Sixers sticking with plan after rough preseason

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Sixers sticking with plan after rough preseason

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No matter what you think you saw during the Sixers’ 125-102 exhibition season loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center (see Instant Replay), it hasn’t dissuaded coach Brett Brown.

The Sixers are sticking with the plan.

Obviously, the plan has very little to do with winning games and making the playoffs this season. Though no one will admit it, the Sixers are in full tank mode, which they like to call, “rebuilding.” And as Brown pointed out when he accepted the job to coach the team, rebuilds can often be painful.

Wednesday’s loss to the Timberwolves featured plenty of pain.

“It is what I expected. It’s always more real when it’s in real time,” Brown said. “You always see it clearer, the enormity of the challenge -- it’s ever present, it’s real, it’s present and you’re a part of it now. When I accepted the job in August I was living it and breathing it with them and I love it. We go to practice, we work, the guys are into it, they give 100 percent effort. There are things we all have to do better and that’s the bottom line.

“I like this group and I like coaching this group -- their hearts are in the right place. There is a skill level we have to develop and we will. We will not go astray from the plan.

“The plan is to keep this group together in relation to keeping the locker room together in relation to keep the development side going.”

Things will become even more real next Wednesday when the two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat come to town. Pain just might be the operative word. Miami is favored to threepeat this season, while the Sixers are picked to finish last … in the entire NBA.

So with a week to go before the games count for real, Brown sees plenty of work ahead of him and the team. With a team that lacks rebounding and an inside presence, the Sixers spent a lot of their practice time concentrating on protecting the paint, which they did well against Minnesota. But in concentrating in shutting down the paint, the Sixers’ defense left everything else open and the T’wolves took advantage of it.

Minnesota shot 15 for 29 from three-point range. Big man Kevin Love, a veritable double-double machine, took just two shots from inside the paint and went 4 for 6 from beyond the arc.

When Love is looking for the three-pointer instead of a basket at the rim, it tells a coach something.

“You look at it and we took a step back defensively, there’s no doubt about that,” Brown said. “We put a large emphasis on playing defense and trying to guard the paint and they made us pay from the three-point line. Give them credit -- they shot it. It will be interesting when you go back and look at how they got those three-point shots. I didn’t feel as the game was unfolding that it was because we were doing such a great job moving around and defending the paint. I feel like we got a little bit lazy, a little sloppy and it didn’t feel like that desperation was there.”

One has to wonder if teams will shoot the three-pointer as well as the T’wolves did on Wednesday night. Meanwhile, one also has to wonder if the Sixers will be able to score in a half-court set. Though the Sixers got off to a quick lead, they promptly fell behind by double digits when their shots wouldn’t fall.

The Sixers were 3 for 22 during the first half on shots outside of the paint. Of those shots, the Sixers went 3 for 10 on three-pointers during the opening half and 4 for 19 during the second half.

The Sixers made just three shots from two-point range outside of the paint.

Still, Brown and the Sixers figure they will get their points. All five starters scored in double figures with two-guard James Anderson leading the way with 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting.

Defense remains the concern.

“They hit a lot of shots tonight and we’re trying to protect the paint,” said Evan Turner, who scored 11 points on 2-for-15 shooting to go with 10 rebounds and five assists. “We have to do a better job of communicating.”

It will be a long week of practice waiting for the Heat to come to town for the opener. There is a lot of work to do.

“There are a lot of teams that have the people that can shoot the basketball,” said Thad Young, who also had 11 points. “But we have to concentrate on defensive structures and run guys off the line. Right now, because we have such a young team, we just have to stick with the principles that have been taught.”

In other words, they’re sticking with the plan.

Give and Go: Which Sixer has been the most surprising?

Give and Go: Which Sixer has been the most surprising?

With the team at the All-Star break, our resident basketball analysts will discuss some of the hottest topics involving the Sixers.

Running the Give and Go are CSNPhilly.com producer/reporters Matt Haughton and Paul Hudrick.

In this edition, we pick the Sixers' most suprising player this season.

Haughton
Imagine an underdog beating the odds to not only make an NBA roster, but also play significant minutes. Now imagine him doing it twice.

T.J. McConnell continues to shatter any perceived limitations put on his career.

McConnell came into last season as an undrafted free agent that was expected to be cut. Instead he beat out several other point guard candidates to stick on the roster. Not only that, he managed to become a mainstay off the bench as he played in 81 games for the Sixers.

Fast forward to this season and McConnell was to be buried on the bench behind free-agent signees Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez.

It's a good thing nobody told the Pittsburgh native about those plans. He again played a solid reserve role off the bench while Bayless missed most of the season with an injured wrist. Then when Rodriguez sat out with an illness in a December matchup in Detroit, McConnell pounced on the opportunity. He just missed a triple-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in an 18-point win over the Pistons and the rest is history.

McConnell has been the team's starting point guard ever since. The numbers aren't going to wow anyone: 6.3 points, 6.1 assists and 3.0 rebounds in 24.9 minutes a game. However, he's a consistent contributor and a leader on an improved Sixers team.

Hudrick
T.J. McConnell. And it's not even close.

Before the season started, I projected McConnell to the D-League, considering him a solid emergency point guard. McConnell Wally Pipp'd his way into the starting lineup when Sergio Rodriguez was out with an illness. McConnell has flourished while Rodriguez has struggled.

Since becoming a starter, McConnell has averaged 8.9 points, eight assists and 1.7 steals in 31.4 minutes per game. He's averaging just two turnovers a game and also managed to hit two game-winning shots in that span. Most importantly, the Sixers are 14-11 when McConnell has started this season.

