Take It On the Run: Up-tempo Sixers narrowly defeat Bilbao Spain in pre-season opener

Take It On the Run: Up-tempo Sixers narrowly defeat Bilbao Spain in pre-season opener

Whoo. You might have needed to catch your breath a bit after that surprisingly suspenseful and absolutely exhausting-looking pre-season opener for the Philadelphia Sixers in Bilbao, Spain, in which the Liberty Ballers managed to just escape a loss with a fourth-quarter surge to take the lead, and then a couple clutch Spencer Hawes free throws to stave off the choke job. The Brett Brown era of Sixers ball officially begins with a 106-104 overseas victory.

More importantly than seeing our boys get the W, we also got to see their new team identity, which from the looks of this one couldn't be more clear: Cause turnovers and get out in transition. Prepare for a boatload of homoerotic puns over the course of this Sixers season, because they were seriously getting their hands on some balls today--Doug Collins' black heart would have been warmed by the countless number of deflections this team got, especially with their starters out in the first half, and they ended with 23 steals on the afternoon. (By contrast, last year's squad averaged about 7.4 swipes per game, and never managed more than 14 in any individual contest.)

As stunning as the defense's disruptiveness was, it was the team's play in the open court that made the biggest impression. About 60 seconds into this one, it was pretty damn clear that Brett Brown's talk about pace and pushing the tempo was not just typical pre-season lip service--this team got out and ran like hell. They ran off makes, they ran off misses, and they definitely ran off turnovers, seemingly spending two-thirds of the game in transition.

While this led to some nice plays and a lot of easy points on the break--imperative for a young team like the Sixers, and one lacking in major half-court offensive weapons--it also led to a lot of sloppy giveaways going back the other way, and the team's shaky on-court chemistry (which came as no surprise for a squad that's been totally overhauled and has only played together for a little over a week) was evident on some botched alley-oops and other two-on-ones. Though the Sixers caused steals, they also turned the ball over 26 times--again more than the team registered in any game last year. (To be fair, both numbers were inflated by the game's international officiating, in which just about anything that vaguely resembled a travel, moving screen or offensive foul was ruled as such. And that it was, y'know, a pre-season exhibition game.)

Still, you hope that as the team tightens things up a little bit, their running ways will serve them will over the course of the season, as their blitzing defense and supreme youth and athleticism allows them to stay in games against competition that's probably more talented and clearly more seasoned. At the very least, it's a good deal more entertaining to watch so far than last year's stodgy parade of low-percentage pick-and-pops and plodding iso possessions.

Individual notes on some of the game's more noteworthy players:

Evan Turner was clearly the star of the day, scoring a game-high 25 points with five boards and three assists (though five TOs, natch). More important than the number of points for ET was the way he scored them--he did a good job early of not settling for his trademark contested mid-range jumpers, attacking the basket and drawing 12 free throws for the game, six in the first quarter alone. There might be periods this season where he goes two weeks without drawing that many FTs, and the international officiating again helped a little with that, but it was good to see Evan taking advantage of the relative lack of athleticism on the Spain team by driving and drawing contact whenever possible.

Also good to see ET essentially serve as the closer on this one, checking back in the game during a fourth-quarter lull that saw the Sixers start to slip out of contention, but bringing them back with a couple nice elbow jumpers in which he'd managed to clear enough space with his dribble to get the shots off virtually uncontested, as well as an impressive baseline shot which it didn't seem he'd possibly have room to get up and in. Evan's line on the night would have looked even more impressive had he not failed to finish on a couple easy ones at the basket, but that those shots were even there for him at all was mildly encouraging.

The only real knock on Turner in this one was his occasionally lazy defense, failing to get back in transition on a couple occasions, letting himself get hung up on screens that freed wide-open three-point shooters, and missing a rotation or two that led to easy interior scores for the opposition. But ultimately, a strong evening (Bilbao time) for the Extraterrestrial.

