Unpacking for Camp | Brown Ready to Lead Team into New Phase

PHILADELPHIA, PA - There were plates of burrata and bowls of meatballs aplenty to be passed around.

Grills sizzled, while pasta dishes were prepped.

The smells were great, and the mood inside Barbuzzo, the Yelp-approved Center CIty restaurant where Brett Brown hosted his annual pre-training camp media lunch, settled in accordingly. The 76ers’ productive off-season was a big reason why.

For this year’s luncheon, Brown decided to mix up the format a bit, inviting his boss to join him. In the past, these events have been presided over by Brown, and Brown alone. But as the head coach told reporters Wednesday, he’s appreciate of the partnership he and Colangelo have forged, and wanted Colangelo in the room to address matters about the Sixers as well.

“I’m proud to have you here,” Brown said to Colangelo at the outset of Wednesday’s event, as the two shared a handshake and a hug.

So, with Colangelo seated to Brown’s right, a 90-plus minute Q-and-A session proceeded to unfold. Together, the duo presented a unified front, and sent an aligned message - the Sixers have positioned themselves to redefine recent history.

More so than has been the case entering previous training camps, Brown and Colangelo believe, the team has positioned itself to move closer to fulfilling long-held goals like post-season berths and championships (yes, in the plural tense). Neither man was willing to quantify where he thought the Sixers might be in seven or eight months, but each projected undeniable, reasonable optimism.

Brown, for his part, was willing to say that, on first glance, the team has a “real chance for greatness.” Colangelo, meanwhile, called the Sixers an organization on an “upswing.”

Brown thinks that taking the franchise to the next level is right in his wheelhouse.

“To me, this is why I was hired,” said the 56-year old Brown, who started with the Sixers in August of 2013 after helping the San Antonio Spurs to four titles as an assistant under Gregg Popovich.

“We’re in a different phase right now,” Brown said about the Sixers. “We’re going in, I think, a different direction than we have the past four years.”

Over the course of Wednesday’s lengthy sitdown with the press, Brown, with Colangelo providing input too, outlined how and why.

For starters, there’s Ben Simmons, the rare, 6-foot-10, 240-pound specimen with bulldozing strength, and a precise, artistic passing touch. Not only has the 2016 No. 1 pick been part of full-court, 5-on-5 pickup during a series of voluntary workouts this month, he’s been “dominating the gym,” per Colangelo.

In fact, Simmons, who missed all of last season with a fractured right foot, has been doing 5-on-5 pickup throughout the off-season. What Brown has observed from his office along the sideline of one of the practice courts at the Sixers’ training complex - “beachfront property,” he calls it - has only reinforced the promising signs Brown saw in Simmons as the Aussie was coming up through the ranks.

In Brown’s eyes, Simmons, with the combination of his vision line and intelligence, has the chance to be a top-flight passer. He also boasts possible game-changing tools. Wednesday, Brown gushed over Simmons’ athleticism, uncanny breakaway speed, and “elite” first step-and-a-half.

“Baseline-to-baseline, there is a thing we’re referring to as ‘Bolt’ when we talk to Ben, where [he] is Usain Bolt, and off you go” said Brown, throwing out a reference to the gold medal Jamaican sprinter. “It’s jaw-dropping, at times, his ability to cover ground.”

Initially, Brown expects Simmons, “Australian grunt” and all, to make his biggest impact on defense, given his ability to guard multiple positions. In respect to Simmons’ offensive game, Brown isn’t dwelling on the 21-year old’s jump shot at the moment. Of greater interest to Brown is that Simmons get the job done at the foul line, which he visited 297 times (4th in the NCAA) as a college freshman. The hope is for the LSU product to convert about 73 percent of his free throw attempts this season.

“That’s what the month of September mostly showed to me about Ben,” Brown said.

As for the person who followed in Simmons’ pedigree as the first pick in the draft, Brown has found another source of encouragement. Fresh-faced Markelle Fultz has impressed the Sixers so far with his humble, kind, coachable demeanor, and natural offensive game.

While Brown said Fultz needs to add “NBA weight” to his 200-pound frame, the first-year guard’s body design - particularly his wingspan - has wowed the coach.

“What do we see on first glance?,” said Brown, “I see a person, a real person. I see somebody that is incredibly gifted, and the game comes easy offensively. I see somebody who will be challenged defensively, especially as it relates to NBA point guards. And then how does he navigate NBA seasons and the rhythm of an NBA season at 19 years old, we will all learn more about.”

At one point during Wednesday’s lunch, Brown shed light on how he thinks Simmons and Fultz could share ball-handling duties this season. In static, half-court situations, Simmons will likely initiate. But, in jailbreak, open-court transition scenarios, Fultz could be the one Brown calls upon.

These days, no forecast for the Sixers’ upcoming 2017-2018 season is complete without accounting for the biggest man on the roster. To no surprise, the status Joel Embiid was one of the most prominent subjects discussed Wednesday.

Heading into training camp, which begins Tuesday, Colangelo said the plan is for Embiid to participate in the team’s first practice. The Rookie of the Year finalist continues to advance towards 5-on-5 training, and Colangelo said the center’s currently “doing a lot on the court...more so than you would imagine.”

His first season in the NBA cut short after 31 games because of a left knee injury, Embiid is sticking to a “hyper-conservative progression towards returning,” explained Colangelo.

Of critical importance to the Sixers is that Embiid’s recovery program be “criterion-based.”

“Once he hits certain levels as prescribed by our medical team, he’ll be cleared to resume full basketball activities,” said Colangelo.

Monday, Colangelo named C. Daniel Medina Leal the Sixers’ new Vice President of Athlete Care. Moving forward, Colangelo said the club will take its cues on Embiid’s rehab from Medina, who previously ran FC Barcelona’s medical and sports science department. Medina will now do the same for the Sixers.

Beyond Simmons, Fultz, and Embiid, Brown and Colangelo have identified plenty of promise in other places. Robert Covington, a vote-getter for 2017 Defensive Player of the Year honors, is back, with Brown viewing him as someone who will start and end games.

Dario Saric, on the heels of a Rookie of the Year-worthy season himself and excellent EuroBasket run, should give the Sixers an even more polished, sharpened Swiss Army-type version of himself compared to last year.

“When you say, ‘Where does he fit in?’ I’m saying, ‘Anywhere we want,’” Brown said of Saric.

The signings of JJ Redick and Amir Johnson, plus a clean bill of health for Jerryd Bayless, give Brown a welcomed stable of veterans capable of contributing immediately. Wednesday, Brown couldn’t thank Colangelo enough for the additions.

“These veterans have a rhythm to their life, a rhythm to their day, and the routine they show our players is so much different than a coach saying it,” said Brown. “They lead tremendously through example.”

As Brown wrapped up Wednesday’s meal, the Sixers were a mere six days away from the start of their four-day camp, and two weeks out from their pre-season opener. He seemed to be comfortable with the notion that increased talent and resources typically mean increased expectations.

Figuring out how to make the whole thing come together is a task Brown sounds eager to embrace.

“This is why you coach,” he said. “You can do it under threat, or you can do it for the challenge.

“This isn’t a mystery to me of what that actually means, and the difficulties and the responsibilities that equals.”

But it is a new for Brown in Philadelphia, and that, in and of itself, is cause for a different kind of exciting intrigue.

Check back over the next couple of days for new installments to our ‘Unpacking for Camp’ series.