The most impressive personal stat for McConnell may be the 49 percent he's shot from the field over his last 24 games. McConnell never looked for his shot last season. He shot only out of desperation and his numbers reflected that. You can see his comfort level rising and his confidence in finishing around the rim.

McConnell is likely not the long-term solution at point guard for the Sixers, but I have to eat crow and say that at the very least, he's a solid NBA player.

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jayson Tatum lights up Virginia, Wake Forest

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jayson Tatum lights up Virginia, Wake Forest

We're have just a few weeks left in the college basketball regular season, so everyone is looking for a big win. Or in the case of a top prospect, a big performance to show all the scouts.

Let's take a look at whose stock rose and whose fell this week among eight top freshmen.

Jayson Tatum, forward, Duke (6-8/204)
America is finally seeing the Jayson Tatum that was highly touted coming into his one-and-done stint with the Blue Devils. The move to power forward has ignited his game and helped catapult Duke in its seven-game winning streak. His line Saturday against Wake Forest — 19 points on 6 for 11 shooting, 3 of 5 from three, and seven rebounds — was pretty good and he made some clutch free throws to clinch the win.

But can we talk about his Virginia game? Seriously, this may be the gem of his college career. Tatum's Blue Devils were held to just 21 points (he had seven of those) by Virginia's stingy defense in the first half. So what does he do? Score 21 by himself in the second half to lead the Blue Devils past a top-15 team. He had 28 points on just 13 shots, making 6 of 7 from three while adding eight rebounds, a block and a steal. He had a 7-0 run by his lonesome that put Duke up for good. He's likely a three at the next level, but Tatum displayed all the tools to be an effective three while dominated at the four, a much-needed boost for the soon-to-be top-10 Blue Devils.

Lauri Markkanen, forward, Arizona (7-0/225)
The three-point shooting slump isn't quite done yet for the Finnish freshman, but at least he's found his scoring touch again. Markkanen had a pair of double-doubles in Wildcat wins this week over Washington St. and Washington, all while only making 1 of 6 from beyond the arc. He's now just 4 for 19 from three in his last five games, a slightly worrying stretch that has brought his three-point percentage down to 46.5 percent.

Still though, he didn't fail to produce in 68 minutes combined over a three-day span. First, he had 19 points and 11 rebounds vs. Washington St. in a 78-59 win, his first double-figure rebounding effort since his last game vs. the Cougars. He then came through with 26 points and 13 rebounds against Washington in a 76-68 win. He was able to hit some jumpers but also competed inside, making his way to the free-throw line nine times and making eight from the stripe. It's certainly encouraging after some lackluster showings over the last two weeks.

Markelle Fultz, guard, Washington (6-4/195)
After missing two games last week with a knee injury, Fultz came back fully healthy with a pair of nearly identical performances. On Thursday, the impressive freshman shot 7 for 16 from the field, 2 of 6 from three, and had 19 points to go with four assists during an 83-81 loss to Arizona State. Two days later, he shot, get this, 7 for 16 from the field, 2 of 6 from three, in the loss to Arizona. He did make to the charity stripe more often (make 10 of 15 from the free-throw line) and finished with 26 points and six assists.

In the defeat, Fultz still played 38 minutes and scored or assisted on over 55 percent of the Huskies' points. Sure, he had four turnovers, but when you have the ball in your hand as often as he does, it's bound to happen. It's a pretty good idea of what he'll be doing for a team that finds itself at the top of the lottery this year. He showed off every part of skill set — shooting, getting the rim, finishing, etc. — Saturday and nearly led the 9-18 Huskies to a win over the No. 5 team in the country.

Lonzo Ball, guard, UCLA (6-6/190)
Most players don't dominate a game while taking the fewest shots among his team's starters. Most players aren't Lonzo Ball. Ball messed around with a triple-double while taking just nine points Saturday night, coming up just short with 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for the Bruins, who beat USC, 102-70.

Three teammates scored more points than Ball, but that's in part thanks to how well he spreads the ball and runs the offense. His maturity doesn't just come on offense. He's also solid on the defensive end, in part thanks to his 6-6 frame at point guard.

Malik Monk, guard, Kentucky (6-4/185)
Kentucky's catalyst keyed the Wildcats to two more wins this week as they extended their win streak to four. Monk was his normal volume shooting self in the two games against Tennessee and Georgia. He took a total of 31 shots, up from 30 over two games the week before. While he made just 10 of the 31 attempts, the formula seems to be working because the Wildcats keep winning.

He had 20 points with four threes and eight rebounds in a blowout win over Tennessee. The more impressive effort came with worse stats in the road victory against Georgia. He made just 3 of 11 but got to the free-throw line for 11 attempts and got it done for Kentucky in other ways, notably five assists and three steals. Monk has been labeled an offense-only guard, so the trio of steals are a welcome sight. How he'll defend ones and twos at the next level will be a real defining challenge for him.

Quick Hits
• Florida State lost consecutive games and forward Jonathan Isaac was relatively quiet, scoring 15 points on 14 shots over the two games. He had just three free throw attempts yet still reeled in 12 rebounds and had four blocks.

• Kansas' Josh Jackson provided 16 points on 14 shots Saturday, as the No. 3 Jayhawks defeated No. 4 Baylor. Jackson, by making his only attempt vs. the Bears, is up to 35.3 percent from three.

• NC State fired its coach this week, but that didn't stop Dennis Smith Jr. from being his normal self. In a pair of losses to ranked teams, Smith had 43 points, nine assists and seven rebounds combined.