Who Are You and What Have You Done With Damien Wilkins?

Who Are You and What Have You Done With Damien Wilkins?

The reasons for the Sixers' surprisingly improved proved play of
late—four wins in their last seven games, including victories over the
playoff-bound Nets and Pacers and extremely close losses to the
NBA-hottest Heat and Nuggets—are many. The team's frontcourt has been
playing dramatically better: Spencer Hawes has averaged a 16/10 on 56%
shooting over the stretch, and Thaddeus Young, finally healthy again
after missing a couple weeks with a hamstring strain, has matched with a
17/7 on 55% shooting. Dorell Wright has also rediscovered his Golden
State shooting stroke, averaging 12 a game and shooting 19 of 38 from
deep, and with the exception of a dismal two-point performance in Los
Angeles, Jrue Holiday has been Jrue Holiday, averaging about 17 points
and nine assists, shooting 48% from deep and even keeping his turnover
average to under three a game.


But the most surprising reason for the Sixers' hot stretch is
undoubtedly the play of Damien Wilkins. Signed as an emergency-valve
veteran wing player at season's beginning, Wilkins was the source of
much mockery for Sixers fans earlier in the season for Coach Collins'
insistence on playing him big minutes, despite the fact that he was a
33-year-old career bench scrub blocking younger, more skilled players
like Wright and even rookie Arnett Moultrie from getting minutes they
seemed more deserving of. And the numbers justified the scorn—before
March, Damien was averaging just 2.6 points a game on 37% shooting
(including a dismal 13% from deep) in ten minutes of game action, with a
PER in the not-high single digits.


Remarkably, however, all that appears to have changed in March. In
12 games this month—eight of which Wilkins even started—Damien is
averaging a highly respectable 12 points on 54% shooting, including 39%
from deep. He's even proven himself to be a decent secondary playmaker
since moving to the starting lineup, posting three or more assists in
five of his eight starts. For arguably the first time since his days
playing with the Ray Allen-led Sonics in Seattle, Damien Wilkins is a
productive, relevant professional basketball player again.


The thing that really strikes me about Wilkins this last month or so
is the energy and athleticism he brings to the team—neither of which
you would exactly expect a 33-year-old career benchwarmer to provide
your ballclub. (To be fair, Damien is the son of '90s lockdown defender
Gerald Wilkins, and the nephew of Hall-of-Fame scorer and slam dunk
champion Dominique Wilkins, so genetics are obviously on his side.) The
Sixers have been playing at a much faster pace in recent games, and
Wilkins is a big catalyst for that, constantly moving in the half-court,
running to the corners on the secondary break, and attacking the basket
wherever possible. He hasn't been the team's MVP over this
stretch—that'd probably be Thad, or maybe even Spence—but he's been the
guy most representative of the team's new style and improved efficiency.


The one real negative of Wilkins' improvement as of late is that it
reflects kind of negatively on one of his much-higher-upside wingmates:
Evan Turner. While much of the team has hit an individual groove the
last two weeks, Evan's play could most generously be described as
"unexceptional"—under 11 points, four rebounds and four assists a game,
including 42% shooting and 21% from deep. Worse, despite being nearly a
decade older, Damien consistently outworks Evan on the court, cutting
harder, pushing faster on the break, switching and fighting through
screens better on defense. Tellingly, is lineup the Sixers have found
the most success with recently is one with Damien and Dorell on the
wings and Evan on the bench—they've only played about 34 minutes
together as a five-man unit, but 82Games.com lists it as the Sixers' lineup with the highest win percentage.


And of course, the other negative about the Wilkins surge is that
not only is it helping the team win meaningless games in the
short-term—wins hurting their draft position, if you care about such
things—but it means the team might make an effort to re-sign the
33-year-old, costing them precious cap space and sending a message that
being competent is still more important to this franchise than
potentially being great. Still, Damien's played a big part in making an
unwatchable team watchable this season, and for those of us who will
continue to watch the team regardless, that's something to be pretty
thankful for.

Give and Go: How much credit does Brett Brown deserve for Sixers' improvement?

Give and Go: How much credit does Brett Brown deserve for Sixers' improvement?

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 analyze the job head coach Brett Brown has done this season.

Haughton
Brown's performance has already resulted in more wins than any other season under his leadership, but it continues to be a complex judgment.

He's still tied to an extremely young roster, which lends itself to the high number of turnovers, mistakes coming out of timeouts and defensive breakdowns. 

However, he has managed to get several players to show growth in their games and make sure the Sixers remain balanced even with Joel Embiid's emergence. That can also be attributed to Brown's emphasis on state of play and not state of pay.

He turned to T.J. McConnell ($874,636 salary) at starting point guard over Sergio Rodriguez ($8 million) because the second-year pro has proven to be a better fit and has routinely moved Gerald Henderson ($9 million) from starter to reserve.

Then of course, there has been Brown's handling of the Sixers' mashup at center. The coach has found each guy minutes when he can and, according to the players, been up front about all potential minutes and trade scenarios.

Perhaps Brown's finest job this season has come in a role he thought was over: team delegate. Once Sam Hinkie exited and Bryan Colangelo proclaimed he would be more open with information, Brown certainly had to think his days of standing in front of the media to explain every single thing going on with the franchise were over. Think again. 

