By early May, when James Ennis had outscored the Raptors’ bench through the first three games of the Sixers’ second-round playoff series against Toronto, Brett Brown’s “quiet tournament” felt like a distant memory.
About three months earlier, though, Ennis hadn’t left the Sixers’ bench in a game against the Celtics. Jonathon Simmons and Furkan Korkmaz instead combined for 25 minutes in a 112-109 loss to Boston on Feb. 13 as Brown experimented with the newest version of his team, searching for an adequate second-unit wing. Neither Simmons or Korkmaz are currently on the Sixers’ roster.
“It was tough at first because I was unsure if I was going to play,” Ennis said at his exit interview on May 13. “Me and Jonathon were play one game, sit one game, so it was kind of rocky at first. But I got more games under my belt, got more comfortable, and it just took off like that. I appreciate the staff believing in me, Elton Brand bringing me here and Coach Brown allowing me to play.”
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Ennis’ spot seems secure for the upcoming season. The Sixers, as Brand noted at Friday’s press conference, are grateful he stuck with the team for less than his market value. Mike Scott is another known quantity off the bench, a player who gives you shooting, versatility, toughness and indelible quotes. Kyle O’Quinn will provide “much-needed depth at the center spot,” Brand said. When healthy, Raul Neto was a solid backup point guard for the Jazz, with three-point shooting ability (37.7 percent for his career) and a solid assist-to-turnover ratio (2.5 assists and 0.9 turnovers per game last season).
Thanks to those veterans, the Sixers should have a decent idea of what they’re getting from their bench. And, with 13 players on the active roster, the team could still add two more pieces. But don’t be surprised if another “quiet tournament” develops in 2019-20, with Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle at the center of the conversation.
Brown was bullish in May about Smith’s chances of factoring into his rotation this season, raving about everything from Smith’s “perseverance and love of basketball” to his defensive abilities.
Smith’s shot, Brown said, “will be the thing that ultimately makes his package whole.” The hyper-athletic 20-year-old made 5 of 16 three-point attempts in summer league (31.3 percent) and 6 of 16 (37.5 percent) in six games at the end of last season. Outside of his jumper, Smith has flashed the knack for making plays in transition, hunting offensive rebounds, cutting smartly and passing intuitively. It remains to be seen how well those other tools will convey in the NBA, though it’s worth considering Smith’s track record of learning new skills at a quick pace and his eagerness to put in the necessary work.
Thybulle, selected 20th in this year’s draft and acquired by the Sixers in a trade with the Celtics, plans to play right away. Brand is on the same page.
“We need that piece that can step in right now,” he said on June 21.
There’s little uncertainty about what Thybulle can provide or the role he’ll play. His job will be to get his hands in passing lanes and detonate plays defensively with his impressive anticipation and closing speed. Offensively, he’ll be asked to convert spot-up threes at a respectable rate. The rookie did well in that regard during summer league, making 11 of 28 long-range shots (39.3 percent).
Playing Smith and Thybulle together at times is an intriguing idea. The pair didn’t take long to form a connection. Thybulle mentioned at summer league minicamp that he was trying to “mimic” Smith, and the two shared some laughs in Las Vegas. There might be a “tournament” at times between the two for minutes, but there could also be an alliance if Brown is willing to tolerate a few youthful errors. As we contemplate the possibilities in July, plenty of options are on the table. Shake Milton could also be a factor at both guard spots.
We can say with plenty of confidence, however, that the 2018-19 edition of Brown’s “quiet tournament” was won in a landslide by Ennis. The 2019-20 version looks to be up for grabs.
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