Despite buzz about promotion, Phillies prospect Scott Kingery remains calm

Despite buzz about promotion, Phillies prospect Scott Kingery remains calm

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — One look around spacious Coca-Cola Park told Scott Kingery one thing: This wasn’t Reading anymore, Toto.

“It looks like you can get one out to left,” the newest member of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs said late Monday afternoon, “but it looks real deep to center.”

It was time for the 23-year-old second baseman to recalibrate, time for one of the Phillies’ brightest prospects to get his bearings before continuing a climb that now finds him nearing the major-league summit.

Kingery, the Phils’ second-round pick in 2015, was promoted from Double A Reading on Sunday, after his torrid start attracted the attention of not only management but also a fanbase looking to latch onto something — anything — with the parent club struggling and regular second baseman Cesar Hernandez injured.

But everything in its time.

“I just try to block [the clamor] out the best I can,” Kingery said before making his Triple A debut against Pawtucket. “I know what I'm capable of and I know what I need to improve on. Wherever I'm at, I'm going to come out here and try to work on whatever I think I need to improve on and to give myself the best shot to get moved up.”

He went 1 for 5 with a steal and two spectacular defensive plays in the IronPigs’ 5-4, 10-inning loss on Monday night, after batting .313 with 18 homers and 44 RBIs in 69 games at Reading. And his one-day-at-a-time approach comes as no surprise to manager Dusty Wathan, who also had him late last season with the Fightin Phils.

“He’s a guy that doesn’t change much,” Wathan said. “He’s really calm — not real high, not real low, much like (Lehigh Valley first baseman) Rhys Hoskins is.”

Wathan recalled Kingery’s struggles late last season — he wound up hitting .250 in 37 games for Reading, after moving up from Single A Clearwater — and how he handled it.

“You didn’t see the huge frustration or anything like that out of him,” the manager said. “I think he just embraced it and said this is what it is: ‘I’m a better player than this.’ He knew where he was at that time.”

Kingery was worn to a frazzle by season’s end — he lost 10 pounds, he said — and Wathan knew it. He nonetheless continued to play him “because,” the manager said, “I wanted him to feel that.”

“It's a good thing to have failure,” he added, “to feel that first season, to see how things end up for you.”

Kingery, listed at 5-10 and 180 pounds, said he gained back the 10 pounds he lost via offseason weight work, and that he tinkered with his swing as well. That contributed to his power surge after he managed just eight homers in 197 games over his first two minor-league seasons.

So too did the dimensions of FirstEnergy Stadium, Reading’s cozy home park.

“Everybody talks about the Reading factor, but to me it's probably only a couple home runs [each season],” Wathan said.

Kingery had 10 homers in 36 home games and eight in 33 on the road. He hit just one in his last 20 games at Reading, none in his last 11.

“I’m turning back into a singles guy,” he said.

But a hitter, to be sure. He batted .359 in his last 33 games at Double A to raise his average from .272 to .313. And on Sunday, he was summoned to the office of Reading manager Greg Legg, who delivered the good news.
 
Kingery’s dad, Tom, had already heard; he tried to call his son repeatedly. So too had some other relatives.

So there he was on Monday. He singled in his first at-bat, and twice victimized Pawtucket third baseman Matt Dominguez with the glove, making a diving catch of his second-inning flare to short right and then backhanding Dominguez’s grounder up the middle in the sixth.

The first gem made SportsCenter. As for Kingery, he just keeps making steady progress toward the summit.

Examining how Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons could mesh together on court

Examining how Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons could mesh together on court

No sooner did the Sixers draft Washington point guard Markelle Fultz on Thursday night than coach Brett Brown started talking about “ballcarriers,” a rather curious way to describe NBA playmakers.

This came up because Brown long ago said he intended to use Ben Simmons, a 6-10 forward with an unselfish bent, at the point this season — an interesting experiment, not only because Simmons missed his entire rookie year with a broken foot but also because other responsibilities would have to be divvied up differently than they are on most teams.

Surely, the thinking went, Simmons would be hard-pressed to guard opposing lead guards. Surely, the Sixers would have to play a shorter, quicker guy next to him to perform that defensive task — and it would no doubt help if that guy could knock down a shot or two as well.

The 6-4 Fultz, while a defensive cipher last year for the Huskies, has those capabilities. But there’s little question that he operates best with the rock in his hands.

