By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Editor
The Philadelphia 76ers had an exciting preseason filled with surprises, blowouts and one game where the team fell flat. You might be thinking it's just the preseason and none of the stats, trends and performances matter. The regular season is just days away, but that does not mean that we learned nothing from the preseason.
Throughout the preseason, we were able to learn some things about a couple of the team's young players as well as seeing some potential concerns surrounding the team come into fruition.
Matisse Thybulle will be one of the 76ers' top bench players to begin the season
Very few people surrounding the 76ers thought they were drafting someone who would provide an immediate impact when they selected Matisse Thybulle in the first round of the 2019 NBA Draft. However, Thybulle quickly proved he was worthy of a spot in the team's rotation to begin his rookie season.
Thybulle did not have a defined role or spot in the 76ers' rotation heading into training camp. In the preseason opener against the Guangzhou Loong-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association, he exploded for two steals and three blocks in just under 17 minutes of action. That was only the beginning for the Australian native.
During the preseason, Thybulle continued to excel on the court, playing an attacking, smart style of defense resulting in him averaging 2.6 steals per game in the preseason. He was constantly disrupting opposing offenses by stepping in the passing lanes. His offensive numbers (7.2 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists while shooting 48.0% from the field and 26.7% from 3-point range) this preseason are pedestrian, but his special defensive abilities more than make up for the lack of offense.
Josh Richardson, a good defender in his own right, spoke earlier in the preseason about how impressed he has been with Thybulle's defense since training camp.
"I think he's great man," Richardson said. "I like his energy that he plays with every night. I think he has a chance to be one of the elite defenders in the NBA. He has instincts that you really can't teach. So I'm excited about him and I think he's going to be a great help for us."
Thybulle has the potential to be a special defensive player and that has earned him the role of being one of the first players off the bench for the 76ers to start the season.
Poor shooting: Should it be a major cause of concern?
One of the biggest concerns surrounding the 76ers heading into this season was if they had enough perimeter shooting. After losing sharpshooter JJ Redick in free agency, the Sixers are without a clear outside shooting threat. Many people were concerned about the team's lack of shooting, and the preseason did nothing to quell those fears and concerns.
This preseason, the 76ers were 23rd in the NBA in 3-point percentage, shooting them at a 31.7% clip. Of the players on the team who will receive high minutes in the regular season, only Mike Scott (41.7%) and Al Horford (40.0%) shot at or over 40% from beyond the arc. Josh Richardson shot 33.3% from deep, Tobias Harris shot 25.0% and Joel Embiid shot 22.2%.
Head coach Brett Brown believes the shooting concerns surrounding the 76ers are overblown and
"I think that we have better shooters than the marketplace believes," Brown said. "Those comments, my comments, aren't well supported when you look at the statistics in the preseason, but I do think that. I still think that and it's stuff that we need to believe in that and not shy away from it. I don't want to at all and we won't shy away from it. I think that the attention that we have given to offensive rebounding may help ease some of those misses if we can do what we hope to do from that perspective. But I think that we have better shooters than we have shown in the preseason."
Brown is right when he talks about the 76ers' ability to hit the glass, especially on the offensive end. But if they do not start to hit their 3-point shots at a higher clip, opposing defenses will sag off the 3-point line and make it harder for the team's big men to do their work inside the paint.
Some of the players on the 76ers' roster have shown throughout their career their ability to be able to shoot from outside at a high percentage. Harris is a career 36.4% shooter from beyond the arc, but has struggled mightily since coming over mid-season last year in a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers. If Harris can get back to shooting the way he has throughout his career, the shooting issues will not be a major cause of concern for the 76ers.
Josh Richardson stepping into the backup point guard role
When the 76ers traded away Jimmy Butler in a sign-and-trade with the Miami Heat they received Josh Richardson back in the deal. Richardson is a do-it-all type of player who has gradually been increasing both his production and his role on the court throughout his career. In his four years with the Heat, he has shown that he can fill a plethora of different roles on the court.
One role that coach Brown wanted to potentially use Richardson in was as a backup point guard when either Ben Simmons is off the floor or when the 76ers want to utilize him off the ball. Richardson has a career 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and his calm demeanor on the court is what the Sixers are looking for out of the point guard position.
Brown originally wanted to ease Richardson into the backup point guard role, grooming him for the playoffs (a time when teams limit their rotation to only eight or nine players). However, with Simmons missing a few games throughout the preseason due to lower back tightness, Richardson had a bigger opportunity to play some point guard during the preseason.
Against the Detroit Pistons, Richardson put together a masterful performance while leading the 76ers' offense. He totaled six assists while committing only two turnovers. Brown spoke after that game about Richardson's play at the point.
“He was very comfortable running a team,” Brown said. “Without many, if any reps running certain plays, he just was able to do it. It really surprised me and I think it’s just one of those things that we feel aggressive in trying to be, think outside the box.”
Richardson showed he has the ability to play some point guard when needed, effectively adding an exciting new wrinkle to the offense.
Lack of continuity can hurt the 76ers' starting lineup early in the season
The 76ers have added two key starters to their lineup this offseason, Josh Richardson and Al Horford. Last season, Philadelphia learned the importance of having time to build team chemistry, especially in the starting lineup. This preseason, the new-look starting lineup has only played together for two games due to a multitude of reasons (Simmons missing time with lower back tightness, Embiid getting a rest day, Horford getting a rest day).
The 76ers have a tough schedule the first month of the season that includes games against the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trailblazers, Utah Jazz and a few other of the top NBA teams. The lack of continuity in the starting lineup could come down to haunt the 76ers early in the season in these games against some of the league's top teams. For a team with aspirations of getting the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, they can not afford to get off to a slow start to the season.
This year is a development year for Zhaire Smith
For Zhaire Smith, training camp and the preseason has been filled with ups and downs. He began training camp playing well and in a competition for minutes with Matisse Thybulle. But Thybulle excelled and wound up with a top spot in the 76ers' rotation coming off the bench while Smith will potentially be packing his bags and heading down to Delaware.
Smith is an athletic player who can play shutdown defense, but he is raw and does not provide much as of yet on the offensive end. As a rookie, he missed most of the season after having an allergic reaction that almost threatened his life. He spent most of the season recovering and bulking up, and that missed development time is having a big affect on what his role will be this season.
"He’s expecting me to develop all around,” Smith said on Friday night when asked about Brown's expectations. “Last year we tried to develop, but then obviously I had the setback. He feels like this is my rookie year, like this is [about] development."
If this season is truly about his development on the floor, it makes 100% sense to send him down to Delaware. He will not be able to get consistent playing time for the 76ers to begin the season, something he will get if he gets sent down to the G League. However, there is plenty of potential there for Smith to grow and he will probably find his way back up the 76ers later this season.