Following the Breaking Bad blue meth-level high of their first win of the season Tuesday night, the Philadelphia 76ers quickly crashed back down to earth Wednesday with a lethargic performance in a loss to the New York Knicks. Yet, in spite of the Sixers now sporting a robust 1-19 record and the continued circus surrounding Jahlil Okafor’s off-the-court incidents, the team and fans have actually received some good news this week. Point/combo guard Tony Wroten will be making his season debut Saturday afternoon against the Denver Nuggets.
In the face of the team’s on-court struggles this season, a common refrain for Sixers fans has been “just wait until the team gets Kendall Marshall and Tony Wroten back.” Generally, such a statement is followed by laughter from the critics, because a team’s hopes hinging on two players who’ve played for a combined five NBA teams across six seasons is somewhat absurd on the surface. However, something Bill Barnwell used to write about in his Grantland days (RIP) was the idea that an upgrade at a position from sub-par to league average can actually make much more of an impact than replacing an average player with a star. If there’s one thing the Sixers have in spades, it’s sub-par players looking to be upgraded (we also would’ve accepted second-round draft picks and uninformed hot takes from the national media).
Now, I’m not suggesting the insertion of Wroten into the lineup is some magical cure-all that’s going to catapult the Sixers from the Eastern Conference basement to fighting for the eighth seed. After all, Philadelphia went just 4-26 across the 30 games in which Wroten made an appearance last season. Turnovers and abysmal outside shooting have always been huge holes in his game, which is why despite the positive qualities he brought to the table, Wroten’s player efficiency rating stood right around league average at 14.9 last year. It’s also not fair to assume Wroten will be 100 percent recovered from his ACL surgery, although his comments on social media and reports from his workouts seem to indicate he hasn’t lost a step.
Still, one thing Wroten will be able to provide is the ability to create shots for himself, a skill clearly devoid among the other guards on the active roster. His usage rate of 30.3 percent last season was the highest on the team, and he led the Sixers both in getting to the foul line (6.0 attempts per game) and points in the paint per game. He also succeeded in getting what are viewed as easier points in the open court a year ago. Wroten’s 2.7 percent steal rate was second on the team behind Nerlens Noel, helping Tony to be far and away the team leader in both points off turnovers and fast-break points per game. For a Sixers team currently sporting a league-worst 91.3 offensive rating, any source of easy points would be a welcome panacea.
More conceptually, Wroten should pair well with Isaiah Canaan, a helpful notion given the unfortunate reality that Canaan is currently averaging almost 27 minutes per game. Wroten can handle ball-handling duties and push Canaan to an off-guard role on offense, where he’s more effective as an outside shooter without point guard responsibilities. On the other end, unlike when Brett Brown has tried pairing Canaan with T.J. McConnell or Phil Pressey (who was just waived) this year, at 6’6″, Wroten actually has the size needed to guard opposing 2s.
Granted, with or without Wroten, the 76ers are going to lose a whole lot of games. Still, Wroten is a legitimate NBA player and should help win a few more contests for a Sixers team that, until the New York loss, had held fourth-quarter leads in six straight games. More importantly, having Wroten back brings the organization one step closer to being able to fairly evaluate both Brett Brown’s coaching and the play of the young building blocks on the roster. Ironically, for a guy whose nickname is “Wrecking Ball,” Tony Wroten’s return should provide some much-needed stability in Philadelphia.