The Philadelphia 76ers enter the 2019-20 season poised to compete for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. With aspirations of a title, the Sixers built a roster deep with experienced players. Even their 2019 first round draft pick, Matisse Thybulle, played four college seasons and enters the NBA projecting more as a strong role player than someone with dreamy star potential.
But way down on the bench and in two-way roster slots, the Sixers do have a collection of pre-peak yutes with some degree of upside. So which players on the deep bench have the strongest chance of breaking out and providing value to a conference contender this season?
5. Norvel Pelle
Pelle has spent a lot of time with the Sixers organization over the last couple of years, whether it was joining the Sixers’ summer league rosters or spending time in Wilmington with the Blue Coats. For his efforts, Pelle was awarded a two-way contract this offseason.
Despite the deal, Pelle doesn’t possess the upside to make a break through likely this season (and my money would be against it in the long run as well). It’s possible Pelle gets a spot call up here or there, perhaps if some two of the three bigs on the Sixers roster need a night off. But there’s just not a lot to Pelle’s game. He can throw down thunderous slams, and that’s about it. Defensively, he’ll often get himself in trouble chasing blocks. He’s basically Richaun Holmes on a roster with two All-Star-level centers and Kyle O’Quinn.
I initially wanted to place Shayok third on this list, with Landry Shamet serving as evidence that rookie shooters can find a spot on a roster that includes Ben Simmons at point guard. Shayok’s appeal as a prospect rests mostly within his shooting (38.1% from three on 331 attempts in college) and his notable size at the guard position (although Shayok recently measured in at 6’4.5” inches, not the 6’6” he was listed at for the draft). But ultimately, Shayok is a limited player and Elan Vinokurov’s comments to our Sean Kennedy after the 2019 NBA Draft gave me pause:
(Elan reiterated that the following is pure conjecture.) I would not be surprised if Shayok is an example of a guy who didn’t expect to get drafted and got pushed up, or he’s a guy that they simply flagged and said, ‘let’s take Shayok and just get him on a two-way.’ When they drafted him, my immediate gut instinct was they drafted him for a two-way. So, in that sense, if you think he’s a good fit for Delaware, do your thing.
I’m interested to see how much of an effort is focused on getting Shayok going in the G-League. Like Shayok, Shake Milton was an upperclassman, straight-the-G-League prospect who the Sixers spent draft capital to obtain (the Sixers technically traded for Shake). In Milton’s lone G-League season, he had a usage percentage of 27.4%. Shayok’s usage likely won’t be in a range that high, but he should get a ton of spot-up looks. Even with a concerted effort on Shayok’s development, it feels like Elan’s crystal-balling is right on point: the Sixers aren’t very concerned with getting Shayok NBA minutes just yet.
3. Jonah Bolden
Bolden finds his way to the middle of this list simply due to the fact that he’s on an NBA contract, giving him a stronger chance of meaningfully contributing than two-way players Pelle and Shayok.
I am down on Bolden — I don’t know what he does well at the NBA level and I don’t know what his role is on this Sixers team. The former UCLA Bruin doesn’t need to do a whole lot on offense to be passable: hit corner threes and set screens. But Bolden is often hopelessly lost defensively, landing himself in Brett Brown’s dog house on multiple occasions last season. The vanilla offensive game and the actively harmful defense make it hard to see how Bolden climbs a front court rotation as deep as Philly’s. Then again, Bolden is still only 23 and there’s been an emphasis on keeping Joel Embiid healthy, so not all hope is lost for Jonah.
2. Shake Milton
There’s always been reason to believe Shake Milton could outplay his draft position, making GM’s around the league regret placing so much concern around Milton’s draft combine performance. So far, Milton hasn’t forced much regret: he’s played just 268 NBA minutes, many of them in garbage time, and his shooting numbers have been putrid. Then in the 2019 Summer League, with the Sixers clearly giving Milton opportunities to impress, he was largely unimpressive.
But Summer League was never going to be conducive to success for Milton. He was asked to play point guard and initiate an offense in a setting where many of his teammates are at best fringe NBA talent looking to make a highlight play or two and secure an offer to play professional basketball… somewhere — anywhere! And of course a rookie struggled in his first 268 NBA minutes after playing most of the year in the G-League! I’m willing to give Milton the benefit of the doubt (admittedly, one of many I’ve granted him). Maybe I shouldn’t, but I still view Milton as a draft prospect. And to that extent, I think he’s a pretty good prospect for a late second rounder!
Milton is lacking in athleticism, but he’s got good size to make up some of the gap. And while his horrendous NBA shooting clips (39.1%/31.8%/71.4%) paint him as a shooter on par with the worst of ‘em, he’s got a much bigger sample of three years of college ball and a season in the G-League that beg to differ. Shake’s path to minutes is tough — sure Neto and Burke could play their way down the rotation, but even then, Thybulle and Zhaire Smith are likely to soak up those minutes. But neither Thybulle nor Zhaire are much of creators at this stage, while Milton has experience handling the ball and running the point. If Milton can improve his handle and provide steady wing shooting, he may be a preferable option to Burke or Neto in 2nd units as a secondary initiator.
On November 10th, 2018, Furkan Korkmaz cracked the 20-minutes-played mark in a single game for the first time in his NBA career. From that night until the Sixers traded for Tobias Harris, Korkmaz played in 40 games, scoring 15.2 points per-36 to go along with 5.8 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.6 steals. Simply put: he was productive. Was he efficient? Not exactly. He shot 40.1% from the floor and 34.1% from deep, although he did have a solid 83% mark from the line. But on the season as a whole, Korkmaz managed a positive PIPM at 0.1 across 715 minutes and CleaningTheGlass tracked Korkmaz as a +3.2 per 100 possessions last season. Had Korkmaz shot the ball more consistently — adding, say, 2.5 percentage points to his three-point shooting — I’m not so sure he’s hanging on to an NBA career by mere threads this past summer.
Korkmaz’s path to breaking out is pretty simple (in theory, of course): improve conditioning and up the shooting percentages. The last time we saw Korkmaz, he still didn’t have an NBA body. If he spent his summer adding some bulk and getting into peak shape, it’ll naturally help him become more effective on the defensive end. Offensively, he’s already looked the part. His shot looks good and it may even be good — he’s only hoisted 161 threes in his career. The Sixers could certainly use more perimeter shooting and Korkmaz doesn’t have too many obstacles on the path to becoming that guy.
Who do you believe is most likely to have a breakout season?
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