ET's outing stood in strong contrast to that of rookie Michael Carter-Williams, who couldn't score at all--just three points on the night on 1-5 shooting, the 1 being a nice knifing layup drive early in the first--but contributed to the game in just about all other facets. Unlike the rest of the predominantly butterfingered Sixers tonight, MCW managed to notch six assists without turning the ball over once, which was very impressive for such a scattershot game. Both Carter-Williams and Turner did an excellent job throughout of penetrating in the lane and then kicking out to the open shooters in the corners--an obvious staple of Coach Brown's previous administration in San Antonio, and one of the more efficient ways to score in today's NBA.

Carter-Williams also served as one of the team's most active ballhawks on defense, notching three steals and countless more deflections, and generally giving the Bilbao ball-handlers the business with his pressuring defense. MCW did get very badly abused in the post on one occasion, with his slightish frame occasionally making for a bad matchup when he's forced to guard opposing wings in smaller Sixer lineups, but it's clear that his perimeter defense is going to be a real asset for the team this year.

The shooting, without a doubt, is going to be a problem. MCW opted out of taking a couple open jumpers from range early, and when he later actually attemtped a couple, it was clear to see why he was initially hesitant--his first trey missed so badly that Thad was able to finish it like an unintentional alley-oop, and his second bricked wide right enough to miss the rim entirely. When he was forced to pull up in the lane, the lack of any kind of floater or runner in his arsenal showed itself, as he instead lifted for a kind of off-balance fadeaway jumper, missing awkwardly from short distance.

Still, the hope with MCW is that he'll eventually turn into a Rajon Rondo-like player, a threat on offense with his ability to penetrate at will and either score around the hoop or dish to the open man (even if his lack of a jumper occasionally makes him a liability), and a general menace on defense. From the evidence today, there were strong signs that he might get there eventually, even if it seems all but certain we'll have to endure a couple seasons of Carter-Williams shooting in the 30%s before he gets there.

Star of Sixers training camp Tony Wroten had a game that similarly exposed his strengths and weaknesses. Wroten was also an occasional beast on defense and a terror in the open court, at one point scoring an and-one with an almost Derrick Rose-like twisting finish in minimal space off a fantastic Spencer Hawes outlet pass. He looked stronger and more athletic than any other player on the court, and his enormous potential on both sides of the ball was abundantly clear.

There were buts, though. The three steals he racked up were the result of relentless gambling on defense, letting the opposition blow by him on numerous occasions when he failed to get the strip or deflection. And for every highlight-worthy play in the open court, there was another where he missed a bunny or made the wrong read on the odd-man break. (To his credit, Wroten at least kept a lid on his limited outside shooting in the half-court, only attempting one three and making most of his hay on drives to the basket, finishing 3-8 from the field and 10-12 from the line.)

Interestingly, when it came time for the Sixers' final possession of the day/night, Wroten essentially waved off Evan Turner, who had been the Sixers' most reliable scorer and (as MCW sat) best playmaker in the fourth quarter, running a pick-and-roll with Hawes that went nowhere. You like the confidence, I guess, but I wonder if Coach Brown wouldn't have rather Wroten let the more experienced (and game-hotter, if you place stock in such streakiness) Turner make the game-deciding play. Something to keep an eye on from here.

Up-and-down night for Thaddeus Young, whose apparent eagerness to show off his improved ball-handling and outside-shooting skills let to a good number of cringe-worthy slippage turnovers and clanked jumpers. Credit to Thad, though, he made a couple big shots (even a three-pointer!) late, and ended with a very Thad-like line of 14 points on 6-11 shooting, with six rebounds and a team-high five steals, even if he also turned the ball over five times and fouled six times, including on the late-fourth trey attempt that allowed German Gabriel three free throws to tie the game. All in all, decent enough for a first game of the new year.