For the record, Brown said the addition of Fultz “really doesn’t” change his plan. He still intends to make Simmons the point guard and let the chips fall where they may.

Or, as he put it, “We’re excited to use him as the primary ballcarrier.”

At the same time, he added, Fultz “has the ability to be a significant ballcarrier.”

“When we study what he did in college,” Brown added, “you recognize very quickly that he has the ability to play that position and be one of the main ball distributors as well.”

Which means there will be some sorting out to do when training camp begins.

Fultz didn’t seem concerned when the topic was raised. He knows Simmons a little bit since both attended high school powers — Fultz at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., Simmons at Montverde (Fla.) Academy. They connected a while back on social media, then exchanged numbers.

“And,” Fultz said, “I've been texting him through the college process, and just getting advice through college and just wishing him good luck.”

He expects the on-court mesh to be just as smooth.

“Great players know how to play with each other,” he said. “Really it's just do whatever you need to do to win. It's going to be times where maybe Ben brings up the ball or times where I'm bringing up the ball. It's going to do whatever we need to do to win.”

Brown, for his part, sees Fultz as a “perfect complement” not only to Simmons but also to Joel Embiid, who, unsurprisingly, has also reached out to Fultz on social media.

It is far from unprecedented for a team to employ two playmakers. Six NBA clubs featured a duo that averaged five-plus assists a game in 2016-17. That includes the Sixers, who saw both of their primary ballcarr ... er, point guards, T.J. McConnell (6.6) and Sergio Rodriguez (5.1), reach that plateau.

The best analog for the upcoming season might be Charlotte, which features a lanky forward (Nic Batum, 5.9) and high-usage point guard (Kemba Walker, 5.5). The Holy Grail is, of course, Golden State, which has turned basketball into ballet. Draymond Green (7.0) and Stephen Curry (6.6) both exceeded five assists a night, and Kevin Durant (4.8) was close.

In all, the Warriors averaged 30.4 assists — exactly one shy of the NBA record established by the 1984-85 Lakers — and 43.1 field goals. Curry and Green most often initiated their offense, but ex-Sixer Andre Iguodala, a reserve, also did so at times. (Durant was more likely to bring the ball up and do something like this.)

So that’s the ideal, the summit that every team can only hope to reach. The Sixers, still in the baby-steps phase, will inch along behind two playmakers who have yet to play an NBA minute. Embiid will certainly join them in the starting lineup, and probably Robert Covington as well, though both are coming off meniscus tears and will be monitored closely.

It remains to be seen how Dario Saric, another excellent passer, is used. Certainly, the ball would hop around if he were on the court with Fultz and Simmons, but Saric could also serve as the distributor for a potentially interesting bench mob (Jerryd Bayless, Richaun Holmes, et al.).

That’s something else to sort out in September. But Job One for Brown is figuring out how best to use his ballcarriers.

Not the worst problem to have.

Markelle Fultz's story mirrors Michael Jordan's, but new chapter awaits

Markelle Fultz's story mirrors Michael Jordan's, but new chapter awaits

CAMDEN, N.J. — The myth took flight as the man once did himself: Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team.

The truth was more complicated, more nuanced, but that stood little chance against the legend: Michael Jordan was cut? How does that happen?

Jordan did nothing to correct the record as the years passed and his accomplishments accumulated. Rather, he used this supposed snub as fuel, powering him through what is arguably the greatest career of all time (with allowances for Wilt, LeBron and a few others).

So now here comes Washington point guard Markelle Fultz, taken first by the Sixers in Thursday's NBA draft (see story).

No one can say how his story might unfold. Nor is anyone suggesting that it will wind up anything like Jordan’s.

Certainly, though, one of the early chapters reads much the same way. He too was cut from his high school team. He too rose above that. He too uses that slight, if it can even be called that, as motivation.

“I always have a chip on my shoulder, no matter what,” he told reporters Wednesday, on the eve of the draft.

So the comparison to His Airness holds up in that way, at least. Anything beyond that is a stretch, though it should be pointed out that one member of ESPN’s broadcast crew, Jay Bilas, compared Fultz to James Harden on the air Thursday night, and that another, Jalen Rose, likened him to Bradley Beal.

“I definitely see myself as a superstar, as one of the best players coming into the NBA,” Fultz told reporters Wednesday. “I’m going to have to earn it, though.”

