By: Kwame Fisher-Jones
In a draft full of potential NBA stars the Kentucky Wildcats' De’Aaron Fox is shining the brightest. And hopefully the 76ers' brass is taking notice.
It is virtually impossible to fully assess a player’s NBA future from one game’s performance, however their competitive grit can be judged in one game or a singular moment. Meaning a player’s mental toughness and heart are much more difficult to assess then their basketball skill set. In short, there aint no math equation that tells you if a cat has heart or not.
There are, however, those defining moments that resonate with special talents, and in most cases (not all) provide perspective into the capability of elevating their game. The NCAA Tournament is not the be-all and end-all in determining what beats in a player’s chest, but when a freshman without hesitation nails the biggest shot in the history of their university or a highly touted guard misses two of the most critical free throws in their university’s history those moments cannot be ignored.
The "Leader of Lexington" had his moment and by thriving in said moment showed why he is best suited to lead the Philadelphia 76ers.
The date was March 24th, but the Kentucky guard’s mind were still on a December 3rd loss. The Wildcats were defeated 97 – 92 that night by the very UCLA Bruins team they were moments away from facing this very night. Fox was determined to not just win the current contest, but in some weird chemically unbalanced athlete way of thinking the guard was also going to win the game in December as well. That is the mindset the 76ers NEED to have in order to escape NBA purgatory.
This line of thinking is what winning basketball players have, even if at times it is not what their team wants. A heart that prompted the Texas native to seize the opportunity of playing UCLA a second time, yet with much more on the line. The electrifying guard scored a blistering 39 points, a season high, but it was how the 6’4 guard scored those buckets that left such a lasting impression. In the first contest the Fox shot 8-for-20 with nine assists for 20 points, in the second go round 13-for-20 with four assists.
It was as if the slender slasher had been impatiently waiting for this chance, and when it arrived he reverted to what he does best, attack opposing teams. The difference from the first UCLA vs. Kentucky game to the second game was not an aberration. The most recent Bruins game was a mere microcosm of how the guard has taken his game to another level.
The post season has seen the Wildcat raise every facet of his scoring, from points per (15.5 vs. 23.0) to field goal percentage (46 percent vs. 58 percent) to free throw attempts (5.3 vs. 9.2) and finally field goal attempts (12.1 vs. 13.6). Conversely his assist per (5.0 vs. 2.6) and rebounds per (4.1 vs. 2.8) have dropped, thus hammering home the premise that putting the ball in the hole is instinctive and embedded in Fox. Let us not forget the young man was the leading scorer in the Conference title game, a contest they won 82 – 65.
This ladies and gentlemen is a courage and fearlessness that has been absent in Philly for far too long. A will to be whom and what you are in the most stringent of circumstances is not something a player develops over time, no that is something a player is born with.
The Sixers have been blessed with top picks, but not top selections. The current group is missing that certain maladjusted personality that is necessary for winning. It is a personality trait that finds avenging a loss far sweeter than the actual victory. For a franchise in flux adding a player like De’Aaron who has a winning pedigree is so necessary. More importantly a player who walks in the gym with a scorer’s mentality and an uncompromising competitive fire to pair along Ben Simmons would be a significant step forward in the process (pun intended).
The league is full of great players, but that group shrinks when the discussion changes to great players who elevate their games. The NBA game will always be won by teams that move the ball, yet having a lead guard capable of elevating their play at critical moments is equally as important. From Walt Frazier to Isiah Thomas to Kobe Bryant ball dominate guards who demonstrate that ability are necessary to win championships. The recent post season play of Fox should leave little doubt that the Kentucky standout has this gene in his DNA.
The guile to not just be a part of something great, but to be the reason why that something is great cannot also be missed here. When asked about his teammates performance star shooter Malik Monk stated “He’s motivated just to win because they beat us the first time, outfought us the first time”.
This intangible is why we are here and why this declaration is being made. Great players lose more in defeat then they gain in victory. When asked about their greatest moments there is a pause and reflection, asked about their greatest disappointment there is meticulous list.
