Ten Biggest Questions of the Sixers' Off-Season: #3. Who Are We Gonna Draft?

Ten Biggest Questions of the Sixers' Off-Season: #3. Who Are We Gonna Draft?

Like most basketball fans who have firmly prioritized the pros over the college game, I really shouldn't be pretending to have any idea about who the Sixers should be picking with the #11 pick in the upcoming draft. But it's too big a moment in the franchise's off-season to have absolutely no opinion about, so I've been doing my part reading up on the guys projected to go about in the Sixers' range, deciding who I like and who I don't based on my somewhat arbitrary gut feelings about the type of draft prospects that pan out (and in a couple rare cases, my impressions of the players I actually saw a game or two of in the NCAAs).

Anyway, I'll try to keep my irrelevant personal commentary here to a minimum, and just go over the likely suspects who I think the team will be eyeing come draft night. First, though, let's get some fringe dudes out of the way.

[10 Biggest Questions: 10. What are we now and where are we going? | 9. Is Thad Young untouchable? | 8. Is Spencer Hawes good enough for our starting Center? | 7. Are any of our mid-level FAs worth re-signing? | 6. What players are worth trading for? | 5. Free agent targets? | 4. What to do with Evan Turner?]

Good Fits, But Out of Our League: Victor Oladipo (SG, Indiana), Alex Len (C, Maryland), Ben McLemore (SG, Kansas), Otto Porter (SF, Georgetown)

Sure would be nice to get one of these guys, but all are all-but-guaranteed to be off the board by the time the Sixers get around to picking. I had my eye set on Len, the athletic seven-footer, from the beginning of the season--mostly because I happened to catch a Maryland-Kentucky game that he dominated in a fluky awesome performance--and was pumped that he was originally pegged to go in the mid-to-late lottery, where Philly was primed to be picking. But his stock rose a little at year's end, and the Sixers' draft slot slid a little, and now the two are unlikely to be matched.

Good Fits, But Probably Too Much of a Reach: Kelly Olynyk (C, Gonzaga), Shane Larkin (PG, Miami), Gorgui Dieng (C, Louisville), Allen Crabbe (SG, California)

Some mocks have Olynyk, the skilled seven-footer with the wavy hair, going to Philly, but it's hard for me to see him being the best available big left at #11. Dieng I have a sneaking feeling is going to be one of the steals of the draft--at least at first, since he's likely to be able to contribute early in his career, especially on defense--but he's probably a little too old already (23) and a little too offensively limited to go as high as the Sixers are picking. And as much as we can use a backup point guard (as Larkin will likely be), if that's the best we're doing with the #11 pick, that's not so good, Al.

The Actual Candidates:

Cody Zeller (PF/C, Indiana)

If you've heard one name in conjunction with the Sixers in anticipation of this draft, it's probably that of Zeller, the much-hyped big man with the good scoring touch and high basketball IQ out of Indiana. Zeller underwhelmed some in his sophomore year, eventually being overtaken both in draft stock and on-court importance/leadership by his teammate Oladipo, but his freakish measurements at the recent draft combine have done much to make up for that slippage--in fact, I wouldn't be surprised at this point if some upside-starved team in the top ten took their chances with Zeller before the Sixers even got the chance to make a judgment.

In any event, ESPN mock draft guru Chad Ford still has the Sixers taking the Indiana big man, who may now be trying to sell himself more as a stretch four than as a center. Whether that hurts or helps his standing with the Sixers depends on what else the team is planning on doing about their current big man situation, which is still something of a mystery.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (SG, Georgia)

As one of the few obvious two-way two-guards available in this draft, Caldwell-Pope has steadily risen up the draft boards after a solid sophomore year on a crappy Georgia team. Billed as a pure shooter with a deadly stroke, he'd certainly be an asset to a Sixer team still looking for a young player who fits that description to grow alongside Jrue Holiday in the backcourt (unless not working on his three-point stroke again this summer improbably turns Evan Turner into Reggie Miller--always a possibility).