James Anderson impressed some, scoring 15 points on 6-8 shooting, including 2-3 from distance. He looked a little like J-Rich for us catching-and-shooting beyond the arc, also getting a nice slam on an alley-oop on the break and playing acceptable defense. He wouldn't be the first Sixer to look lights-out in the pre-season and then turn into a bricklayer once the calendar turns to November, but he could be a nice pick-up for the shooting-starved Sixers. (Hollis Thompson also had some moments, scoring nine points on 3-4 shooting.)

The aforementioned game-winning free throws and excellent touchdown pass were just about the only things that Spencer Hawes did well on this one, otherwise going 1-8 from the field with six boards, though at least the one field goal was a big three-pointer to tie the game late. Otherwise, Spence badly missed TWO SEPARATE putback dunks, got generally pushed around on defense, and missed on every one of his needle-threading interior passes, ending the game with two turnovers and zero assists. With the lack of competent, healthy big men on this roster, Spence is definitely gonna get his minutes, but he's gonna have to do better than this during this contract year of his to have any kind of post-Sixers future.

I have no pressing observations on Tim Ohlbrecht, other that he kinda looks like Spence in profile, which can be really confusing, especially since Ohlbrecht wears #20, which resembles Spence's #00 at a glance. He also got dunked on once, furthering the comparison. Get well soon, Lavoy.

Speaking of health, you can really see how brilliantly Nerlens Noel is going to fit on this roster upon his return. The Sixers' perimeter guys clearly have the green light to go for the steal on defense just about whenever possible, which as previously mentioned, leads to a lot of turnovers and runouts, but also leads to a lot of easy penetration and layups when they whiff, especially given the team's current lack of a second line of defense. (Sorry, Spence.)

But with a true shot-blocking threat like Noel back there to provide that second line, and even to purposefully funnel opponents to...it won't fix all the team's defensive woes, but it'll certainly help cover up some of the more catastrophic breakdowns. Not to mention the additional weaponry he'll provide for the team as a mobile big man on the fast break, or the fact that Nerlens was nearly as much of a force stripping the ball (over two steals a game at Kentucky) as he was blocking it. Point is, once this guy's healthy, he's gonna help us in a big way, even if his offensive game doesn't even reach first-year Serge Ibaka levels of sophistication.

Anyway, lotta good, lotta not-so-good, and mostly a whole bunch of who-knows from the Philadelphia 76ers in this early pre-season matchup. Gotta say, though, it's pretty exciting to have all this new shit to talk with this team about after just one game. Beats the hell out of more Swaggy, Kwame and Damien, for sure.

Eagles Stay or Go Part 3: Trey Burton to Vinny Curry

Eagles Stay or Go Part 3: Trey Burton to Vinny Curry

In the third of our 12-part offseason series examining the future of the Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster in 2017. We go alphabetically — Part 3 is Burton to Curry.

Trey Burton
Restricted free agent

Roob: Burton caught 14 passes the first nine games of the year and 23 the last six games of the year. One of the few Eagles who actually showed significant improvement as the year went on. He did drop a few too many passes, which is surprising for the usually sure-handed tight end. But overall Burton continued to progress and show signs that he can be a very good receiver in this offense. Burton isn’t a Zach Ertz, but there’s no reason he and Ertz can’t be a pretty potent 1-2 tight end punch. Burton will catch 50 passes next year and continue to improve as a blocker. A nice player who can do a lot of different things. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Burton had a career-high 37 catches in 2016 after having just three in his first three seasons. The Eagles would love to have Burton back next season, but they might not be able to afford it. They really have two options. One would be to use the lowest tender, which would allow teams to negotiate with him and sign him without compensation; that price would be about $1.8 million. Or they could place a second-round tender on him, which means any team that signs him would have to give the Eagles a second-round pick; that price would be around $2.75 million next season. If the Eagles place the original round (lowest) tender on him, which I see happening, other teams might be interested. The Eagles would then have the ability to match an offer, but how much money are they going to put into the tight end position? 