There is still some major issues for the Wildcat to work through, most notably his lack of a shooting touch. In time and in an empty gym a jump shot can be developed. But the toughness and scoring mentality that the lanky guard has displayed thus far cannot be developed. The 76ers need a player, not just another wing and not just another shooter, and that is what or better who the Wildcat is.
Oddly enough it is the Texas native’s faults that make him so special. Other players scoring numbers are enhanced by the three point shot, while Fox’s are hurt by it. To be blunt, the Kentucky leader thrives in spite of his poor shooting, while others are perceived to be better because of it. Yes the three point shot is a big part of today’s game but it is not the only part.
There are situations that can birth greatness and while it is too early to proclaim that greatness is in the future for De’Aaron it is not too early to recognize it is attainable. In Philadelphia, there lies another situation that only a certain type of player can flourish. That player must possess an unquantifiable set of basketball traits that may not be perfect for today’s game but are nevertheless perfect for Philadelphia.
By: Kwame Fisher-Jones
Markelle Fultz may be the next face of the NBA, but under no circumstances can the guard be the next Philadelphia 76er! Look it is easy to excuse losing, and it has become commonplace in Philadelphia to accept losing. But when an organization selects a player who led his college team to their worst record in 23 years, excuses and accepting turn into expecting.
Now it is not mutually exclusive to hope the young man has a HEALTHY and TREMENDOUS career, while at the very same time praying to the stars the guard is not selected by the 76ers. Again this is not to wish any ill will on Fultz, the “ceiling truly is the roof” for the Maryland native, however Philly needs more than talent to change the culture that has infested 76er basketball.
9 – 22 (9 – 16 if you only consider the games the former Washington Husky played in) does not just happen. It is one thing to underachieve as a club but it is a completely different animal to be among the worst in your league. The numbers are startling, 11 losses by 10 or more points (in the games Markelle played in), a nine game losing streak and two victories against teams with a winning record.
Such results are not usually found in a perceived franchise player.
No the guard’s club does not have to finish 30 – 2, but 9 – 22 is downright deplorable. Has the basketball community become that oblivious to on the floor results? Has analytics and YouTube really eliminated the instantaneous effect a great player has on his team?
When fans and followers of Huskies basketball are asked why the team finished so poorly, the company line is Marquese Criss and Dejounte Murray left the University earlier than anticipated. Their departures left Fultz with a squad incapable of playing competitive basketball, allegedly. This is an interesting viewpoint, and one that would have merit if Allen Iverson had not made it to the Elite Eight with Victor Page as his second leading scorer.
Let us not “misremember” Willie Warren riding shotgun to Blake Griffin’s Oklahoma Sooners Elite Eight appearance, and who can forget how great Dwyane Wade’s Marquette squad was? How Wade managed to only make it to the Final Four will remain a mystery? Last but certainly not least, Steph Curry’s freshman year with the Davidson Wildcats and how the guard barely managed to lead a loaded roster to its first winning season in………. who really cares.
Point being, it is disrespectful to other great players, and number one overall picks, to excuse Fultz’s team performance. It is insulting to the litany of ballers who have elevated players not worthy of sharing the same hardwood, but such a mind state has become a staple of this generation.
In sports a team with a sub .500 record can be comprised of talented players, but a plus .500 team is never filled with bad players. Talent will remain the defining line for good and bad teams, yet that line becomes blurred when one goes from good to great.
The former Husky guard has talent, but much like the Minnesota Timberwolves are discovering with Andrew Wiggins, intangibles and the immeasurable are what makes a franchise player. If they don’t bite as puppies they won’t bite as full grown dogs. Meaning the will to win and lead a team are obvious even in the early stages of a career.
While there are isolated situations how often do you hear the phrase “soft-spoken” followed by “leader of men”, “will to win” or Finals MVP? Now circumstances can dictate context, and in the perfect circumstance the future NBA guard’s talent may match his team’s production.
But that circumstance ain’t in Philly! Yes anything is possible, but that does not mean every possibility is worth exploring.
As much as Philadelphia needs a playmaker and a finisher, they also need a personality willing and built to overcome injuries, poor draft picks and a roster in extreme flux. All the while being the foundation in which a glorious franchise can return to prominence.
