The Philadelphia 76ers are in the midst of a highly publicized rebuilding phase and have an opportunity to add another piece to build the foundation of a successful franchise. Coming off yet another atrocious season, the (unfortunate) allure of losing has rewarded the Sixers with the third pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
With two recent lottery picks manning the frontcourt, the Sixers are almost fortunate to have the third pick in the draft — having one of the first two picks may have pressured the organization into drafting either Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor, the two biggest names in the draft. With Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel already in place down low, the selection of Towns or Okafor would have made for an interesting trade possibility.
Hypotheticals aside, the first two picks that belong to Minnesota and Los Angeles will likely land in a combination of Towns-Okafor, leaving the Sixers on the board to show the city what their plans are for the future. In looking at the long term, Philadelphia has tons of flexibility, with only $26.7 million on the books for next season and nothing guaranteed yet for 2016-17, although that’ll obviously change when team options on rookie deals are picked up, other players are signed and non-guaranteed contracts become guaranteed.
Not only do the Sixers have plenty of cap space to sign veteran free agents, but they’ve also stockpiled seemingly interchangeable athletic small forwards, including Robert Covington, Jerami Grant and JaKarr Sampson. All of these players have massive wingspans and incredible athleticism, and they’re on cheap deals. Coupled with the length, athleticism and defensive instincts of Noel, the future looks bright on both ends of the court for the Sixers, especially once Embiid plays his first NBA minutes. Embiid showed flashes of brilliance at the NCAA level and has the potential to be a game-changing player.
Embiid is still a raw talent, and the biggest issue with him is staying on the court. He has the prototypical build for a center in the NBA, standing 7-feet tall with a 7’5 wingspan and weighing in at 250 pounds (we think). His physical attributes make scouts salivate — he has quick feet, great agility and a vertical explosiveness that begets the great centers in the league. Embiid is a willing and capable defender, active on the help side and excellent at using length well to disrupt shots. Everything about Embiid gives the Sixers hope that he could be the franchise player that Philadelphia has been seeking, and building around him is the team’s blueprint to finding success in the NBA.
Having the long limbs of Embiid, Noel and Covington all seem to give the indication that the next move for the Sixers’ starting lineup is to look for their game-changing point guard. In today’s game, the point guard no longer just brings up the ball to initiate the offense; the point guard is the head of the snake, needing the ability to attack, score and create for themselves and the rest of the team.
The most successful teams in the NBA have an elite point guard — at this point, it’s almost a prerequisite to long-term success. The only teams in the Western Conference who didn’t have an elite point guard that made the playoffs were Dallas, Houston and New Orleans. But Dallas still had Rajon Rondo (was once elite not long ago) and Monta Ellis in the backcourt, and Houston and New Orleans both had MVP candidates capable of leading their team to the playoffs almost single-handedly.
For the Sixers, the most intriguing player in the draft is D’Angelo Russell. He brings the star quality that executives are looking for in their point guard, and he can score with ease. Russell, at the age of 19, brings a poise typically seen in older players. He plays the game with a calm demeanor and controls the pace of the game despite the pressure the opposing team brings. Russell has good size for a point guard standing at 6’5, and his nearly 6’10 wingspan will help with his below-average (by NBA standards) athleticism.
Russell can flat out score the basketball, putting up almost 20 points a game for the Buckeyes. He has a terrific and consistent shot (shot 45 percent from the field and 41 percent from three), and he makes a living off the mid-range jumper that the pick-and-roll so often opens up. The youngster has a quick release, and he can be productive initiating the offense and then running off a screen for an open shot. To top that off, he makes great decisions off the pick-and-roll and has the vision, creativity and ability to make passes in the tight spaces to rolling bigs and off-ball cuts.
Russell — while not the athlete or defender Mudiay is — is a better fit for the Sixers because of his abilities as both a playmaker and shooter. Mudiay is great in transition and can attack and finish with either hand, but he doesn’t have a consistent enough shot to warrant the type of defensive attention that’ll be needed to open things up for Noel and Embiid. Russell would help space the floor and doesn’t need to get into the paint to be effective like Mudiay usually does.
Russell isn’t the best defender and doesn’t possess the big-time athleticism that so often makes up for defensive lapses, but he fortunately has three capable athletes behind him to cover his back. The Sixers would be wise to find another long-limbed athletic defender at the 2 (Alan Anderson and Arron Afflalo are two names to look at) and implement an aggressive half-court defense where traps would be welcome because the length on the perimeter would allow for switches on the fly, and having safeties in Noel and Embiid would alleviate many mistakes.
Russell’s ability to score has Philadelphia excited for the possibility of drafting him. With Embiid having the potential to command double-teams and put up big numbers down low, a 3-and-D guy in the 6’9 Covington, plus Noel anchoring the defense, it’s easy to see how Philadelphia fans are optimistic for the future. Russell would have a bit more leeway to make the transition to the NBA because the Sixers are still in the rebuilding stage, but he’d be landing in a great situation on a team readying themselves to make a statement in the league.