He's a little unproven and he doesn't have a terribly complete game yet, but if Sam Hinkie is looking for reliable elite skills in his #11 pick, it seems that Caldwell-Pope's outside shooting--he finished second in the SEC in threes made, and first in percentage--would be that elite skill.

Steven Adams (C, Pittsburgh)

Another guy who's helped himself immeasurably through the combine, impressing in both measurements and interviews, which has the seven-footer Adams pegged as a likely lottery pick despite his superficial numbers his only season at Pitt (7.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG) being pretty unimpressive. The intangibles seem to be there, as does the toughness, but the polish is sorely lacking--"Looks completely lost on offense" is how Ford puts it in his analysis card for the center, which, yeah. But Adams is still only 19, turning 20 in July, and could be a kind of rawer version of Alex Len if Len is, as most predict, already off the board when Philly picks, with similar long-term potential.

Dario Saric (SF, Croatia)

Saric is maybe the biggest X factor in this year's draft, a foreign prospect thought to have about as much potential as anyone in the draft, as a small forward with extraordinary passing and ball-handling ability who idolizes Magic Johnson. However, his athleticism is something of a question mark, and scouts have only seen him playing against international competition (if they've seen him at all), with the Croatian playoffs pre-empting a possible visit to the States for the combine. He'd be an odd positional fit for the Sixers, but moreso, if Hinkie is planning on taking the long approach with rebuilding the Sixers, grabbing and developing an intriguing talent like Saric could be the best-percentage play.

Rudy Gobert (PF, France)

You can't teach height, and you definitely can't teach length, and Gobert certainly has both of those in spades--7'2" and 9'7", respectively. Gobert would likely be the Sixers' best shot-blocker and rebounder since the departed Samuel Dalembert, but he may have a couple of Sammy D's less-desirable qualities as well, lacking strength, finesse and possibly even athleticism. As Hasheem Thabeet has taught three NBA teams and counting, height and length only takes you so far--eventually, you have to actually do stuff on the basketball court.

--

My mostly uninformed take is that I'd rather stay away from Gobert and Zeller (who majorly no-showed in a couple big games too many at Indiana when he should have already been dominating for me to feel comfortable about his pro prospects), and that I'd be cool with Adams and Kentavious-Pope, though Saric is the one that tickles my fancy the most, if only because there's never anything more tantalizing than the totally unknown.

I think we'll find out a lot about Hinkie's plans for the team with how he selects here, whether he picks to plug an immediate need, snatches the best player available regardless of position, takes a longshot on an unknown, or even deals up or down in the draft to get to a slot where he can find better value. Whoever we get might not have a huge impact on the Sixers' next season, but he could be the first piece of a much bigger puzzle.

57 early-entry candidates withdraw from 2016 NBA draft

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57 early-entry candidates withdraw from 2016 NBA draft

NBA prospects have been testing the waters and putting out feelers to the gauge interest levels of organizations during the pre-draft process. As a result, 57 early entry-candidates have withdrawn from 2016 draft eligibility. 

Among those are Villanova’s Josh Hart, who worked out for the Sixers and made his decision close to the deadline (see story), and Kris Jenkins. Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame also worked out for the Sixers and will return for his senior year. 

Below is a complete list of entry entry candidates that have withdrawn:

