-crushing slog at times, it is nice to feel that our front office has a long-term plan, and is willing to stick with it, even through tough times such as this.

And in the meantime, MCW and Noel aren't two bad pieces to start building around. I know I'll be on YouTube for pretty much the next 24 hours, gorging on highlights and convincing myself that we just drafted the next Penny Hardaway and Tim Duncan. It won't be quite like that, but it's a start, and for the first time in a long time, I really do like where our basketball team is going.

Eagles Injury Update: Isaac Seumalo, Wendell Smallwood, Vinny Curry still out

Eagles Injury Update: Isaac Seumalo, Wendell Smallwood, Vinny Curry still out

The Eagles were back to practice on Tuesday without the same four players.

Isaac Seumalo (pec), Wendell Smallwood (concussion), Vinny Curry (knee) and Taylor Hart (knee) were all held out of practice.

On Monday, head coach Doug Pederson said the team would hold Seumalo back from practice until he was 100 percent. Pederson expects Seumalo back next week and then the team will make a decision about the starting offensive line.

Pederson also said he expects Curry and Hart back for the season opener on Sept. 11.

For the second straight day, however, Carson Wentz (ribs) and Jordan Matthews (knee) were practicing. Neither will play on Thursday in the preseason finale against the Jets, but both also said they'll be ready for the opener.

The Eagles wrap up their preseason at the Linc on Thursday with a 7 p.m. kickoff against the Jets.

Penn star receiver Justin Watson ready to keep doing it all in 2016

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Photo: Dave Zeitlin

Penn star receiver Justin Watson ready to keep doing it all in 2016

As Penn football players spread out around Franklin Field to take photos and do interviews for the program’s annual media day, Justin Watson hung by the track, playing a quick game of tag near the hurdles.

“Come and get me, J-Wat!” cried out Vhito DeCapria, the precocious 5-year-old cancer patient the team adopted last year through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation and who’s now back for his “sophomore” season.

Watson, known as “J-Wat” to most, smiled and played along. Being Vhito’s favorite player is just one of the many hats he wears. He’s also one of the team’s hardest-working, smartest and most versatile players — and he enters his junior season as perhaps the top wide receiver in the Ivy League, if not the entire FCS.

“Does he do anything to surprise me?” senior quarterback Alec Torgersen said from media day Monday. “Not anymore. He did at the beginning when he first got here. But now it’s just expected of him. I expect him to make those crazy one-handed grabs. I expect him to catch every ball I throw to him. When he doesn’t, I get disappointed.”

Torgersen has had plenty of opportunities to throw Watson passes — and not only last season when the star receiver caught 74 balls (fourth all-time at Penn) for 1,087 yards (second all-time) and nine touchdowns (third all-time). Throughout the summer, the two friends worked together at the same internship downtown. They ate lunch together every day and, at 5 p.m., they hopped on a subway back to Franklin Field, where they worked out in the weight room and practiced back-shoulder fades and option routes.

“A lot of college quarterbacks and receivers can’t have that type of chemistry but I think us being here all summer really helped,” Watson said. “It’s been cool doing that. It’s a special thing that’s definitely going to help us in the fall.”

In truth, Watson is actually more than just a receiver. Last season, he was also used on running plays, gaining 154 yards on the ground, including a 79-yard scamper that sealed Penn’s huge upset at Harvard. Watson finished with a staggering 249 all-purpose yards that day at Harvard Stadium, helping the Quakers win the game that effectively led to them sharing a piece of the Ivy League title. And he said he was all set to play another position by taking direct snaps in the team’s regular-season finale vs. Cornell before getting hurt.

“The uniqueness about Justin is not only his talent and skill on the field but his football IQ,” second-year head coach Ray Priore said. “During the course of the year, he in theory played every skill position on offense. And he didn’t even blink an eye doing it. That’s a special characteristic.”

Priore laughed when asked if he can find more ways to utilize Watson in 2016 but said he won’t put him back on kick returns, “which he probably could do.” He will, however, play safety when the Quakers line up in their “victory defense” at the end of games, “so you may see an interception.”

Watson says he’s ready for anything.

“That’s so much fun,” he said. “When you’re a kid in middle school, that’s what you do. It’s awesome to be back doing that. Anything I can do to help us win, I’ll do it, whether it’s running back or receiver. I don’t think they’ll let me throw it at quarterback after seeing my arm. But anything else I’m definitely willing and ready to do.”

In the end, though, playing receiver is what Watson loves most, saying that catching a deep ball — and hearing the crowd “hold their breath when the ball’s in the air and then erupt” — is his favorite thing as a football player. It’s also his skills as a receiver that has him earning so much attention heading into Penn’s opener vs. Lehigh on Sept. 17. Among his preseason accolades, the junior was named one of 22 players on the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List — the only Ivy Leaguer to receive such an honor.

But if all of his records and accolades leads to opposing defenses paying more attention to him, Watson isn’t worried. That’s because he knows the team’s other receivers like fifth-year senior Cam Countryman and sophomore Christian Pearson are more than capable of having big years too.