With all due respect a guard who missed six of his team’s final eight games because of a sore knee (that would be right up the Sixers alley) is not the pillar you want supporting your franchise’s rebuild. Fultz scored 25 or more points in 12 of the 25 games he played in, and as tempting as that scoring prowess may be Philly has to pass.
Joel Embiid missed the tournament because of injury, Dario Saric did not play in the tournament because he was already a professional overseas, and Ben Simmons did not participate in the madness because his team was not good enough. Therefore the Sixers already have the market cornered on core players who have missed the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the one player (Jahlil Okafor) who had success in the Tournament has struggled mightily of late.
Adding another player who, regardless of the reason, did not play in what amateur basketball recognizes as the highest level of competition would yield the same results as the previous players mentioned. Despite the hope that seems to always accompany the assumption of the best case scenario, the reality is those players will not alter the losing of a franchise.
Yes it is true a player’s tournament or college team success does not always translate to the pros. However, in the league’s history no player has been selected first overall after a losing college season. There have been players selected after mediocre seasons, and then there is Ray Felix’s 1953 selection by the Baltimore Bullets after not even playing college basketball due to a point shaving scandal. Yet, those exceptions should not give credence to the misguided belief that success is around the corner if the front office follows this road.
Taking that one step further, since 1982 no player has won an NBA Finals MVP without playing in an NCAA Tournament game (excluding players who came directly from high school or from foreign leagues).
This is not to suggest Fultz cannot be the first, but the 76ers would be doing themselves a disservice by attempting to find out. The time has come for Sixers brass to stop trying to be innovators and figure out a way to win within the confines of the system in place.
The laws of sports are not complicated even if they are complicatedly executed. It is a foregone conclusion that great players make other players better, the better the player normally the better the team. That may not always result in championships or even championship contention, but it almost never results in 9 – 22.
Markelle seems to have the physical capabilities to be a top five pick in the NBA draft, but it takes more than that to overcome the obstacles that come with that selection. Philadelphia needs a player who will make all the losses worth it. A player who will be obstinate in accepting defeat and insolent, when required, in their pursuit of greatness.
BY: KWAME FISHER-JONES
Time has separated reality from perception within 76er Nation, and every Philadelphia basketball fan should rejoice because of it. For the first time in what feels like centuries the Sixers can focus on building a team and not accumulating assets.
In 2013 the Philly brass began an epic journey of strife and misery disguised as innovation and genius, four seasons later Philadelphia is no closer to its championship aspirations. The premise that number crunching and other analytical approaches could somehow supersede pure instinctive talent evaluation has now been rebuked.
Fans can spend days debating the reasons why Michael Carter-Williams, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel simply weren’t good enough to be instrumental cogs in the franchises turnaround. The ticket buying public can bestow infinite hashtags in an effort to distract themselves from the very fact that they are still waiting for Joel Embiid to be and remain healthy. The praise and affection for Dario Saric, T.J. McConnell and Robert Covington is more about the low expectations they have exceeded, and less to do with any impactful future in a Philadelphia uniform.
On May 14, 2013 Sam Hinkie was entrusted with rebuilding this franchise, despite the numbers guru never being part of a front office that has ever drafted an All-Star player. Nevertheless, it was Hinkie who they felt their wagon should be hitched to. Three years, nine months and 19 days later Philly still has yet to even break ground on a winning team.
From injuries to log jams with missed opportunities sprinkled in, time has reaffirmed talent evaluation as the centerpiece to championship success. All the while rebuking any notion that numbers can be in the forefront of any rebuild.
Now as fans sit mired in the misery of their consequence from being so easily led by deception, there is finally hope. The cupboard, while bare, has provided the front office with a plethora options. The current frustration with existing shot caller, Bryan Colangelo, notwithstanding the 76ers finally have an opportunity to build something special.
This has nothing to do with multiple draft picks or a groundbreaking trade on the horizon. It is more predicated on the removal of the smoke and mirrors that have weighed this franchise down. The trade of Noel, gives hope that this front office realizes that he along with Embiid, Okafor and Saric are/were not franchise building blocks. This means there will be no more waiting for ____________you fill in the blank, instead the fierce urgency of now has taken over.