Verdict: GOES

Nolan Carroll
Unrestricted free agent

Roob: Carroll isn’t as bad as Nnamdi Asomugha or Byron Maxwell or Bradley Fletcher or even Leodis McKelvin, but he is yet another in a seemingly endless list of free-agent cornerbacks the Eagles have spent a fortune for that haven’t panned out. Carroll isn’t awful, but let’s be honest. He’s really not much of a playmaker, he gets beat way too often, he’s inconsistent and the Eagles need to get better at corner. Carroll is a free agent, and I don’t see any reason to re-sign him. He had just one interception this year, and 44 NFL cornerbacks had more. He’s just a guy, and the Eagles need more than that. 

Verdict: GOES

Dave: Carroll was brought back on a one-year deal for 2016 after he visited with the Cowboys. The deal wasn’t worth a ton — just over $2 million — so they could go with the same type of deal to bring him back for next season. But do they want to? Carroll didn’t have his best season and even admitted as much. It might be time to part ways and try to upgrade at the position long term. 

Verdict: GOES

Brent Celek
Cap hit: $5M

Roob: Celek isn’t going anywhere. Thanks to that somewhat mystifying three-year contract extension last offseason, he would count $6 million in dead money if the Eagles released him. As opposed to $2 million in salary. So Celek, who is still a capable blocker and catches just about everything he can get to, will be back for an 11th year in an Eagles uniform. I have no problem with Celek staying. He's been a tremendous Eagle on and off the field for a long, long time. It’s just the Eagles have so many weaknesses and then this glut of tight ends, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. But at least they’re deep somewhere. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Yeah, $5 million is a big cap hit for a guy who has pretty much become a blocking tight end. With his new deal, though, the Eagles wouldn’t save money if they cut him. And they probably wouldn’t want to anyway. I’m not really one for keeping a guy just for leadership, but I think the Eagles want Celek to retire as an Eagle. If he can hold on for two more seasons, he’ll do that. 

Verdict: STAYS

Don Cherry

Roob: The former Villanova Wildcat will get a chance to impress during offseason workouts, but his most likely landing spot if he impresses is the practice squad. 

Verdict: GOES

Dave: The Villanova linebacker spent most of the 2016 season on the Eagles’ practice squad, so he’s an unlikely candidate to make the 53-man roster in 2017. Still, he’ll be in training camp and get a chance to prove himself. Maybe he can hang on the practice squad another year. 

Verdict: GOES

Fletcher Cox
Cap hit: $9.4M

Roob: Cox was good this year but not as dominating as last year, and it will be interesting to watch how his career progresses as the huge base salaries start to kick in. Cox has a $9.4 million cap hit this year, $17.9 the following year and as high as $22 million in 2019 before dropping to $20.3 million, $17.2 million and $17.1 million. Needless to say, that is an unprecedented investment. The Eagles aren’t paying him to be good, they’re paying him to be one of the upper-echelon elite defensive players in the NFL, and this year, he just wasn’t on that level. He’s not going anywhere for a long time, but he has to be consistently better than he was this past season for that contract to be worth it. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: A tough one here. Just kidding. Cox might have had a down season statistically, finishing with just 6½ sacks, but those stats don’t tell the whole story. Cox is still the most disruptive force on the Eagles’ defense and brings double teams all the time, which in theory should help his teammates. He needs to eventually find ways to beat those double teams and I think he will. 

Verdict: STAYS

Vinny Curry
Cap hit: $9M

Roob: Curry’s another one who’s not going anywhere. You want to cut him after a disappointing 2½-sack season? Get ready for a $15 million dead money hit. That’s not happening. Curry’s five-year, $46.25 million contract looks like a mistake now, but the Eagles can’t get out from under it until 2018 at the earliest. Curry will be here for at least one more year. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Curry got paid last offseason and didn’t have much to show for it in 2016. He signed a five-year extension worth $46.25 million and then went out and played just 43 percent of the Eagles’ defensive snaps and had just 2½ sacks. That’s the same number of sacks Marcus Smith had in 2016. Curry had nine sacks in 2014 and has 10 in the other combined four years of his career. But that contract is just kicking in and he’s not going anywhere. 