“If you put two guys on me, we’ve got a bunch of other great receivers who will be open and will kill you down the field,” Watson said. “If I’ve got to take two or three guys every game, we’ll be 10-0 because I know everyone else will be making plays.”

It’s that kind of selflessness that has endeared Watson to his teammates, who enjoy the energy he brings to practice and how he always seems to be the first player in the training room.

“He’s an incredible player,” said Countryman, one of Penn’s leaders. “I have the utmost respect for him. When he came in his freshman year, you noticed right away the talent he had. So all of the accomplishments that he gets, I’m not surprised at all. 

“And they’ll keep coming in.”

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Phillies (60-71) vs. Nationals (76-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies couldn't hit in Monday's series opener, but they did receive the positive of Jake Thompson finally looking like he can get outs at the big-league level. Thompson allowed two runs over seven innings, but the Phils were blanked by Tanner Roark for the third time this season.

The task Tuesday night is no easier.

1. Due vs. Scherzer?
When the Phillies face Max Scherzer, you can essentially chalk it up as an automatic loss. The Phils are one of the weaker offenses, Scherzer is one of the game's best pitchers, and his track record against them is nearly flawless.

Scherzer (14-7, 2.92) has faced the Phillies eight times since 2013. He's 6-0 with 1.74 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP, with 62 strikeouts and 10 walks in 57 innings. 

Scherzer had some early missteps this season, caused mostly by home runs, but he's been incredible since the middle of May, when he tied a MLB record with 20 strikeouts in a game. Since that game, he's 11-5 with a 2.40 ERA and .172 opponents' batting average in 20 starts. He's struck out 181 and walked 29 in those 139 innings. Ridiculous. Otherworldly.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, they'll be seeing a lot of Scherzer moving forward. He's in the second of a seven-year, $210 million free-agent contract with the Nationals that, to this point, he's lived up to.

Scherzer has a blazing fastball and a disappearing breaking ball. He throws strike after strike after strike, which is ironically what gets him into trouble at times. Like Cliff Lee, Scherzer is around the plate so often that hitters tend to attack his early fastballs. The result is a lot of solo home runs. But Scherzer has even corrected that issue of late, allowing just five homers over his last 11 starts.

2. Learn from Herrera
Odubel Herrera has had by far the most success of any active Phillie vs. Scherzer. He's 6 for 19 with a double, a triple and five walks. There are only six players in baseball with at least 20 plate appearances against Scherzer and an on-base percentage higher than Herrera's .458.

Herrera had a multi-hit game Monday, his fourth in his last eight contests. He's hitting .283/.361/.413 in 540 plate appearances this season, providing pretty much the same offense he did a year ago. But still, the Phillies would like to see more consistency from Herrera over the season's final month. His OBP had declined every month this year until August.

Phils manager Pete Mackanin said on Monday that Herrera will remain in center field the rest of the season. Mackanin had indicated several weeks ago that Herrera would see some time in the corner outfield to allow the organization to get a look at Aaron Altherr and perhaps even Roman Quinn in center field in September, but that's no longer the plan. Quinn is on the concussion DL at Double A, and the Phillies don't want to move Herrera around or do anything to affect his confidence at this point.

It still seems likely that Herrera will end up at a different position in the future because the Phillies have better defensive centerfielders.

3. Their steadiest starter
Jerad Eickhoff tonight makes his 27th start of 2016 and 35th career start for the Phillies. He's 9-12 with a 3.87 ERA this season and 12-15 with a 3.57 ERA in his career.

Eickhoff is coming off yet another quality start, his 14th. He's pitched at least six innings in 17 of his 25 starts. 

Strange as it is, Eickhoff has faced the division-rival Nationals only once in his career so far. He allowed two runs to them over seven innings with 10 strikeouts in his penultimate start last season.

Eickhoff has been much better this season at home (3.27 ERA) than on the road (4.56).

4. A night for small ball
One of the Phillies' goals this season was to manufacture runs because they don't have a ton of power. That will be especially necessary tonight against Scherzer, who's shut down every Phils hitter with pop.

Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp are a combined 5 for 31 (.161) off Scherzer. Ryan Howard, who's unlikely to play, is 1 for 18 with 11 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, Herrera has gotten on base with regularity against him, and Cesar Hernandez is 5 for 18 with a double. Herrera and Hernandez will need to reach base and run tonight. Scherzer, however, does a better job than most aces of controlling the running game. He's allowed just 11 steals on 14 attempts in 60 starts with the Nationals.

5. This and that
• A loss tonight would put the Phillies 12 games under .500. Their record hasn't been that bad since June 27, which was 53 games ago.

• The Phils are 6-12 against the NL East since the All-Star break.

• It would have been difficult for Jayson Werth to play up to the seven-year, $126 million contract he got with the Nationals after 2010, but when you look back at his tenure in Washington he's had only two bad years out of six. In more than 3,000 plate appearances with the Nats, Werth has hit .269/.361/.442 for an .803 OPS that is 18 percent better than the league average over that span.