Right now, Justin Patton is likely best known by many as “the other guy” in the Jimmy Butler trade, the one with the boot on his right foot at the introductory press conference for himself and the Sixers’ newest star.
Patton has been tied with Butler since the day he was drafted. Selected No. 16 overall in 2017 by the Chicago Bulls out of Creighton University, Patton was included in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ draft-night deal for Butler.
The odds are he’ll never overshadow Butler, but Patton hopes to make a name for himself. He just needs to get on the court first.
The 7-foot Patton suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot the summer after getting drafted. He played one game for the Timberwolves and 38 games for their G-League affiliate, the Iowa Wolves, averaging 12.7 points and 5.7 rebounds, before undergoing a second surgery in April to “encourage further healing.” Then he broke the same bone in his right foot in September.
As Patton said at that introductory press conference, it’s an injury the Sixers are “familiar with.” Ben Simmons missed the entire 2016-17 season after a Jones fracture in his right foot; rookie Zhaire Smith has yet to play because of a Jones fracture in his left foot suffered in August, followed by serious complications from an allergic reaction.
While the Timberwolves said after Patton’s surgery in September that he was out indefinitely, Patton told NBC Sports Philadelphia that he “definitely” plans to play this season, though he’s not sure of an exact timeline.
“The organization and medical staff, everybody here is great,” Patton said. “I’m just going to do what I have to do on my end, come into work hard every single day, and when it’s time for me to cut the rope and get out there, I’ll go and do that.”
The downside of the spotlight
Patton is used to being overlooked. He wasn’t a highly touted prospect coming out of Omaha, to put it mildly — Creighton was his only Division I offer. He redshirted his freshman year to gain strength and develop his raw game. After a couple of college games, he was drawing attention from the NBA. He declared for the draft at the end of the season.
He said he wasn’t prepared for all of that attention after years of flying under the radar.
Growing up in Omaha and not being a prospect of any type until my senior year [of high school], and then my second year of college, technically my freshman year, I got taken advantage of a lot. I was able to grow as a player and understand the business and everything that goes into it, being an athlete and being a professional. Growing up in Omaha, you don’t get that taste of NBA life or even being a prospect or going to those Nike camps or anything. I had to learn on the fly.
Unlike many of his teammates, Patton explains, he didn’t have years of experience handling the various figures looking to exploit young talent.
“You’re shielded from everything, but you got people who know business,” he said. “You got businessmen who are smart, and when they see opportunity, they’re going to take it. I wasn’t really aware of that coming into it. But now I’ve built myself up, I’m more of a professional and I’m more aware. I have the right people around me that are going to keep educating me and help me go further as a player.”
Butler has been one of those key figures — a constant in the 21-year-old big man’s short NBA journey. He’s still sharing a locker room with Butler, but Patton says the vibe in Philadelphia is nothing like the reportedly toxic environment in Minnesota.
“It’s way different,” Patton said. “Everyone here is happy — I don’t know what’s going on in Minnesota now. But everybody here wants to get better and wants to win, so it’s good.”
Patton thinks Butler’s reputation as an abrasive personality is unfair.
“Jimmy’s a great dude,” he said. “I’m pretty sure everyone that’s been around Jimmy will tell you that. I don’t even know how the bad perception got out there. But from somebody that’s been with him and seen him go through all this stuff, I just want to have his back in any way possible because he doesn’t deserve any of it.”
According to Patton, Butler is one of the many sources who help him keep working through the inevitable frustration of his injuries, setbacks and constant rehabilitation. Before Wednesday and Friday’s games, Patton walked into the locker room soaked in sweat after workouts with the Sixers’ training staff. He said he's still “getting back in the swing of things” as far as basketball-specific activity.
“Really it’s just the people I’m around,” Patton said of his motivation. “I always try to stay around positive people. I always try to stay positive every single day. It could be worse; it could always be worse. But like I said, I’ve got great people around me. Jimmy is also one of those guys. The trainers, they’re all great, they come in ready to work and get moving. So it’s not hard to come in and be positive, and attack it every single day with this organization and to do what they ask."
The player he could be
In theory, if Patton does indeed return this season, he could bolster the Sixers’ thin frontcourt. With the exception of Mike Muscala, head coach Brett Brown doesn’t have any reliable big men coming off his bench — Amir Johnson finds himself on the outside of the rotation.
Patton is an intriguing player. He’s a fluid mover and impressive athlete who can handle the ball and has a decent-looking shooting stroke. In G-League play, Patton made 15 of 50 three-point shots (30 percent) and knocked down 76.4 percent of his free throws.
I’d say I’m a multi-dimensional player. I don’t rely on just one thing. I’ve fine-tuned a lot of things in my game that are going to make the game easier for me, such as my jump shot and my dribbling. But when you have an IQ like mine, it’s not going to be hard to adapt and get better with any situation.
How those skills project to the NBA is still largely an unknown. His 0.73 assist-to-turnover ratio in the G League indicates his feel for the game is still a work in progress. It’s also fair to wonder whether the wiry Patton has the strength and physicality to handle NBA centers.
The Timberwolves didn’t pick up Patton’s third-year option, meaning he’ll become a free agent after this season. For now, Patton isn’t thinking about that. His immediate focus is on returning to the floor and showing Sixers fans that Butler isn’t the only valuable guy they got in the trade with the Timberwolves.
When that day comes for Patton, he’s confident he’ll enjoy playing in front of Sixers fans who, like Butler, have a bit of a reputation. The likelihood that he’ll hear a few boos if he misses an open layup or gets beat down the floor doesn’t bother him.
“I come from an environment where it’s pretty tough also,” Patton said. “I’m not really afraid of that. It’s going to be fun to play in front of [the fans.] It’s going to be fun on the good days and the bad days. I’m just ready to get the bad days out of the way and hopefully have a lot of good days.”
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