Colangelo has made the smart moves thus far, not the popular ones. The frustration centered on what the 76ers received in return for Noel is hilarious, considering Nerlens was supposed to be the first block in the rebuild. Both players from Hinkie’s inaugural draft are no longer on the team, for whatever the reason, and that should not be so easily dismissed. The rise of Saric has given many “Processers” reason to pound their chest, but lost in their celebration is what Dario claims aided him in his development. The Croatian stated that Ersan Ilyasova served as a mentor to him.
That dreaded veteran Hinkie avoided like the plague helped a young player adjust and transition to the NBA game. The acquisition of Ilyasova was unpopular at the time, but served its purpose tenfold. Just as the acquisition of Gerald Henderson has kept Jahlil Okafor from making any more TMZ appearances.
The former Toronto Raptors executive is not without his faults, but fans can expect him to always have the best basketball intentions when making moves for this team and not be infatuated with what is the best asset. His willingness to face those who are not happy with his decisions should also not be disregarded.
There is a stench that grows when fans embrace losing as a way to compensate the pain from never winning. Since its implementation “tanking” for draft picks as a way to accumulate the best talent had its skeptics and its supporters. Yet, who or whom those draft picks are used on or for was always the deciding factor in determining if the system in place was a successful. After all, despite the cries for patience it does not take a whole day to recognize sunshine.
The lack of on the floor talent can no longer be excused regardless of the excuse.
The end of Embiid’s season, and possible Sixer’s career, marks the beginning of a new day for Sixer fans. No longer will this once proud basketball fan base have to accept players with more injuries than production. No longer will drafts be approached with a “B.O.G.O” mentality focused on what a player may be worth years later. Instead what player is available and capable of improving this squad immediately is all that will be considered.
The obvious selection of Ben Simmons and with 24th overall pick Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot gaining valuable experience it appeared as if the play now philosophy was already implemented. However, then there was the selection of Furkan Korkmaz and reason to doubt crept in. Colangelo’s moves during the season illustrate a man who is intent on building now and developing players through game minutes.
Even the quirky way Embiid and his fragility were handled gives reason for optimism. The organization did everything in its power, short of asking the other team not to show up, to keep the center healthy. Nevertheless nature will always find a way and the oft-injured center will miss the remainder of his rookie season because he landed wrong.
Such an outcome will hopefully make trading Embiid number one on Colagelo’s to do list, followed by a demand to play hard or not play at all issued to Okafor. There should be joy and optimism around this club, because for the first time since Gene Shue and Pat Williams the halls will be roamed by men with basketball intentions.
Philadelphia has a talent evaluator who has made solid if not spectacular selections outside of the top five. The likes of All-Stars Michael Finley (21st overall), Steve Nash (15th overall), Amar’e Stoudemire (9th overall), and DeMar DeRozan (9th overall) were selected outside of the top five by Colangelo. Considering Hinkie could not find a quality starter when picking in the top three that should warrant Colangelo some sort of leeway.
The Sixers will also be joined by what was universally regarded as the best talent coming into the professional ranks since LeBron James. So while the cupboard is bare in regards to on the court talent it is overflowing in regards to options. Simmons will be joined on the floor by players the organization is excited to build around, rather than players who wanted desperately to play elsewhere.
Next season’s progress will not be interrupted by players taking workload management breaks and 76 power forwards and centers. No sir, Hinkie’s failures in not just properly evaluating players but also in effectively developing talent has afforded the new boss with a blank slate. And the shot caller has the necessary tools to create one hell of a masterpiece.
The man who drafted Andrea Bargnani will not be beyond reproach or absent from mistakes. But if he can also turn the likes of Gary Forbes into Kyle Lowry there is reason for joy. When the former Suns GM can trade franchise main stays like Dan Majerle without hesitation there is reason to believe this team will no longer be held hostage to a player selected third overall, but has only managed to play 31 games in three seasons.
The Sixers tried to reinvent the wheel during the Hinkie regime, now they have given way to a mind less interested in reinvention and more preoccupied with ensuring the wheel runs smoothly. After three years of a process revolving around numbers, 76er fans can finally take solace in knowing that the only process being considered now revolves around basketball.