His friends have little doubt that he will.

“Every time I see him, I feel as though he gets better, so I expect him to keep getting better,” said Reggie Gardner, once his teammate DeMatha High School, in Hyattsville, Maryland. “I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

“I’m expecting him to do big things,” said another former teammate, Ahmad Clark. “He said he’s going to win Rookie of the Year. I don’t know if he can win MVP yet, but I can see him winning it down the road in his career.”

DeMatha is one of the nation’s great programs, a school that has sent players like Adrian Dantley and Victor Oladipo to the NBA (not to mention former Sixer Jerami Grant). Fultz arrived there as a 5-foot-9 freshman five years ago and was immediately consigned to the JV team. Same thing the next year — “even though,” Clark said, “he was good enough to play varsity.”

That left an indelible impression.

“He still is trying to prove himself,” Clark said. “He still feels he has to play that certain way.”

That’s a rare thing, DeMatha coach Mike Jones said, before invoking a familiar comparison.

“You can think of Michael Jordan taking every perceived slight and using it as fuel and motivation for going after his goals,” Jones said. “I think Markelle is one of those unique individuals that does the same thing: Anything that doesn’t go the way he wants to, he doesn’t pout about it. He doesn’t sit back and try to blame it on this or that. He just says, ‘You know what? I’m going to prove you wrong.’ And I think that’s a great quality to have.”

Jones was, of course, the guy who assigned Fultz to the junior varsity. He recalled there were some older kids — “and kids in his class, too,” he added – who he regarded as superior players. 

“He clearly proved me wrong,” Jones said. “I think he’s done that and then some.”

At the time, things were touch and go with Fultz. Keith Williams, who had coached and mentored him beginning at age 7 at the Run 'n Shoot Athletic Center in Forestville, Maryland — not far from Fultz’s home in Upper Marlboro — wanted him to transfer.

“I wasn’t happy,” Williams said. “I thought he was losing time in development.”

The way Williams tells it – and the way Kent Babb wrote it recently in The Washington Post — Fultz’s mom, Ebony, cast the deciding vote. She had raised Markelle and his older sister Shauntese as a single parent. She wanted her son to get a good education.

So in the end, he stayed at DeMatha.

“Obviously,” Williams said, “it all worked out.”

“My confidence and my goals never changed, no matter what,” Fultz told reporters in New York on Thursday. “(Being cut) just made me realize that it’s … a hill I have to get over, and I just started working even harder.” 

He grew seven inches to 6-4, his current height, before his junior year, then starred on a team that went 33-4 that season, and one that went 32-5 the next. He was also the shining light of a 9-22 Huskies team in 2016-17, averaging 23.2 points, 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds.

Rest assured that Jones “absolutely” sees the parallels to Jordan’s story, and that he’s fine with it.

“I don’t know whatever happened to that coach,” he said, “but I’m very secure in my ability to coach the game of basketball, and I will be the first one to say when I’ve made a mistake. Clearly not having Markelle on the varsity was a mistake.”

Jones has good reason to feel secure, seeing as he has won over 400 games in 15 years at DeMatha. As for Jordan’s coach all those years ago at Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C., it was one Clifton (Pop) Herring, profiled five years ago by Thomas Lake in Sports Illustrated.

Lake wrote that like Fultz, Jordan had yet to have his growth spurt as a sophomore; he stood just 5-10. Laney had two experienced guards on the varsity but needed a big man. Herring, as a result, kept 6-7 Leroy Smith instead of Jordan.

We all know what happened down the road. The title-winning shot at North Carolina. The six rings with the Bulls. But Jordan never forgot his days at Laney. As Lake wrote, Jordan invited Herring to the ceremony for his number retirement in 1995, and introduced him as “the first guy to ever cut me,” eliciting boos from the sellout crowd in the United Center.

Jordan went on to say that Herring also worked with him early every morning before the following season, but according to Lake added, “He knew he made a mistake! He just tried to correct it.”

Herring, who Lake wrote has since been wracked by mental illness, was unable to make it to Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction in 2009. But Smith was there, and Jordan sounded some of the same notes, saying that he wanted to make sure “the coach who actually picked Leroy over me … understood — you made a mistake, dude.”

The Sixers can only hope, then, that Markelle Fultz rises to a point where he is somewhere in the same stratosphere as Michael Jordan.

In another sense, they can hope that he rises above.