The Philadelphia 76ers have a nice young core working. They’ve got promising players at a number of positions, all under the age of 25. The 76ers have invested a lot in this group. Not just in draft and money, but the opportunity cost of what they could have had. There have been a number of reports about what happened in the broken down 76er’s James Harden trade. Most involved at least Ben Simmons, Tyrese Maxey and multiple picks. Some speculated Matisse Thybulle as well. Harden is a franchise defining player, and he’s fit in perfectly with the Brooklyn Nets so far. Did the 76ers make a mistake in keeping their young guys?
Let’s take a deeper dive into the five young members of the 76ers that could define the future of the franchise, all under the age of 25. Ben Simmons, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Tyrese Maxey and Isaiah Joe.
Ben Simmons (24)
The biggest name of the core group, the All-NBA player, the man seen as the key to the future with Joel Embiid, Simmons star has faded of late. The former first overall pick has been in the league for four years and is a good player no doubt about it, but he’s not the player that the 76ers hoped for. Or paid for, after signing him to a max contract. To be fair, max contracts are different when you have the player’s rights, but it’s still not ideal.
The strengths of Simmons are clear. He’s fast and powerful and he’s got a great eye for passing, especially on the move. He’s a wizard in transition, and has tremendous size for a primary ball handler at 6’10″. Simmons has also become a fantastic defender, picking up a first team all-defense last year. 24 years old, two all-stars, a third team All-NBA and one of the best defenders in the league? What’s the problem?
The problem is the development of Simmons on offense. His well documented total aversion to shooting threes is becoming more of a problem each day. Not just threes, Simmons really doesn’t have a jump shot at all. His first three years his points per game were 15.8, 16.9 and 16.4. Very similar numbers. His offensive start this year has been worse, averaging just 12.3 points per game. Simmons is reportedly dealing with a knee injury, but it’s hard to know what the effect is. Simmons just hasn’t developed his offense game much. He can’t shoot, doesn’t have a true post game, and his ability to break people down on the dribble besides overwhelming them physically is lacking. His half court ability leaves a lot to be desired and it’s just not getting any better.
Still, Simmons as he is right now is a valuable asset. He’s a triple double threat every night. Though he may not score a lot, he gets assists and rebounds in bunches. Simmons going downhill and dishing to open three point shooters is a formula that just works, and he’s one of the best defenders in the league. You just have to temper your expectations from the next coming of Magic Johnson to bigger Draymond Green. If the rest of the team is good, that is an invaluable position. The 2016 NBA Championship turned with Green out for the Warriors.
Shake Milton (24)
A potential Most Improved Player of the Year candidate, Shake Milton has been the hero of the season so far along with Joel Embiid. He’s been an incredible scoring punch off the bench. He went from playing 20 minutes a game last year as pretty much just a 3-point specialist to an all around scoring threat in 2021. Milton’s driving aggressively and finishing at the rim, scoring 16.9 points on 50% from the field. With that, he’s getting to the line more, and he’s converting from there as well. More importantly, he’s doing it by himself. 56.9% of his shots are unassisted, a team high mark. He’s creating for himself and doing it well. Not only that but he’s creating for others, averaging the second most assists on the team at 3.7.
Defensively he’s been better. He has a natural advantage with his long wingspan and he’s using it for the first time. His DBPM (Defense Box Plus/minus) is a positive for the first time in his career, and he’s fourth on the team.
It’s not all good Shake town however. While his overall scoring is up, his 3-point percentage which was a key part of his game last year has taken a step back. He’s taking more threes but not making any more and his percentage has plummeted by 10%. Again, he’s having to create off the dribble for himself more, but he went from a sniper to below average.
Regardless Milton’s development has been incredible. It could be a hot streak, but he’s been playing so well in so many ways and the sky seems almost limitless. When asked about Milton’s play last time out against the Grizzlies, his coach and teammates were glowing in the post game interview. Tobias Harris called him a three level scorer, while Simmons and coach Doc Rivers praised his aggressiveness. It looks like Milton’s turned a massive corner, and is proving to be an incredibly valuable asset. The 76er’s have been dying for another guy that can create his own shot to pair with Embiid, and they may have found him in an unlikely place.
