Fultz could be the key for 76ers to take step toward title
PHILADELPHIA — Brett Brown made the bold decree that the Philadelphia 76ers would be “star hunting ” this summer.
Hope the Sixers coach made some nice trips to the local observatory.
The only stars the Sixers saw this summer were the ones that passed them by on the way to joining other teams. LeBron James’ camp gave the ownership group a cursory meeting on the same day he agreed to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers. No other major free agents showed a glimmer of interest in joining a franchise trending from history-making losers toward Eastern Conference contenders in just a few seasons.
In social media terms, the 76ers were blocked and muted. They even unfriended their own general manager.
Bryan Colangelo split from the Sixers as GM after, of all things, a Twitter scandal that found him guilty of sharing insider information with his wife, who used those details to criticize the Sixers and rival colleagues.
It was a stunning fall for Colangelo, a former two-time executive of the year who was expected to lead the improving Sixers into a key summer when they hoped to add an All-Star player to a young core that includes All-Star center Joel Embiid and rookie of the year Ben Simmons.
So without a GM or James, the Sixers turned to another part of Brown’s mission statement for offseason improvement: star developing .
There will be few players in the league dissected as much this season and 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz.
The Sixers started their talent-stripping Process with the hope of gobbling high draft picks that would turn into the franchise players. They seemed to strike NBA gold when they landed Embiid and Simmons. But Fultz was a head-scratching, head-case dud in his rookie season, where a mysterious shoulder injury, a broken shot and confidence issues sent him into a tailspin that ended with him benched for the conference semifinal series against Boston.
Should Fultz flash any kind of the potential that caused the Sixers to take him No. 1 out of Washington, then perhaps they can have the Big Three core they envisioned that would lead them to their first championship since 1983.
Another Fultz flop, and the Sixers could just be another Indiana or Toronto, stringing together nice enough regular seasons that don’t mean much with early postseason exits.
Fultz’s personal trainer attributed the shooting woes to a case of the yips. Fultz shot down the claim and said his herky-jerky motion could be blamed on a sore right shoulder. His form was reconstructed through a charted 150,000 shots this summer and he sent a Philly preseason crowd into a tizzy when he buried a 3-pointer — after not making one in limited action last season.
Fultz may never hit 3s like teammate and long-distance ace JJ Redick — but he shouldn’t be falling behind the 7-foot Embiid from beyond the arc.
“There’s zero hesitance and there hasn’t been for a month,” Brown said. “He might not have made all the shots, but he sure didn’t back away from any of them. It’s a statement. I think it’s a real statement.”
Here are some things of note as the 76ers prepare to take that step into Eastern Conference contention.
Brown, starting his sixth season, opened some eyes when he said the Sixers could make the NBA Finals. The Sixers snapped five straight losing seasons with a 52-30 record last season. The ended the regular season on a 16-game winning streak and won a playoff round against Miami before the Celtics knocked them out in six games.
“We work daily to try to go play in the championship, try to find a way to win a championship,” Brown said. “That’s the only reason I’m here. We don’t avoid any of it. I get the responsibility, owning that comment, but we’re not hiding from any expectations. We’re using it as motivation.”
With Colangelo out, the 76ers hired 39-year-old and former two-time NBA All-Star Elton Brand as GM . Brand is just two years out of the league and has limited experience in the front office.
He was a bit of a surprise pick but the Sixers wanted to hire from within and leave plenty of room for Brown to have a voice in the direction of the franchise.
Brand is just the fourth black GM in the league and had built a reputation as one of the classiest players in the league. Colangelo and former GM Sam Hinkie, who ignited the Process, would hide from the media and public. Brand said he’s willing to put himself out there as the face of the franchise — and take the PR hits, if needed.
If the Sixers are near the top of the conference at the trade deadline, does Brand have the gumption to make a big deal?
The Sixers had another PR misfire on draft night when they selected Villanova star Mikal Bridges, whose mother works for the ownership group, only to ship him after the photo ops had been completed to Phoenix for first-rounder Zhaire Smith.
Smith almost immediately joined a bumper crop of Sixers rookies (Embiid, Simmons, Fulz, Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric) who won’t play right away. Smith suffered foot and throat injuries and likely won’t make his debut until December.
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