Sixers Impress in Encouraging Though Largely Meaningless Preseason Win

Sixers Impress in Encouraging Though Largely Meaningless Preseason Win

No Andrew Bynum, no problem—we got Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes manning the middle, we got all we need. Okay, even John Mitchell probably wouldn't try to make that argument, but the Sixers put together an excellent pre-season performance against the Boston Celtics tonight (the first televised game of the pre-season) without their eventual starting center, with Allen and Hawes combining for 28 points on 11-16 shooting. The Sixers found separation in the third quarter and secured the win (and some free Big Macs, natch) by a comfortable 107-75 margin.
Of course, the usual caveats stand. Boston, a team that can barely even be bothered to show up to the regular season anymore, weren't exactly playing like it was Game Seven of the conference semis—KG sat, Rajon Rondo sleepwalked through the game, and Paul Pierce only seemed to care about hitting shots when there was a good chance of it pissing Evan Turner off. So all Philly mini-victories tonight must be taken with the necessary grain of salt.
All that said, there were some pretty encouraging moments to be had. Some notes:
- The Spence tonight certainly looks like the one we saw through the first few weeks of the '10-'11 season, with the Big GOPper scoring around the basket, hitting his outside jumper on the pick-and-pop, crashing the boards hard and making smart interior passes. Certainly not to say that we'll see a repeat performance by that Spence at the commencement of '12-'13, but good to know that guy is still in there somewhere. And holy shit, that hair! A mullet so glorious it's instantly impossible to picture Hawes without it—probably the second-best thing to happen to the Sixers this off-season.
- There was a lot of talk in the off-season that Nick Young was signed as a replacement for the ultimately departed Lou Williams, but it's clear to me that if there's a Lou.0 on this Sixers squad, it's Maalik Wayns. Pushing the ball with reckless abandon, taking ill-advised shots on the move, getting Malik and Zumoff inappropriately excited...it's like the Sweetness never left. Inconclusive thusfar on whether or not he'll eventually drive me as nuts as Lou did—the fact that he had eight assists tonight hopefully suggests he's a better distributor, at least—though if Coach Collins eventually ends up giving him the ball in late-game situations, I have a pretty good guess about that.
- Speaking of Swaggy P—who is this efficient, distributing Nick Young and where the hell is the remorseless gunner we were promised? My jaw was agape at some of the passes Young made tonight—not just because they were good (though most of them were), but because he was even attempting to make them. Young's lack of passing game has been a running joke among NBA statheads for virtually his entire career—Young averaged less than an assist a game last year, which as a guard getting big minutes is virtually impossible to do—but he was playing some seriously smart ball tonight, ending with 14 points on 5-7 shooting with two dimes (more if the bigs were able to handle some of his solid interior passes) and zero turnovers. The preseason offers no guarantees, of course, but this is really a sight to behold from our new two-guard.
- Young wasn't the only one doing some nifty passing tonight—an impressive eight players ended with multiple dimes, for 32 total assists on 43 total field goals, with special kudos going to Dorrell Wright for a couple ultra-pretty handoffs inside. Unselfish, high-IQ passing was such an important part of this team's success last year, and it's good to see signs that even with so many new roster pieces and the loss of a ball-handler of Andre Iguodala's capabilities, that might still be a hallmark of the '12-'13 season.   - I still love Evan Turner unconditionally and totally lack the ability to assess his play with any degree of objectivity.
Above all, it was great to see the guys in action on their home floor again, adorned this year with the 50th Anniversary insignia (which at first glance looked like a Dairy Queen "DQ" logo to me, but still), to say hello to the new guys and what's up to the old guys. Just over two weeks until the regular season tips off, and though there's no way to predict what the season's start will be like until we know for sure whether or not Bynum will be in playing condition, it's fun to have the Liberty Ballers back in our lives. Cleveland up next on Wednesday, than to the Barclays Center for a second game against the Nets on Friday. Let's go Sixers. 

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

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Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

Rehab updates
Leftfielder Cody Asche and left-handed reliever Mario Hollands had their rehab assignments transferred to Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

Asche is 5 for 34 (.147) with two home runs and 12 strikeouts during his stints with Clearwater and Reading. 

Hollands has been sharp, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and one walk.