Matisse Thybulle (23)
The defensive specialist out of Washington, Thybulle was last year’s first round pick. He’s still doing his thing. Thybulle struggled to find minutes in December but since then he’s regained his spot. He averaged 19.8 minutes as a rookie, and is at 17.3 in January. Not too shabby considering the extra players the 76ers got, including a guy that fills a similar role to him in Danny Green.
His defense is still there. He just makes so many plays while on that end of the floor. Just like last year, on a per 36 basis he’s near the top of the steals leaderboards and at the top of the blocks for non-bigs. He’s first in DBPM on the team and would be at the top of the league if his minutes were higher. While his on ball defense can still improve, his sheer defensive playmaking is already at the elite level.
The problem with Thybulle is his offense, just as it was in college and when he was drafted. He always projected to be just a three point shooter in the pros, but his already average 3-point shooting has dropped this year. His attempts are low enough that a hot run will turn that right around. I’m just not sure it’ll ever be a consistent weapon. It’s hard to have a Tony Allen type in the NBA right now, and he’s not quite the on ball stopper that Allen was. His ceiling is a Danny Green-esque player if he can get a handle on the deep ball, and prime Danny Green is a fantastic, useful element that every team loves. It’s not there yet. But the defensive instincts he’s already got aren’t teachable.
Isaiah Joe (21)
The player with the least amount of playing time on this list, Joe has been no less promising in his short career. The 76ers wanted a three and D player with Joe, and so far he’s fit the bill. Just like a player further down this list, Joe has definitely played more than he was supposed to and he’s been good. He didn’t play much in the beginning of the season when the full complement of players was available, but he’s earned minutes with his solid play. He’s shooting a good 39% on threes, and he’s letting them fly without reservation. Per 36 he’s firing off 9.2 of them.
There’s two parts of a three and D player, so let’s talk about D. Defense was a part of Joe’s game in college, but it wasn’t clear exactly how it would translate, and he wasn’t necessarily a lockdown defender even in the NCAA. He’s quick enough, he’s got long arms, but his weight has always been a problem. He’s around 170 pounds, too light for the NBA. However, in limited action he’s been solid, and he’s shown good instincts. His defense on this play against Tyler Herro, last year’s rookie sensation, was something to behold.
Tyrese Maxey (20)
What an absolute steal Maxey has been so far. Pressed into service far more often than he expected due to the tumultuous season, Maxey has answered the call. On January 9th, the 76ers were forced into battle against the Denver Nuggets with just seven players. Maxey was forced into a starting role for the first time in his young career. He absolutely delivered, turning in one of the best starting debuts ever. 18/33 from the field for 39 points. Even crazier, he didn’t go to the line once to get any of his 39. His scintillating start has continued. In his five starts he’s averaging 19.4 points per game.
Maxey’s ability to drive and finish close, especially his floater has been outstanding. It was a go to move for him in college, and nothing changed in the pros on that end. He’s been dynamite at the rim, shooting a big-man-like 66% from there. Anywhere closer than 16 feet has been money for him, showing a bit of range to his game as well.
Based on what I just said you can probably guess what Maxey’s issue is. The three point shot was a worry in college. It is still a worry now. He’s not taking many, but even those few he does aren’t going in. He’s shooting just 28% from range, not encouraging. Maxey is still young and has time to improve of course, and if he adds that he becomes an elite scorer. Secondly, most great scorers get to the line. As nice as it was for Maxey to prove he doesn’t need it against Denver, an inability to get to the line with how much relies on driving is a problem. He’s averaging less than one free throw per game. The players with the lowest FTA of the top scorers are snipers from deep or big men. Maxey is very clearly neither of those.
Still, Maxey has been incredible for being just the 21st pick in the draft. CBS ranked him 1st on their rookie power rankings and he’s deserved every bit of it. For a rookie to show such poise so early on with a truncated offseason is magnificent. Multiple reports suggested that the 76er’s were loath to offer him in a trade for Harden because of his crazy potential. There are clear improvements he can make, and if he does a star is born.
The Right Choice?
Whether the 76er’s decision to not trade their young budding stars for Harden was right or wrong won’t be known for a few years. Harden would have been a massive boost to their title chances no doubt. But maybe with these guys they can make a dynasty. There’s certainly something there to build on. Let’s not forget that Joel Embiid is just 26 and has been an MVP front runner so far. Even Tobias Harris, their third max player, is under 30 and looks like a new man under coach Rivers. The team is young, ready to compete right now and possibly for a good long while.