Seltzer's Notebook | Kerr Commends Sixers, Several Prospects Enjoy Strong Trip
Kerr Weighs In on Sixers
Sustained winning at a championship level driven by a nucleus consisting of homegrown talent. Such is the model the Golden State Warriors, like the San Antonio Spurs before them, have followed in recent years while ascending to the top of the NBA. The blueprint is one that the Sixers, like many of their other peers throughout the league, aim to replicate for themselves.
While the Sixers are still very much in the early stages of their development, they’ve managed to play the veteran Warriors tough during the Steve Kerr coaching era, and Tuesday’s 106-104 setback was no different. The past five meetings between the two clubs - all of which have gone to Golden State - have been decided by an average of 6.6 points.
“They’re getting the most out of what they have for sure,” said Kerr, when asked about the Sixers Tuesday at Oracle Arena. “We just played them two weeks ago, and they gave us a battle [the Sixers lost to the Warriors 119-108 at The Center on February 27th].”
Both Kerr, now in his third season leading the Golden State bench, and Brett Brown share similar coaching influences. Towards the end of his playing career, Kerr had a pair of stints with the San Antonio Spurs while Brown was serving as an assistant under Gregg Popovich.
Kerr said he loves the way the Sixers play.
“I think they play a lot like we do, actually - with the ball movement, the cutting, the spacing,” said the 2016 Coach of the Year. “Obviously, they’ve had all the injuries over the last couple years, and Brett has kind of kept them together, and kept them playing hard and competing every night. So it’s really impressive.”
Kerr feels that once the Sixers have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons back in the fold, the club will likely see its progress advance that much more swiftly. Kerr also considers Dario Saric to be a key piece. The rookie forward ended up churning out 25 points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals, and two blocks Tuesday at Golden State.
“I do know that Saric is a hell of a player, and he’s fun to watch,” Kerr said. “Fits the modern NBA game, he can step out, make threes, he can pass, he can put it on the floor. Good looking young player. Obviously, Embiid was dominant at times when he was healthy.”
Full strength or not, the Sixers have remained competitive for the better part of the 2016-2017 campaign. As a result, they’ve already secured the highest win total since Brown’s arrival in the summer of 2013.
“It feels like the ship has turned for that franchise, slowly but surely,” said Kerr. “It takes time, but it feels like they are heading in the right direction.”
Okafor Impresses Out West
Before Jahlil Okafor even took the court Tuesday at Oracle Arena, Brett Brown was willing to put his stamp of approval on the 21-year old’s efforts out West, saying, “He’s been excellent on this road trip.”
Then, Okafor proceeded to turn in another strong showing, going for 22 points against Golden State. The center had a particularly productive first half, posting seven points in the first quarter, before tacking on nine more in the second. His 16 points at intermission were second only to the 19 generated by Warriors' shooting guard Klay Thompson.
While he didn’t do as much scoring after the break, Okafor continued to have an impact as Tuesday’s tilt moved along. During a breakout third period that saw the Sixers’ lead balloon to 16 points, he delivered two key blocks and an assist that helped his squad string together 11 straight points, and seize control.
“He’s amazing to me,” said Brett Brown, praising Okafor for staying focused on the tasks at hand this season, despite the uncertainty that, at times, has surrounded him. “He just knows that he’s got a bunch of people that care for him, he’s got good teammates, he’s got a coaching staff that really coaches him hard.”
And Okafor has responded. He capped the Sixers’ four-game trek with back-to-back 20-point showings, a first for the big man in a year during which his playing time has, up until recently, fluctuated.
With Joel Embiid sidelined for the rest of the season, and Nerlens Noel traded to Dallas three weeks ago, Okafor’s responsibilities have been on the rise. His output has increased accordingly.
Since assuming full-time starting duties following the All-Star break, Okafor has averaged 15.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, while shooting 53.0 percent from the field. Furthermore, his defensive rating during this stretch (107.5 opponent points allowed per 100 possessions) has been second-lowest on the Sixers’ roster.