Still, Brown's been there each day, answering just about every question thrown his way from injuries to trade rumors. If nothing else, he deserves to be commended for dealing with that ... again.

Hudrick
It's amazing what a few NBA-caliber players can do.

After accumulating a 47-199 record over his first three seasons, Brown has led the Sixers to a 21-35 mark so far this season. Sure, much of the credit for the team's success has to do with adding legitimate NBA talent (and a legitimate NBA star in Embiid). With that said, you're finally starting to see Brown's fingerprints on the Sixers.

A protégé of Gregg Popovich's with the Spurs, Brown preaches defense and ball movement. The Sixers' defense has been a catalyst for their success this season. As Brown says in his Bostralian accent, the defensive end is where the Sixers' "bread is buttered." 

With unselfish players with decent court vision like Dario Saric and Gerald Henderson added to the mix, the Sixers don't look like a total disaster in the half court. They're ninth in the NBA at 23.5 assists per game. They haven't finished higher than 15th in the league in any of Brown's three seasons. 

When you consider what Brown has gone through and how he's managed to keep everything positive, it's incredible. Hinkie pegged Brown as his guy, knowing that Brown was an excellent teacher and had the right attitude to deal with losing. You have to be encouraged by what you've seen out of Brown and the Sixers this season.

Flyers Skate Update: Power play shakeup seems to be working

Flyers Skate Update: Power play shakeup seems to be working

VOORHEES, N.J. — They had taken another “0-for” on the power play on the road and lost a game in which they deserved to at least get a point.

Dave Hakstol had seen enough. Numbers don’t always tell a story. Yet, in the Flyers' case, they did: 4 for 42 on the power play over 12 games, including that 3-1 loss at Calgary.

The next morning in Edmonton, Hakstol met privately with Jakub Voracek to discuss, among other things, the power play. That night, Hakstol moved Voracek off the first unit power play and replaced him with Ivan Provorov.

He then told Shayne Gostisbehere to change his location on the power play on the half wall and let Provorov, the Russian rookie, worry about the blue line.

In the two games since, the power play is 3 for 6 and has the Flyers back up to ninth in the NHL after falling to 13th during that 12-game span of utter futility.

How the power play goes tonight against the Washington Capitals is critical if the Flyers have any shot of taking points away from the top club in the league.

“It’s a little bit different look,” Hakstol said. “We’re comfortable with either of the setups we have there. Whether it’s with Jake on the flank of the [Claude] Giroux unit or having Ghost there.

“Both are effective. Within the game, we can go back and forth with the other. We’ve had some pretty good play out of the other unit, regardless of the setup.”

Provorov has a very accurate point shot. Gostisbehere has the hardest shot of any on the top unit. The rest of the first unit – Giroux, Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds – hasn’t changed.

“We can’t score,” Provorov said bluntly. “We needed to change something up to spark the scoring. It definitely helped us. Now the two units have a different setup in the zone.

“Just a little different. It took us first game to get used to. We did pretty good in the second game [Vancouver].”

Ghost has never played the half-wall. He thinks this will help him snap a 32-game goal drought. He had three assists – two on the power play – against the Canucks on Sunday.

“It’s completely different,” Gostisbehere said. “I’ve always been at the top [blue line]. It’s definitely a different perspective from that view. I think I’ll get a lot more shots and plays that can be made.”

Voracek watches him when that unit is on the ice and offers advice after the shift.

“I have been talking to Jake a ton for pointers,” Gostisbehere said. “When I am out there, if you see something I could have done, please tell me. He is such an easy guy to talk to. He will give you the pointers right away.”

Hakstol said moving Ghost closer to the net has a payoff.

“He is in a pure one-timer side there if he gets himself in the right position,” Hakstol said. “But there is still some work we have to do there in terms of his overall positioning in that spot.

“He brings a different element than Jake does in that spot. Both of them were very, very effective in that spot. They just have different weapons.”

Even though there have been changes, Voracek still rotates back to the first unit if Provorov is on the ice the previous shift before the power play begins.

Because of Travis Konecny’s knee and ankle injuries, Sean Couturier’s second unit has changed the most. Mark Streit anchors from the point with Coots, Nick Cousins and Matt Read below the blue line and Voracek on the right-wall.

That unit has more player rotation on the ice than the top unit.

Hakstol doesn’t buy the argument the Flyers' power play crashed because it became too predictable. 

“In the game now, there’s not much hidden,” Hakstol said. “Everyone knows what the other team is trying to do, regardless of 5-on-5 or special teams.

“For us, it was a good time to make a small change that changes the look for our guys on the ice.”

Loose pucks
• A dozen players showed up for the optional morning skate at Skate Zone, more than half of what was expected. 

• Michal Neuvirth will start in goal tonight against Washington. 

• On Tuesday, Voracek got hit with a puck below the belt, during a tip drill in which Voracek tipped a shot into himself. “Feeling better,” he said today. 

• This morning was goalie Steve Mason’s turn to get hit. He took a point shot from Andrew MacDonald in the mask. Mason was temporarily shaken but no damage to either him or his mask.  

Lineup
F:
Schenn-Giroux-Simmonds
Weise-Couturier-Voracek
Raffl-Cousins-Read
VandeVelde-Bellemare-Lyubimov

D: Provorov-Manning
Gostisbehere-Streit
Del Zotto-Gudas

G: Neuvirth