Sixers Rookie Shake Milton Is Trying to Carve Out His Own Space in the NBA

Two large boxes full of chicken wings - some eaten, some presumably to be devoured soon -  two boxes of apple juice, two pairs of shoes and a pile of sweaty clothing sit a few feet from rookie Shake Milton about 80 minutes before the Sixers are scheduled to tip off against the Raptors on Saturday night.

None of the items are his; Milton's locker is next to Joel Embiid's. 

"It's been good," Milton told NBC Sports Philadelphia of being next to the Sixers' All-Star center. "He's a big guy. Has a lot of stuff, too. Try to make your own way, kind of carve out your own space, per se. But he's been cool."

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Though Milton's locker is alongside Embiid's, he didn't occupy it very much until these past couple weeks. Milton's two-way contract means he can't spend more than 45 days with the Sixers this season, but he's played in each of the team's last seven games. He made a three-point shot from the right wing on the first touch of his NBA career, in garbage time of the Sixers' win Nov. 30 over the Wizards.   

"It's a great feeling," he said that night of his first experience playing in front of Sixers fans. "Philly has amazing fans. If you're not playing well, if you're kind of half-assing it, they're going to really let you know about it. As long as you're out there playing hard, they're going to support you 100 percent." 

Shake's Sixers connection 

Milton was recruited by Larry Brown to SMU and played his freshman season for the former Sixers coach. Brown was suspended by the NCAA for nine games during the 2015-16 season for multiple violations, including unethical conduct and academic fraud, and the Mustangs were banned from postseason play. In July 2016, Brown resigned as SMU's head coach.

"He was tough on you," Milton said of playing for Brown, "but at the end of the day, you knew that he cared about you and you knew that he would stand by you, go to war with you. He was somebody that I know I could always come to no matter what. He was more than a coach to me."

Milton played the next two seasons for Tim Jankovich before declaring for the NBA draft, increasing his production each year. He averaged 18 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists as a junior, shooting 43.4 percent from three-point range.

He still credits Brown for giving him confidence in himself.

Adapting to a new role 

Projected by some experts as a first-round pick, the 6-foot-6, 207-pound Milton slipped to the tail end of the second round. He was selected No. 54 by the Dallas Mavericks, then acquired by the Sixers in exchange for the 56th (Ray Spalding) and 60th (Kostas Antetokounmpo) picks.

"You try not to even worry about those things because of course everybody wants to get drafted," Milton said. "At that point, you're celebrating how far you've come, trying to be thankful for what you have. But it's definitely motivating. It definitely makes you want to work that much harder just to prove that you belong, prove to yourself that you belong."

In his limited opportunities, Milton is trying to show he has a future in the NBA. He's averaged 22.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists in nine G-League games. With the Sixers, he's played 44 minutes across eight games and has 25 points on 9 for 18 shooting (5 for 10 from three-point range), six rebounds, six assists and, incredibly, zero turnovers.

Most of those minutes have come when the game is already out of hand; Milton has either been a de facto human victory cigar, as he was in Saturday's win over the Raptors or a symbolic white flag, like in the Sixers' blowout loss to the Spurs last Monday.

When head coach Brett Brown turns to Milton for a few minutes in a close game, hoping for production from his thin bench, Milton insists there's no added pressure to show he's worthy of playing time, to demonstrate why he deserves to be in the league.

"No, not at all," Milton said. "At the end of the day, it's basketball - it's what you've been doing your whole life. Being with the Sixers, they're not going to ask me to shoot 30 times per game or give me lots of iso plays or anything like that, so it's just about being a star in the role that I have right now."

A big part of Milton's role is intangible - providing energy off the bench. 

During his time with the Sixers, Robert Covington loved pumping the crowd up when opposing players were at the foul line during the second half. As part of the Sixers' "Frosty Freezeout" promotion with Wendy's, all fans in attendance are eligible for a free small Frosty the next day if an opponent misses two straight second-half free throws. 

After Covington was traded to the Timberwolves as part of the Sixers' trade for Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton, the torch was passed to Milton.

"Cov did a great job of getting the crowd going and getting the fans free Frosties," T.J. McConnell said Dec. 10. "Unfortunately he got traded, so it's the next man up mentality in that aspect. We gave Shake the promotion and he's done a great job."

Milton probably didn't envision high-fives and free Frosties being key parts of his job description in the NBA, but he said he's embracing it all.

"I guess it's the role that I've been placed in, it kind of allows for that," Milton said. "T.J. does a great job of pumping us all up and making sure we're all bringing the correct energy we need. Like I said, it's just about being a star in your role, in the situation that you have, and that's what I'm trying to do." 

A ‘super cool' name 

Whenever Milton scores at Wells Fargo Center, you hear the refrain from KC and the Sunshine Band's 1976 classic "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty."

Yeah, his name draws a lot of attention.

First, the origin: His father, Myrion, had the nickname "The Milkman" when he played basketball at Oklahoma Wesleyan and Texas A&M. Myrion's son Malik became known as "Little Milkshake," then just "Shake," and the name stuck. Myrion died when Shake was a freshman in high school.

The odds are Milton is the first "Shake" most people have ever met - he's probably going to get questions about his name for the rest of his life. That doesn't bother him.

"No, I think it's super cool," he said. "I think I have one of the coolest names. I like it a lot. I'm glad I have it."

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