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Potential or Production: The Looming 76ers Draft Question

By Bill Gorman, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer

Over the past two seasons, the Philadelphia 76ers have made it an organizational priority to add defensive specialists through the draft. Head coach Brett Brown highly values players who can play defense, and the organization has surely made strides in adding players over the last two offseasons, beginning in the 2018 NBA Draft, that fit his defensive philosophy. 

The team selected Villanova forward Mikal Bridges with the 10th pick of the 2018 NBA Draft. Bridges was thought to be a potential three-and-D player with lockdown potential and the ability to shoot 40% from beyond the arc, all while also possessing enough ball handling skill to run a team’s offense in short spurts. He had also played three years of college basketball, meaning he was seen as a ready-made NBA prospect.

Many 76ers fans desperately wanted Bridges, not only due to the description above but also because he played his college ball for a local juggernaut that had won two NCAA titles in three years. Sadly for them, and Bridges’s mother (a human resources executive for owner Josh Harris’s Apollo Global Management), Bridges was traded to the Phoenix Suns for the rights to  Zhaire Smith, an athletic wing who played for Texas Tech, as well as the Miami Heat’s unprotected first-round pick in 2021. Smith was raw, having played power forward despite his 6-foot-4 frame. However, he flashed a ton of defensive upside on the perimeter and enough of an offensive game to overlook a difficult position shift at the NBA level. 

Smith's career has not gotten off the ground heading into his sophomore season. He was sidelined for the majority of his rookie year after having an allergic reaction that threatened his life. He is beginning this season down in Delaware playing for the 76ers' G-League affiliate. While in Delaware, he will be able to get consistent playing time to further develop his game on the floor. 

The team also selected Landry Shamet, a senior guard out of Wichita State, with the 26th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Shamet dropped somewhat in the draft due to a recurring foot issue, but was productive during his tenure with the Shockers and projected as a high-level outside shooter who might provide enough playmaking to act as a secondary ball handler. He is the one exception to the 76ers using the draft to add players who specialize in defense.

Shamet played most of the season with Philadelphia, averaging 9.2 points and shooting 40.4% from three-point range. He was then sent to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the trade that sent Tobias Harris to Philadelphia. 

In 2019, the 76ers again made a draft day trade, this time moving up from No. 24 to No. 20 in the first round to select Matisse Thybulle, a senior guard out of the University of Washington. Thybulle was known for being a defensive maven, having won the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award and back-to-back Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year titles. He is an active defender with a high basketball IQ which allows him to be a pest in the passing lanes and force a lot of turnovers by the opposing offense. 

Thybulle has been an excellent defender thus far in his rookie season (keep in mind it has been an extremely small sample size). He is averaging 1.5 blocks and 3.0 steals in 21.8 minutes per night this season. Ever since training camp, Thybulle has been proving to be a defensive force, constantly playing aggressive defense and disrupting the passing lanes. 

After the “end of the Process” (a phrase used lightly because I do not believe the Process ends until we are watching a parade on Broad Street), teams like the 76ers have a major decision to make when it comes to how they use their draft picks. When your team is not actively trying to win, you can take a ton of chances on long-term projects to see what pans out. The entire point of the Process was to get as many shots at drafting players as possible, and former general manager Sam Hinkie really worked that angle as hard as he could.

However, when your team is actively working towards a championship, as the 76ers currently are, the task of choosing the right players in the draft becomes trickier. Do you take the high-risk, high-ceiling younger player like Smith, who will be on a cheap contract for four years as you try to develop him, or do you take the less-talented but more reliable options like Shamet and Thybulle? 

While you may derive greater long-term benefit from a player like Smith who has the potential to become an active defensive fiend with the ability to cut off ball and destroy teams in transition, it is a better option for teams who want to compete today to select the older player. Shamet’s abilities drew the eyeballs of executives around the league and he became the linchpin of the trade that brought Harris to the 76ers. Thybulle’s play through training camp, the preseason and thus far in the regular season has led many analysts, amateur and otherwise, to opine that he is the steal of the 2019 draft. His fellow rookies even voted him as the best defensive player in this year’s class. 

Finally, and I am sending this message directly to general manager Elton Brand: Take a long hard look at juniors and seniors who have been productive in college rather than focusing on potential. The potential for this team is today.

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