Seltzer's Notebook | Embiid's Return to KU, Saric's 3-Point Shooting

by Brian Seltzer Reporter

Embiid Back on Campus

Joel Embiid’s spirit? At an “all-time high,” according to Brett Brown.

Can you blame the big man? Here’s how his last three days have gone.

Contract extension Tuesday. Dominant pre-season debut Wednesday. Homecoming to college campus Thursday. 

The afternoon following his 22-point, 7-rebound effort in just 14 minutes, 45 seconds of action against the Brooklyn Nets at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Embiid was back in the cozy midwestern town of Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his freshman NCAA season at the University of Kansas.

Speaking to a throng of local reporters once the Sixers’ practice at famed Allen Fieldhouse had wrapped up, Embiid reflected affectionately on his experience at the school.

“It was a great feeling,” Embiid said of being back on the 63-year old venue’s hardwood.

The 7-footer averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks in 23.1 minutes for the Jayhawks during the 2013-2014 campaign. That season, he appeared in 28 contests before going on to be selected third overall in the draft by the Sixers. 

“I love this place so much,” said Embiid. “This is where it kind of all started for me. Without coming to this place, I don’t think I’d be the third pick, or with the Philadelphia 76ers, so I’m really thankful.”

Embiid said his original plan Thursday was to accompany his teammates on a 1:00 pm bus from their hotel to the arena, but once back on campus, he found resisting nostalgic temptations difficult. So, the big man walked over early, meeting up with his sister, who attends KU, and his former coach, Bill Self, along the way.

When spotted on his stroll, Embiid was acknowledged with the familiar refrain of “Trust the Process.” He said that atmosphere at Kansas is what he misses most.

“The culture, the fans were amazing over here,” Embiid said. “Playing in this crowd, 16,000 people just cheering, it’s insane. You can’t even hear.”

Prior to Thursday, Embiid had visited Kansas only twice since his student-athlete days. Once the Sixers learned they’d be playing a pre-season game against the Miami Heat in Kansas City, making the 45-mile trek west to Lawrence became a no-brainer. 

“We looked at it, and we were that close,” said Brown. “We thought it would be very appropriate to visit this historic place.

“It was a great practice. I think the team appreciated, and certainly respected, where we are.”

Embiid, who was undecided on his major at Kansas, said he has future plans to complete his degree there.

Pullen, Too!

When it comes to basketball in Chicago, there’s no shortage of tradition, passion, or talent.

Having grown up in the Windy City, Jacob Pullen, a Proviso East High School product, knows this well, his old games there drawing sizable crowd.

Now 27 years old, the shooting guard played collegiately at Kansas State, about an hour and a half west of Lawrence, and remembers well the moment he realized just how much the Sunflower State loves its hoops.

“I really didn’t understand it until my freshman year playing against KU at home and winning that game, then coming and playing KU here,” said Pullen. “I realized it’s a real rivalry. It’s a real deal. There are a lot of people that take pride in and enjoy these games.”

Pullen appeared in 135 games in four seasons at K-State, hitting 299 3-pointers during that time. After enjoying stints with multiple European clubs the last six years, he’s spending preseason with an NBA team for the first time in his professional career.

“You look at it as a great opportunity. It’s been a journey, a great journey. I’ve had a lot of culture. I grew up a lot. I’ve spent a lot of time over there, and enjoyed it.”

Saric Focused on Stretching Floor

There’s a good chance that if Brett Brown had read the write-up of Wednesday night’s game at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, he might have a bone to pick.

We’ll readily admit it - we were caught up in the excitement stirred by Joel Embiid’s pre-season debut, and his subsequently captivating performance.

Why, though, would Brown take issue with our coverage of a development as encouraging as that?

If a copy editing audit were taken, it would probably reveal that we devoted a few more words to Embiid than Dario Saric. And as happy as Brown seemed to be with Embiid’s auspicious output, the fifth-year head coach also wanted to make sure Saric, the other member of the Sixers’ 2014 draft class, got some love, too.

Brown’s point was more than valid. Saric had a terrific night.

It was no coincidence that shortly after Saric subbed in with the Sixers trailing 17-7 in the early going, the team enjoyed a reversal of fortunes, closing the first quarter on a 23-5 surge. That the Croatian started his evening 1 for 4 from the field, while missing his first 2 3-point attempts, was no matter.

At the outset of the second period, Saric flicked the switch. He banged down a pair of triples in less than 60 seconds, then two more by the 8-minute mark. Through his rebounding and ability to create deflections, the 23-year old proved to be an active, spirited presence on the opposite end of the court, too.

Saric ultimately went for 15 points in the second quarter, missing just one of his six shots. He added 2 more points in the third, before tacking on his final 7 in the fourth frame. His evening ended with a game-high 26 points, a mark he reached only four times last year.

Saric’s accuracy from the perimeter, where he went 5 for 8, seemed to be especially pleasing to Brown.

“We said, ‘You have to make threes at a higher rate,’” Brown said Wednesday, discussing the off-season challenge the Sixers issued to the 2017 Rookie of the Year finalist.

The reason Brown and the Sixers want Saric to up his 3-point efficiency is so that he evolves into an even greater floor-spacing threat. The points of emphasis assigned to the forward were to get his legs into his shot more, and increase the arc of his shot by 6 to 8 inches.

“He’s got to stretch the floor,” said Brown. “Once you stretch the floor, your world and our world changes, and he’s done that. He’s really invested time doing that.”

Indeed Saric has, particularly during the time he spent with the Sixers over the summer, and in his EuroBasket stint with the Croatian national team as well.

“I’ve been focused to work on my 3-point shot,” Saric said following the Sixers’ 133-114 victory over Brooklyn. “Sometimes, you have good days, sometimes you have bad days, sometimes it’s about if you get open shots.”

Wednesday was very much a good day. Here’s a look at Saric’s shot chart. 

In 2016-2017, Saric hit 106 threes, third-most among all rookies. His shooting percentage from 3-point territory was 31.1.

For context, find below Saric’s shot chart from last season.

“I think I’ll be fine when I fix [my range] a little bit,” Saric said Wednesday. “Today, I think I [found] myself. I start 0-2, and after that, I say don’t be scared. Just keep up the shooting form, just continue to play. That’s what I did.”

The approach certainly worked.