Abdul-Malik Abu, North Carolina State 
BeeJay Anya, North Carolina State 
Ian Baker, New Mexico State 
V.J. Beachem, Notre Dame 
James Blackmon Jr., Indiana 
Antonio Blakeney, LSU 
Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson 
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier 
Amida Brimah, Connecticut 
Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky 
Dillon Brooks, Oregon 
Elijah Brown, New Mexico 
Deonte Burton, Iowa State 
Antonio Campbell, Ohio 
Conor Clifford, Washington State 
Charles Cooke III, Dayton 
Bakari Copeland, Maryland-Eastern Shore 
Moustapha Diagne, Northwest Florida State 
Tyler Dorsey, Oregon 
D’Andre Downey, Stillman College (AL) 
Vince Edwards, Purdue 
Jimmy Hall, Kent State 
Josh Hart, Villanova
Josh Hawkinson, Washington State 
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin 
Ike Iroegbu, Washington State 
Justin Jackson, North Carolina 
Kris Jenkins, Villanova 
Que Johnson, Washington State 
Peter Jok, Iowa 
Moses Kingsley, Arkansas
Travion Kirkendoll, Centenary College (LA) 
Dedric Lawson, Memphis 
Marcus Lee, Kentucky 
Makai Mason, Yale 
Jahmal McMurray, South Florida 
Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina 
Dallas Moore, North Florida 
Jalen Moore, Utah State 
Tyrell Nelson, Gardner-Webb 
Malik Newman, Mississippi State 
Marc-Eddy Norelia, Florida Gulf Coast 
Cameron Oliver, Nevada 
Alec Peters, Valparaiso 
QJ Peterson,VMI 
Malik Pope, San Diego State 
Rodney Purvis, Connecticut 
Corey Sanders Jr., Rutgers 
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue 
Rakish Taylor, Anderson University (SC) 
Ethan Telfair, Idaho State 
Trevor Thompson, Ohio State 
Melo Trimble, Maryland 
Maurice Watson Jr., Creighton 
Andrew White III, Nebraska 
Alec Wintering, Portland 
Zeek Woodley, Northwestern State 

Jim Schwartz's defense path was molded, in part, by Jevon Kearse

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Jim Schwartz's defense path was molded, in part, by Jevon Kearse

Jim Schwartz is famous for his use of the wide-9 alignment and the 4-3 defense in general. That's the scheme he's had success with in the NFL. That's what he brings to the Eagles.

Yet somewhere in an alternate universe, Schwartz is coaching a 3-4 defense right now, all because the Tennessee Titans never drafted Jevon Kearse.

OK, that might be a stretch considering Schwartz learned under coaches such as Marvin Jones and Gregg Williams, who are also known for the 4-3. Then again, the Eagles' defensive coordinator revealed when he was hired by the Titans as an assistant in 1999, the defense was actually using quite a bit of 3-4. Kearse changed everything, and is in part responsible for Schwartz's preference in scheme to this day.

"When I first went to Tennessee, we based out of a lot of 3-4, but it probably came from just the personnel we had," Schwartz recalled.

"We drafted Jevon Kearse. There was a line of thought that Jevon Kearse was gonna be a 3-4 outside linebacker or he was gonna be a defensive end. We decided to try to make it as simple as we could for him, put him at one spot and just let him attack and rush the passer and let him play the edge.

"We had some success with that, then found other guys in the scheme that fit."

Some success is putting it mildly.

Eagles fans might best remember Kearse for four injury-prone seasons between 2004-07 when he failed to live up to a massive free-agent contract, totaling just 22 sacks. As a first-round pick in 1999, however, "The Freak" burst on to the scene with 14½ sacks, earning Defensive Rookie and Player of the Year honors en route to the first of three consecutive invitations to the Pro Bowl. Kearse had accumulated 47½ sacks after five seasons in Tennessee.

Kearse's final trip to the Pro Bowl came under Schwartz, who ascended to defensive coordinator in 2001, a post he held until being named head coach of the Detroit Lions in '09. Afterward, he served one year as defensive coordinator for the Bills. In 14 NFL seasons, Schwartz has coached eight different linemen to double-digit sack seasons.

Some of that production is the result of a system that allows linemen like Kearse to play fast and attack.

"Philosophically, the thing that's guiding that has been try to make it as simple as we can," Schwartz said.

"It's a coach's job to make a complex scheme simple for the players. It's our job to make it so that they can digest it. There's a lot of things that are going on, on the field — offensive tempo, different personnel groups and formations — there's a million different things going on and they have to process all that stuff. Our job is to streamline the information and allow them to play fast, give them confidence."