Verdict: STAYS

Tanner Laczynski's development not being lost in sweet freshman year at Ohio State

Tanner Laczynski's development not being lost in sweet freshman year at Ohio State

TORONTO — First semester of college can often be a challenge for many students, but for Tanner Laczynski, the experience was a sweet one — literally. 

Part of Laczynski’s course load at Ohio State University was “Chocolate Science.” According to the course website, students receive an “introduction to science and business of chocolate. Students develop and market a chocolate product as part of a virtual company. Students taste commercial products.” 

Laczynski, who plans to declare his major in business in his second semester, got a lesson in chocolates from around the world during the course. 

“Chocolate Science wasn't bad,” Laczynski said with a laugh a few weeks ago. “All I did was eat chocolate and write a paper about it. There's lots of different chocolate, and they all taste good.” 

Growing up 43 miles outside of Chicago in Shorewood, Illinois, Laczynski wasn’t a big football fan, saying there wasn’t much to cheer for with respects to the Bears, but since relocating to the Buckeye State, he’s taken up interest in the local team. 

“That's a big part of it,” Laczynski said of attending OSU. “I've been to two games, they haven't been the strongest opponents so kind of blowouts.” 

Laczynski was in the middle of a nap when the Flyers used their sixth-round pick to select him on the second day of the 2016 NHL draft. He was admittedly startled to be woken up by his parents, Ken and Dawn, along with sister Payton and brother Hayden.

“I'd just gotten back home from coaching some kids, it was early in the morning, came back, took a nap and my parents were all excited,” Laczynski said. “I was still tired from my nap, but woke up pretty quick. 

“They just kind of attacked me so I was kind of like, 'What's going on?' at first. That was unbelievable and it's a moment I won't forget."

After a quick phone call from his agent, Flyers amateur scout Nick Pryor and John Riley, in charge of player development in Philly, were on the phone to welcome Laczynski to the club. 

This season, the 19-year-old had six goals and 16 assists in 15 games prior to leaving to join Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championships.  

The under-20 tournament is the third time Laczynski has represented the U.S. internationally. He also wore Team USA colors for the under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament and the under-19 World Junior A Challenge.

Through the first six games at the world juniors, Laczynski tallied one goal and an assist. He missed the semifinals against Russia because of an illness, but was in the lineup as the Americans defeated the Canadians, 5-4, in a shootout to win gold.

Despite being just three months into his first year at OSU, the Flyers remain in constant communication with their prospect. 

“I talk to John Riley quite a bit, he's always in contact with me sending me game film and sending me clips of NHL highlights and stuff like that,” Laczynski said. “We keep in touch, it's a relationship and it's nice to keep in touch with him.”

During his freshman season, skating has been an area of focus for the 6-foot-1, 190-pound forward.

“I think my big thing is my first couple steps, just my quickness, stopping, getting back on it. I think that's my biggest thing,” he said. “Once I get that down, I feel like I have the speed, but just build an extra step, just improve on that, I think that'll be a tremendous help to my game.” 

Laczynski, who spent three seasons in the USHL prior to committing to the Buckeyes, said he tries to model his game after one-time Flyer Jaromir Jagr. 

“He's kind of the guy that I watched a lot just because of his puck protection and everything,” Laczynski said. “I try to kind of use my body to protect the puck down low and create some chances in the offensive zone. 

“He's got a really good stick — I try to watch that and have an active stick in the defensive zone and offensive zone, as well.” 

In his conversations with Riley and Pryor, the expectations for Laczynski are clear.

“Their goal for me is just to consistently play nine out of 10 nights instead of that seven out of 10 nights and get my game elevated a little bit more, play more consistently,” Laczynski said.

“I think that's the biggest thing.”