Summer League and start of Sixers' 3-year plan

Summer League and start of Sixers' 3-year plan
July 2, 2014, 10:00 am
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Nerlens Noel at shootaround on Tuesday.

The roster for the Philadelphia 76ers' team at this year's Orlando Summer League was announced on Tuesday. This is the first of two such leagues the Sixers will be participating in this July, with Orlando's starting this Saturday and the next beginning just a week after in Las Vegas.

Here's the roster, as revealed by team press release:

If that list of invitees seems like it's a few names short, that's for good reason. Recent draftees for the Sixers like Jordan McRae, Vasilije Micic and K.J. McDaniels are all absent, but that's because the Sixers are planning on essentially splitting the summer roster down the middle for the two leagues, without much overlapping between the two. (As Philly's most prized and long-awaited young player, there's some thought that Nerlens Noel may play in both, but that's been thusfar unconfirmed by the team.)

Not playing all our prospects at the same time over the two leagues is probably a smart idea. Not only will it allow for more playing time for our most promising young guys--many of whom play the same couple of positions anyway--but it will allow the Sixers to get to look at twice as many undrafted players in the meantime. This time around, that includes such intriguing names as Ronald Roberts Jr, the explosive (and power-dunking) power forward from St. Joseph's, and Melvin Ejim, the Big 12 Player of the Year tweener forward from Iowa State.

The beginning of Summer League is important for a couple reasons. First and foremost, it should just be damn good fun. Sixers fans have waited a long time for this summer, and though most of us assumed that Noel would be just one of (at least!) three top-ten picks we'd be peeping for the first time in action, getting to see our original much-hyped big man's debut is reason enough to still be plenty pumped. Plus, second-rounders Jerami Grant and Pierre Jackson could end up playing a large part for the Sixers this season, and there's no telling just how beastly second-year swingman Hollis Thompson became over the off-season. It should be a blast to watch these guys balling for a week against an appropriately modest level of competition.

The second reason is that it represents the first stage of the Sixers' three-year rebuilding plan. Maybe you could say it all started with last year's Summer League, featuring Michael Carter-Williams' pro debut, but that team was basically MCW, Arnett Moultrie, second-rounder Arsalan Kazemi (playing for us again in Vegas this year, supposedly) and a whole bunch of filler. Between the two leagues, this year should see a healthier number of players who will eventually make the Sixers' roster, and may even play a decent-sized part in their future. It really feels like the beginning of something special.

The Sixers rolling out their prospects slowly over the two locations of Summer League is pretty representative of how these next three years should go, as well. The Sixers have shown that they are more than willing to give this roster proper time to bake, and so they should be adding ingredients to Brett Brown's kitchen rather gradually and deliberately. Next week, Nerlens and Jerami. Week after, K.J. and Jordan. Soon enough, they'll join MCW and Thaddeus Young. Next year, Joel Embiid. Year after, Dario Saric.

Whether by design or coincidence--though I can't imagine it was entirely the latter--Sam Hinkie has engineered this team to come together slowly, virtually one player at a time, over a period of four years. While this is obviously incredibly frustrating for fans who want the future to be now already, it's not without its benefits.

Integrating one blue-chip rookie to a team core at a time is obviously much less daunting a challenge than trying to acclimate three or four at the same time, and as Brown and his staff evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their young players as they debut, they can have a better understanding of how the next guy to join might fit around them. If Noel and Embiid just don't work together, the Sixers will have a pretty good idea of that before it's time to figure out how Saric fits into that as well. Meanwhile, if Grant or McDaniels proves to be a revelation getting minutes they'd never get if Embiid and Saric were already around, it'll give Hinkie options in future roster-construction that he'd never have had otherwise.

There's also this: If everything goes according to plan for Hinkie and company, the Sixers have essentially tank-proofed their roster. When the Sixers drafted two guys that won't play next year, everyone assumed that it was for the purposes of throwing away the 2014-15 season for a high draft pick. But in effect, what Hinkie did ensures that the Sixers won't have to bottom out next year to still add a top prospect to their roster next year, or the year after that.

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Nerlens Noel would be a close-to-suitable reward for a season as miserable as Philly endured last year anyway--Chad Ford said Noel would've gone top five if he came out this year--so why not set up the next two seasons with tankworthy prospects of their own? Now the Sixers can go into each of the next two seasons safe in the knowledge that in case they improve more than expected record-wise, lord forbid, they'll still have that blue-chipper waiting for them at the finish lane. That's a pretty cool thing.

You might wonder why that even matters at this point, since the chances of them improving a considerable amount over the next few years seems pretty slim without the help of Embiid or Saric, and Hinkie seems to value high draft picks above all. But even teams that generally build through the draft still tend to add important pieces via trade and/or free agency--OKC traded for Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha, San Antonio signed Boris Diaw and Danny Green, and so on. If Hinkie sees an opportunity to augment the team's core and long-term prospects through such dealing, he very well might pounce on it.

We may have seen a glimpse of this already with the reports that the 76ers had contacted Celtics shooting guard Avery Bradley, a restricted free agent. Bradley will be just 24 next season, has shown flashes of being a knockdown outside shooter (almost 40% from three last year), and most importantly, is one of the league's premiere lockdown defenders on the perimeter. He's a bit undersized for a two-guard, but for a team with a bigger point guard like MCW, that's not the problem it would be for some other teams. In a vacuum, he makes a ton of sense for the Sixers as a free agency target.

How aggressively Hinkie ends up pursuing Bradley--if, indeed, at all--will be very meaningful for the team's next few years. Bradley won't turn the Sixers into a winning team on his own, but he might result in the team winning 27 games instead of 24, which in lottery terms could end up making a tremendous difference for the team come next year's draft. I still can't imagine winning next year will be a priority for Hink, but the pending additions of Embiid and Saric might be enough that if he sees Bradley as someone who could play a big role on the next contending Sixers squad, he might be able to swallow sacrificing a couple Ls to add a potential long-term, well-fitting starter to their roster in his prime via free agency.

UPDATE: Looks like Bradley is signing back with Boston for 4 years and over $30 million. Probably too rich for Hinkie's blood.

Anyway, there'll be plenty of time to worry about this stuff over the rest of the summer, and indeed, over the next few years. Everything is still at least partly uncertain with this team and we'd probably be wise to take things one step at a time. But this Summer League season, starting Saturday, should be a pretty big first step for this team, one that all Sixers fans should take the time to appreciate and enjoy. We've earned it, certainly.