Through his experiences, Schwartz has come to believe the 4-3 defense — when equipped with the right personnel up front — is the best method to attack offenses in today's NFL.

"I think that the other part of the 4-3 is when you can affect the passer with four guys, you're not forced to blitz to get pressure on the quarterback, you're in a very good position," he said. "I've been there before when you can't get pressure and you have to blitz — it's not a great feeling. You want to blitz on your terms. You want to be able to blitz when you want to, when the situation is right, not, 'We can't get any pass rush unless we do it.'

"So allowing those guys to keep it simple, to be able to pressure with four and not make yourself skinnier so to speak in coverage can also take some big plays away from offenses."

It's difficult to argue with the results. Schwartz has three previous stints as either a defensive coordinator or head coach in the NFL, during which his units have four top-10 finishes in yards allowed as well as a pair of top-five rankings in points surrendered. Perhaps most impressive of all are the three occasions in which Schwartz's defense finished third the league in takeaways.

Schwartz inherits plenty of talent on the Eagles' defense, particularly along the defensive line. Connor Barwin has twice attained doubled-digit sacks in a season, while Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry have both eclipsed nine. Brandon Graham and Marcus Smith are former first-round picks, too.

Don't expect this defense to look identical to what Schwartz has done at previous stops, though. While he may be known for a particular approach or brand of football, Schwartz plans to tailor the Eagles' defense to the personnel he has, just like the Titans did with Kearse in Tennessee all those years ago.

"Every year will be a little bit different," Schwartz said. "Our terminology is a little bit different, cast of characters is a little different, and if we're on the right track, we'll put the players in the best position to best use their talents.

"What we did in Buffalo was a little different than what we did in Detroit, which was a little different from what we did in Tennessee, but it's all designed to try to make the most of what you have."

Phillie Phodder: The Ryan Howard drama, trade chips and bat flips

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Phillie Phodder: The Ryan Howard drama, trade chips and bat flips

CHICAGO — The Phillies are here for what figures to be the toughest test thus far in their surprising break from the starting gate — three games against the Chicago Cubs, a team built to win the World Series and so far looking as if it can do just that. The Cubs were the first team to reach 30 wins this season, are 14-6 at home, and averaging a National League-best 5.69 runs per game, over two more than the 3.3 runs the Phillies are putting on the board per contest.

The series will be interesting even beyond the test the Phillies will receive because we could see another progression in the raging Ryan Howard drama.

In Tommy Joseph, the Phillies have a player worthy of taking away playing time from the struggling Howard. Joseph started at first base the last three games in Detroit, hit in the middle of the lineup and did so with authority. Phillies management is on record as saying it needs an injection of offense to support the good pitching the team has gotten. If it is committed to that idea, then Joseph needs to keep playing. He will start Friday afternoon against lefty Jon Lester. He should start again on Saturday and Sunday when the Phillies face right-handed pitchers.

Will he?

The guess here is that Joseph starts one of the weekend games with Howard getting the other. That right there would be a continuation of the phasing out of Howard from the lineup. If Joseph delivers against right-handed pitching, the Phillies owe it to their fans and the players who have put together this quick and entertaining start to keep playing him.

But this whole drama remains a sticky situation on a lot of levels. Howard is not walking away from the more than $25 million that remains on his contract and he shouldn’t. But there’s no way he’s going to be happy sitting on the bench and it’s difficult to envision him contributing as a reserve player/bat off the bench. He has a tough enough time making contact while getting regular at-bats. How’s he going to hold up as a reserve?

Poorly.