Another noteworthy development of late has been Okafor giving the Sixers dependable free-throw shooting from the five-spot, as Embiid did before him. In nine appearances on the heels of All-Star weekend, Okafor has converted 85.7 percent (30-35) of his attempts from the line. The final two outings of the Sixers’ road trip, he went a combined 13 for 15 at the stripe.
“His heart and his head are in the right place,” Brown said. “He’s been empowered again, and he’s sort of more in the limelight.”
As Okafor’s second campaign enters its home stretch, Brown remains appreciative of how the Duke product has handled himself. The head coach said Tuesday he now has a “whole other vision line of who [Okafor] is as a person.”
“My respect for him grew to another layer, and I think this trip, we’re seeing somebody that’s playing, he’s a good teammate, he’s become, I think, more and more a leader.”
Out on the other side of the country, Okafor certainly looked the part.
Maturity, Past Experiences Benefiting Some Up-And-Comers
As promising to Brett Brown as it was to see the Sixers rediscover their signature scrappy, no-quit style of play out West, the fourth-year head coach was encouraged by several other developments from the club’s trip as well.
He liked that the team, shorthanded while facing quality competition, managed to maintain a semblance of schematic organization.
Brown also was pleased to see youngsters Dario Saric, Richaun Holmes, and Timothe Lawau-Cabarrot further put themselves in position for a strong finish to the season.
For Saric specifically, the road trip provided the latest stage for the Croatian to strengthen his Rookie of the Year bid. During the Sixers’ four-game trek, he accounted for 24.5 points per game (52.1 fg%, 44.0 3fg%), 7.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.5 steals in 37.1 minutes per game.
Brown believes that Saric more and more has shown signs of being able to bring a complete, well-rounded skill set to the Sixers’ frontline.
“You can point to a bunch of places,” said Brown, “but where it ends up is a package, and I think it’s both sides of the ball. There’s an offensive side, and there’s a defensive side that I just think he’s getting more comfortable in his own skin.”
According to Brown, Saric’s increased playing time since the February 23rd trade deadline, along with past professional experience overseas, have combined to expedite his development.
“What people might forget is he’s played with men,” Brown said. “Although he’s [an NBA] rookie, he has played with men for many, many years. I think the physicality and the speed of the [NBA] game, those types of things, aren’t as daunting. It doesn’t catch him off guard. His background has allowed that.”
After Brown made those comments during Tuesday’s pre-game media availability at Oracle Arena, it was hard not to wonder how some extra seasoning at advanced levels of the sport might have benefited the likes of Holmes and Luwawu-Cabarrot, too.
Holmes, the Sixers’ 23-year old back-up center, was a four-year college player, while Luwawu-Cabarrot, two months shy of his 22nd birthday, was first introduced to European pro leagues in 2012.
“I noticed from day one, immediately, when you coach Richaun that he was a four-year player,” said Brown. “We’ve coached so many one-and-done guys, and the difference between a four-year college player and a one-and-done guy is massive. At almost every level you can bring up - mentally, physically, experience - it just all is sort of weighted completely.”
Holmes’ week on the West Coast was highlighted by a career-best 24 point display Saturday against the Clippers. The next day, Luwawu-Cabarrot punched in 18 points, also a personal high, versus the Lakers.
“I think that similar to Dario, Timmy has played against men,” Brown said. “The European guys that come over here, it’s not like they haven’t played against adults. Not to the extent that Dario experienced, but a little bit of the same flavor, Timmy has done that. I think that now, similar to Dario, where I’m starting him, and you’re playing him more minutes, and those types of things happen that he too is feeling confident in his game, and we’re seeing tremendous improvement at the right time of the year.
“I think we’re going to look back and say for the 24th pick chosen in the NBA draft, that’s a really good first year in the NBA.”