7 for 6: It’s TJ’s World, We’re Just Living in It

This week on 7 for 6: The longest tenured Sixers packs his bags, Nerlens Noel has a chat with Adrian Wojnarowski, and TJ McConnell beats the New York Knicks

1: TJ McConnell: Starting Point Guard

Sergio Rodriguez has been dealing with an ankle injury for the past two weeks, opening the door for TJ McConnell as the team’s starting point guard. And frankly, he’s been solid in that role. He’s started the last five games, six total for the season, and in those starts TJ is averaging 9.3 points, 9.2 assists, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per contests on 47/37/75 shooting splits.

The highlight of this stretch was undoubtedly last night’s game winning buzzer beater against the Knicks.

What McConnell lacks in athleticism he makes up for in high iq and effort every night. More importantly, the Sixers are 5-1 in games that he starts. He’s even a slightly better defender than Sergio (McConnell’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus is only a 0.2 at the moment but still higher than Rodriguez’s -1.8. TJ also collects more steals; 1.4 per game compared to 0.9 for Sergio).

Will McConnell ever be a starting point guard? Probably not, unless he improves his shooting in a major way. But he is absolutely a serviceable back up point guard, one who could fill in for an injured starter like we’ve seen as of late. With the Sixers’ gaze focused on guards for the upcoming NBA draft, McConnell has done a lot to assure himself at least a backup role should the team land a star point guard like Markell Fultz. For now, we should just appreciate what TJ brings to the table.

2: Hollis Thompson Waived

Since 2013, the first year of the Sixers’ rebuild, there hasn’t been many consistencies in Philadelphia. A revolving door of fringe D-Leaguers, trade fodder, and injured players made sure that each year’s squad consisted of some new faces. But one face has remained since “The Process” began. Well, had remained.

Last week the Sixers waived forward Hollis Thompson, the longest tenured player on the team and last player left from the 2013-14 season. Thompson, 25, averaged 7.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, and shot 39% from three during 3 1/2 seasons in Philadelphia. He made the 7th most three point shots in team history.

Thompson went un-drafted in 2012 and played for the Tulsa 66ers in the NBA D-League before signing with Philadelphia in 2013. While not a statistical force, Thompson was a steady bench presence for Philadelphia and the organization held him in high regard.

“He’s gone through every second of it with me. You look across at him and there’s a respect and there’s a fondness that you can’t help but have for Hollis Thompson. I feel like somebody’s going to pick him up. I don’t feel we’re going to see Hollis removed from the NBA” Brett Brown told reporters last week.

This season has been Thompson’s worst in Philadelphia, however. He averaged just 5 points and his shooting percentages dropped across the board. With the improved play of Nik Stauskas and first round pick Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot slowly seeing more playing time, there weren’t enough minutes to go around for Thompson. So I will say, on behalf of all Sixers fans, thank you for your time here, Hollis.

3: Noel on The Vertical

Nerlens Noel made headlines again this week when he appeared on Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast The Vertical. In an interview that lasts over half an hour, Noel talks the team’s crowded front-court, the regime changes during his time in Philadelphia, and his recovery from an ACL tear before stepping onto an NBA court.

It’s a great interview, and surprisingly not as harsh as I was expecting. Noel could have torn into the Sixers’ front office, but he was largely restrained. Even when asked some leading questions but Wojnarowski, Noel never threw any one person under the bus. His attitude is a far cry from the frustration that boiled over to the media last month. It could be a matter of seeing more playing time lately or trying to make the best of a difficult situation, but overall Noel seemed to be in a better place during this interview. Be sure to give it a listen.

4: No No and Jo Jo

Speaking of Noel he’s finally settled into the rotation at the expense of Jahlil Okafor, who was benched for 4 of the last 5 games. It has been apparent all season that Okafor was not a great fit alongside Joel Embiid. Noel, on the other hand has fit pretty well with The Process. In The Vertical interview, Noel mentioned that he thinks Embiid and himself can be a great duo on the court. And I’m inclined to believe him.

Noel has started incorporating a mid range jump shot to his game. (Granted 8/13 is a small sample size, but his mid range and free throw percentage is better than previous years, suggesting a better shooting form).

Shot chart via Vorped.com

Shot chart via Vorped.com

Embiid can stretch the floor because of his shooting, and Noel is athletic enough to switch on defense and guard players near the perimeter. It will be interesting to see how much those two play at the same time moving forward, especially if it means a continued absence for Okafor.

“We’ve experimented trying to play some bigs together. I want to continue to try to look at Nerlens and Joel more than we have,” Brown said on the radio earlier this week. ” I think that we have seen quite a bit of Joel and Jahlil, [but] we have not seen enough of Nerlens and Joel together. We will.”

Some fans may be clamoring for the Sixers to trade one of their big men, but I don’t think a move will happen until the deadline at the earliest. This is the first time we’ve seen Embiid play with Noel and the sample size is still small. Deciding who to keep will be predicated on who can fit better next to Embiid. So far, Noel has the edge.

5: The Curious Case of Joel Embiid’s pump fakes

Joel Embiid gives us something to talk about just about every week. This time I want to focus on a move that he usually does every game; pump fakes at the three point line.

It’s no secret that Embiid likes to shoot threes. He’s launched over 75 of them this season and hitting around 36%. Not bad at all for a center, much less a rookie. Because of his shooting ability, defenders have to respect his range. when Embiid is given space he will let it fly. That’s hard enough for most big men to close out and defend well. But Embiid has added a wrinkle that makes his outside shooting even more valuable. Almost as often as he shoots, he will pump fake and put the ball on the floor.

Now, this can be good and bad. Embiid is explosive enough to finish at the rim and smart enough to find teammates if his path is cut off. However, it doesn’t always end well. From time to time Embiid will travel, have the ball stolen, or just pass up an open look.

You have to take the good with the bad since Embiid is still so young. Regardless of the efficiency at this stage, it’s impressive  for someone his size to have a move like this in his repertoire and more often than not it ends with a bucket. His three point shot has opened up the rest of his game, and Embiid’s driving ability is sure to gain some polish as he grows.

6: A Big Shot for Bob

We’ve followed the shooting struggles of Rob Covington all season. Although he’s still struggling from beyond the arc, Covington manages to contribute in other ways (defense being the most obvious). Brett Brown has recognized the hustle and given his forward plenty of time to shake off the rust. Most importantly, Brown still trusts Covington to perform late in games, as evidence by his game winner against the Timberwolves last week.

The best way to break a slump is to regain confidence. It’s clear that the team has confidence in Covington, and he hasn’t let the boos deter any self confidence either.

“Hey, these fans can boo all they want,” Covington said after the game. “I’m never going to stop playing, no matter what, so that’s my mentality. That’s what I always do, no matter what. My teammates got my back.”

It’s a good attitude to have, and will surely lead to more chances for success in the future.

7: Progress of the Process

We finish today with a factoid that should give a lot of Sixers’ fans hope. On Sunday, Philadelphia defeated Brooklyn 105-95 to earn their 10th win of the season. It was their third win in four games. More than a solid victory, their 10th win matched the total from last season (and last night they surpassed that total with a 98-97 victory over the Knicks). They didn’t get their 10th win until their 78th game last season. If that’s not a sign of progress, then I don’t know what is.

The reason for success this year? It’s a number of things; the addition of Joel Embiid, Ersan Ilyasova, Daric Saric, and Gerald Henderson, as well as improvements from Nik Stauskas and TJ McConnell. No matter how you split it, it’s clear that the Sixers are just a better team than they were one year ago. And with Ben Simmons inching closer to a return, things are certainly on the upswing.

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