Back in June, Shake Milton was thrilled about the prospect of summer league basketball. GM Elton Brand said he’d never seen a player so excited to compete in summer league.
Milton shot 4 for 29 in the Sixers’ first two games in Las Vegas, then sprained his left ankle in the third.
The 23-year-old has come a long way from that moment. He scored a career-high 39 points Sunday and tied an NBA record with 13 consecutive made threes across the past three games in the Sixers’ 136-130 loss to the Clippers (see observations).
How did he get to Sunday afternoon, when most non-Sixers fans watching the national broadcast were probably scrambling for information on the kid from Owosso, Oklahoma, with the cool name who couldn’t miss a shot?
In recent years, being a member of the Sixers has been synonymous with encountering unusual obstacles. Rookies have regularly been affected by injuries before the regular season even begins, as Milton was by a stress fracture in his back sustained during the pre-draft process. That injury sidelined the second-round pick for summer league his rookie season and, it seems, limited his explosiveness.
He told NBC Sports Philadelphia during the preseason that he felt significantly better physically than he had a year before.
“I feel like it’s been a huge jump, personally,” he said on Oct. 18. “For one, the confidence that I have out there, my body feels good, feel physically ready. I go out there with confidence, my teammates have confidence in me, the coaches have confidence in me. Just going out there and being fearless.”
Looking back to less than a year ago, it’s clear he gained strength during the offseason.
Other adversity also crept into the picture, with unfortunate timing. After earning early regular-season minutes, Milton went down without any contact on Oct. 28 in Atlanta, holding his left knee.
He said to NBC Sports Philadelphia he “kept praying” the injury wouldn’t be too severe.
A bone bruise and mild knee sprain sidelined him for six games, and he eventually lost his spot in the rotation. Though he entered the starting lineup in late January when Josh Richardson was out because of a hamstring injury, Milton wasn’t supposed to factor into the back end of the Sixers’ season, Brett Brown told reporters Sunday.
“You sit down,” Brown said, “and you speak to every player and explain very clearly, ‘This is your role.’ And my discussion with Shake is, ‘You’re not playing. You are not in the rotation. I’m going with Alec [Burks] and [Josh Richardson] and Ben Simmons. You have to stay ready. And this is your role, just so that we’re nice and clear.’”
Milton recalled his reaction to that discussion honestly.
“It definitely [sucked],” he said. “Everybody wants to play, everybody wants to be in the rotation at all times. Just try to control what I can control, just keep putting in the work. The opportunity came and presented itself. I was going to be ready.”
Readiness and preparation are far from foreign concepts for Milton, who often stresses those values in his conversations with the media. He got his next chance when Simmons suffered a lower back injury.
There have been long stretches when his development was not visible to outsiders. He’s spent time leading the Delaware Blue Coats, watching film and fine-tuning his game with player development coach Tyler Lashbrook, and pumping up fans for the team’s “Frosty Freezeout” promotion — a job Norvel Pelle now appears to have gleefully taken on. None of that work has been especially glamorous or presented immediate rewards, and yet his attitude has been consistent.
“It’s just about being a star in your role, in the situation that you have, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” he told NBC Sports Philadelphia in December of 2018.
In his rookie season, Milton had a locker next to Joel Embiid at Wells Fargo Center, which pushed him to learn something about life as a professional.
“He’s a big guy,” Milton said at the time. “Has a lot of stuff, too. Try to make your own way, kind of carve out your own space, per se. But he’s been cool.”
Milton was on a two-way contract as a rookie, playing in 27 G-League games and, on one long day, pulling double duty with the Blue Coats and Sixers.
So, a reporter asked Milton on Sunday, should we be surprised?
Milton needed clarification.
“You’re asking me if you guys should be surprised?” he replied.
It didn’t sound like a question he’d ever considered, but he tried to answer it.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m going out there and hooping, man. Feeling confident, and more and more confident as the games go by. Just trying to stay locked in and continue to perform.”
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