WASHINGTON — Over the past few weeks of extremely undermanned, largely losing basketball, Sixers head coach Nick Nurse has come to understand what's exceptional about rookie two-way contract player Ricky Council IV.
“You see how he plays … and you’d say, ‘Well, what’s one characteristic you see?’ Automatically, it’s that he plays really hard,” Nurse said Saturday night after the Sixers beat the Wizards. “But he does everything that way — walkthroughs, shootarounds, practice.
“He’s one of those guys that’s got that kind of motor that’s always switched on. He does everything with good focus and intensity, so it’s hard not to like that, right?”
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Philadelphia sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
Before Saturday, Council’s four longest NBA appearances had all come in blowout losses. His performance against Washington mattered much more.
“It’s unreal right now,” Council said postgame in the visitors’ locker room. “I’ve got to go back and watch it. I was just too in the moment … but not in the moment at the same time. When there was a minute left, I was like, ‘Come on, we’ve got to win this game so I can feel like I did something productive.’ If we would’ve lost that game, I would’ve just been like, ‘‘Whatever.’ So yeah, I’ve got to go back and watch it first.”
He deservedly played the final nine minutes and nine seconds. The 6-foot-6 Council grabbed a game-high five offensive rebounds, joined fast breaks with glee, and did just about everything powerfully. He posted 19 points and 10 boards in his 29 minutes.
All seven of Council’s made field goals came in the paint, including three hoops late in the fourth quarter.
With the terribly depleted Sixers desperate to finish off the nine-win Wizards, Council wedged himself between guards Tyus Jones and Jordan Poole. He got his right hand on Tyrese Maxey’s miss, found a way to muscle through Poole (legally, in the officials’ view) and laid the ball in.
On the second night of a back-to-back, the Sixers’ eight-man rotation featured Council, new players Buddy Hield and Cameron Payne, Maxey grinding through an illness, and KJ Martin serving as a small-ball backup center. Council’s effort was precisely what Nurse needed.
“Two guys that haven’t had a practice yet and three G League guys up,” Nurse said. “There’s a lot of unknowns. So I told the guys, ‘I’m proud of you, man.’ I told them at halftime, ‘We’re going to have to find a way to gut this out.’ It’s hard to keep running and making plays. It’s fast, and we played last night and all that stuff.
“It’s going to be a gut check: Can you just force yourself to play through the play? And then, if you’re that tired, you’ve got to come out. And I really think our guys did gut check a lot of plays and made some tough, winning plays at the end.”
Nurse first got to know Council in the summer. He worked to address Council’s shooting form — a key reason the 22-year-old went undrafted following two seasons at Wichita State and one at Arkansas — and then coached him in summer league.
Council has raised his outside shooting numbers substantially in the G League, hitting 39.9 percent of his three-point tries and attempting 6.0 triples per game. He was 0 for 1 from three-point range Saturday, but jumpers were obviously not required against the Wizards.
Council had played seven minutes Friday night in the Sixers' defeat to the Hawks. According to Maxey, his confidence was high to start the next day.
“He was big time,” Maxey said. “When we went to breakfast in the morning, I asked him, ‘Hey, man, how’d you feel playing out there, your first time getting real minutes?’ He was like, ‘I think I did OK. But I just feel like today, if I get more minutes, I’m going to go out there and show you what I can do.’
“All right, cool. Him saying that, you don’t think much of it. But he went out there and he balled — defensively, offensively, energy-wise. He got some big buckets down the stretch. I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him.”
A native of Durham, North Carolina, Council is the youngest in a competitive family full of basketball players. Growing up, he regularly faced brothers Ricky Council II and Ricky Council III and sister Rhianna Council.
“It was always a battle,” Ricky Council IV said. “They know it.”
Given his first extended shot to play in the NBA outside of garbage time, Council knew what he was all about.
“I just feel like I’m a dog,” he said. “A lot of people say it, but not a lot of people are about it. When I’m out there … I don’t know, I can’t really explain it. I don’t see nothing but the goal and my teammates. It doesn’t matter — LeBron (James), the best players in the world. Much respect to them, but I’m just trying to help my team win when I’m out there.”