If the Sixers are going to improve upon last season's 52 regular-season wins and exit in the Eastern Conference semifinals, it will be because of internal development. Without any major offseason splashes to speak of, their immediate future hinges on what sort of strides their young core can make.
Understandably, most of the focus has been on Markelle Fultz's offseason work with trainer Drew Hanlen, and the buzz around his retooled shot. But what sort of development is realistic to expect from Fultz? Can Ben Simmons build upon a special rookie season and add a serviceable jumper to his versatile skillset? Is Joel Embiid capable of an MVP-caliber season? Those are all questions worth taking a deeper look at.
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There's plenty of optimism surrounding Fultz and his work with Hanlen.
Yahoo Sports' Jordan Schultz reported that, according to a league source, "Fultz's jumper is rebuilt and that [as] a result, the 20-year-old guard is a completely different, vastly improved player."
On his podcast, JJ Redick said he also had reason to feel good about Fultz's progress.
"By all accounts that I've heard both externally and internally from the Sixers, he has progressed and he's in a good place, mentally and physically," Redick said. "I think he's going to have a fantastic season."
That's obviously not surprising to hear from one of Fultz's teammates, but there's no question the overall vibe around Fultz's progress is positive. Since Hanlen has decided it's best not to showcase videos of Fultz shooting, however, we have no concrete evidence yet of Fultz's new and improved jumper. We also don't know yet whether he'll be able to translate the work he's done with Hanlen into game situations.
"What I can tell you is that he's doing very well," Hanlen said on Alex Kennedy's HoopsHype podcast. "I think that a lot of people think that we're hiding him and we're not hiding him. We're just being very strategic in what we share because obviously, you don't want to ever add pressure to a player when you don't have to."
While Fultz is clearly a unique case, there's an encouraging track record for young, talented players who either struggled or didn't contribute much as rookies.
Gordon Hayward (5.4 points per game), Paul George (7.9 ppg.), Dirk Nowitzki (8.2 ppg.) and James Harden (9.9 ppg.) all had underwhelming rookie seasons at 20 years old. Fultz averaged 7.1 points, 3.8 assists and 3.1 rebounds in 14 regular-season games. He also became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double, with 13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists on April 12 against the Bucks, at 19 years and 317 days old. He's far from a lost cause.
It's absolutely realistic to think Fultz will significantly improve upon his bizarre rookie season. But it's probably not reasonable to believe he'll become a star overnight.
Even if Fultz plays well at the start of the season, it seems unlikely he'd force his way into the starting lineup. In 600 regular-season minutes together, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Embiid, Redick and Simmons outscored opponents by 269 points. That's 100 points better than the next-best five-man lineup. You'd think Brett Brown would be inclined to keep that group intact.
An X-factor to consider when projecting Fultz's development is that he essentially had a redshirt year, outside of those 14 regular-season games and three playoff contests. After what amounted to two redshirt seasons, Embiid entered the NBA with skills we'd never seen him show at Kansas. Simmons was so impressive after his "redshirt" season that some argued he'd gained such a big advantage that classifying him as a rookie was unfair.
Though it remains to be seen whether Fultz's unusual quasi-redshirt year will be beneficial, Fultz said at his end-of-season press conference on May 10 that he picked up a lot just by watching from the bench.
"[I learned] a lot," Fultz said. "Even being in practice with these guys and then when I was sitting out, I was able to see stuff from a different perspective, see the guys that were open when we ran plays, see the defensive spots that we needed to be in, so it helped me a lot, more than I think somehow if I was on the court, so I'm very happy with what I learned over this period of time."
Matt Haughton already broke down many of the reasons why Simmons should be able to reach an even higher level in his second season here.
It's worth noting that, of the 68 players to win Rookie of the Year honors prior to Simmons, 53 went on to make at least one All-Star game after their rookie season. It's rare that a young player as talented as Simmons doesn't keep getting better, especially given how little he relies on his shot. Unlike some players who depend on their jumpers, there's nothing streaky or fluky about Simmons' all-around game.
As for that shot, Simmons is probably not going to start regularly stroking threes in games anytime soon, even though he sometimes does so after practice. We're talking about a player who shot 25 percent from 10 feet and out.
But Simmons is a smart player. He's not oblivious to the fact that having some sort of midrange jumper in his arsenal would make him "scary" to guard, and he should be working hard to implement that into his game.
Historically, there's some precedent for players who came into the league as non-shooters and ultimately became average or even above-average from long range. For instance, Jason Kidd shot 27.2 percent from three-point territory as a rookie, raised that to 33.6 percent in his second year, and finished his career at 34.9 percent from deep.
That said, for players who manage to develop a decent shot, it often takes time. John Stockton shot an abysmal 16.7 percent from three-point range over the first three years of his career and ended his career as a 38.4 shooter from long distance.
Al Horford made just 21 of 65 three-point attempts over the first eight years of his career. Like Simmons, he didn't make a single three-point shot as a rookie (or in his second year, for that matter). In the last three seasons, Horford is 271 of 724 (37.4 percent) from three-point range. He shot 42.9 percent from behind the arc last season. It took a while, but Horford eventually transformed his game. He thinks Simmons can make similar, gradual progress.
"He's already difficult to guard," Horford told NBC Sports Philadelphia during the Sixers' postseason series against the Celtics. "Like all players, we all make progressions. When I came in the league, I wasn't shooting much outside the paint. And over the years, I've expanded my game - you can say that about a lot of guys. And I feel like with him, it'll just be another weapon in his arsenal, that he will continue to develop that [jumper]."
Simmons doesn't need to extend his range to the three-point line to significantly elevate his game. He may start shooting threes one day, but for the time being, he should have improved confidence and proficiency with his midrange jumper.
Just in case you forgot, Embiid thinks he could have an MVP-level season in 2018-19.
"This season, this is my first year going into a summer healthy and I'm excited about it. I feel like next year is definitely going to be a type of MVP season for me," Embiid said at his end-of-season press conference. "But it starts with my body. I love being in the gym and I don't feel like taking any time off, so we're going to see how the summer goes."
Embiid was honest that day about not being in ideal physical condition last season, noting that, because he had to spend the offseason rehabbing, he came in "overweight" and struggled to get into peak game shape.
Outside of conditioning, Embiid has a few areas he's focused on. According to Hanlen, low-post dominance, three-point shooting and "playing on the perimeter slash taking care of the ball" are their three priorities this summer.
Embiid's three-point shooting regressed last season, as he shot 30.8 percent from behind the arc after making 36.7 percent of his three-point attempts as a rookie. Embiid feels "it's kind of disrespectful to leave me." But given the threat he poses in the low post, and his subpar three-point shooting numbers last season, Embiid is probably going to get a decent number of open looks.
With the opportunity he has to refine his stroke with Hanlen, you'd expect him to be an improved three-point shooter next season, even if he doesn't shoot quite as well as he did his rookie year, when his numbers were somewhat skewed by a hot start and the fact he only played in 31 games.
Though he committed 3.7 turnovers last season, Embiid's turnover ratio actually went down from 16.3 as a rookie to 13.8 in his second year. As he continues to get more comfortable being the focal point of the Sixers' offense and improves his face-up game, his turnovers should continue to decrease.
NBA players typically peak around age 26, so an MVP-level season would be a little ahead of schedule for Embiid. But with a full summer to hone his skills and his conditioning, it's not so crazy to think that, health permitting, Embiid will be a more dominant player next season.