If Joseph continues to emerge, the Phillies will have to consider releasing Howard. Either that or they ride out the final four months of his contract with him sitting on the bench. Neither solution is comfortable. As one of the franchise’s greatest players and a champion, Howard is going to end up on the team’s Wall of Fame someday and it would be nice if he showed up at the induction. Would a release sour his relationship with the organization forever? It’s a factor that the Phillies can consider because they are still in a rebuild and, as well as they’ve played so far, it’s tough to see them staying in contention for the long haul. If this team was projected to win, then it’s a different story. If there was ever a year to suck it up and let Howard leave with dignity, it’s this one. But if carrying Howard as a reserve leads to a cumbersome situation in a young clubhouse, maybe parting is the best solution.

Regardless of the endgame, Joseph needs to keep getting regular at-bats because the baseball still matters.

                                                                      ***

While Odubel Herrera’s three-run home run and subsequent bat flip dominated Wednesday’s win over Detroit, several other players made contributions. Andres Blanco, with his typical booster shot of energy, plus two hits, an RBI, two runs scored and the team’s first steal of home since 2009, was one of them. Jeanmar Gomez, who only out of Pete Mackanin’s desperation got a shot at closer in early April, was another with his 17th save.

If the Phillies’ lack of offense catches up with them and they fall out of the race, Blanco and Gomez could be trade chips for the team. Blanco’s ability to come off the bench and contribute on both sides of the ball could be attractive to a team that is ready to win in October. He won’t bring back a game-breaking talent, but it would be worth taking a chance on a young minor-league arm, a lottery ticket, that could ultimately develop into something.

Gomez’s big season has the feel of lightning in a bottle. He’s done a terrific job getting saves without typical closer’s stuff. He relies on touch, feel, location and pitching savvy. He makes hitters get themselves out. How long can it last? Who knows? But Gomez deserves kudos and very well could ride his unexpected success to a spot in the All-Star Game. Shortly after that, if the Phillies are out of the race, the front office should look to cash in on his unforeseen value, which will never be higher, and deal him to one of the many teams that will be looking for bullpen help. Gomez could help a contender in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning and if he keeps pitching well, might bring back a decent return.

Jeremy Hellickson and Carlos Ruiz could also be trade chips in July — if the Phils fall out of the race. We talked about that recently with Ruiz.

If the Phils stay in the race, the front office would probably have to hang on to at least several of these players. Trading players, even role players, could send a bad message to fans if the team still has a chance at the postseason. The exception would be Hellickson. It could make sense to deal him either way and use his departure as an opportunity to bring up the next young arm from the minors. Hellickson has pitched well lately and it would benefit the team in more ways that one if he continued to do so.

Switching over to the glass-half-full side … there is a chance the Phillies will pursue a bat to boost their anemic offense, but the decision to even make that move is still a ways away. Matt Klentak made it pretty clear that he needs to see more from this club over the next month or so before he goes after a bat in a trade. And Klentak is not about to compromise the rebuild to add a bat for short-term contribution. In other words, he’s not about to trade away prospects for outfield bats that might get in the way of Nick Williams, Roman Quinn or Dylan Cozens rising to the majors in the next year. The Phillies do have money. If an opposing team wants to move an expiring contract — someone like a Jay Bruce — and it would cost the Phillies more on the money side than the prospect side, that could be a fit for the Phillies.

If they stay in the race.

                                                                      ***

Getting to Herrera’s bat flip … it was fun. And this scribe believes the kid when he says it was natural. But there’s risk involved in something like that. Herrera is a kid that loves to play the game and loves to be on the field. But he needs to beware that if he flips his bat on the wrong guy, he’s going to end up with a broken batting helmet or a broken rib. You can talk about new-school ways and making the game fun again — as if it ever stopped being fun — but pitchers are competitors and they don’t like being shown up, be it intentional or not. They didn’t in the old school and they don’t in the new school. This scribe loves players who play with emotion, energy and exuberance, and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating your successes. Heck, Babe Ruth used to tip his hat rounding the bases. But there is a limit. Herrera is the Phillies’ best player and he has a responsibility to stay on the field. He might want to think twice before he goes with a “big air” bat flip on his next home run because if he does it on the wrong pitcher, he might get hurt.