The walls of the basketball court at the 76ers practice facility on the Camden waterfront were lined with onlookers Thursday when Kentucky guard Malik Monk arrived for his private workout with the team. The Sixers had scouted Monk in college, obviously, and attended the pro day hosted by his agent, but this was their gym, their rules and their agenda.
Along one wall, head coach Brett Brown was flanked by Steve Donahue of Penn and Fran Dunphy of Temple, whom he had invited in to add their impressions. Ownership was spread across another wall in folding chairs, not far from the front office staff of Bryan Colangelo and assorted friends and associates of the organization, even including Gene Shue, an eminence grise from another era. In the sideline area between the two main practice courts, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons stood and watched the workout intently, and some other players took it in from a balcony above the court.
If being the singular focus of the entire building bothered Monk, it was part of his job not to let it show, but even for an elite basketball player a setting like this is unusual. They play a team game and perhaps the spotlight narrows when the outcome is on the line and a shot goes up or a defensive stop has to be made, but there are still others out there wearing the same uniform.
This time, he was the only one in the white shorts with the blue trim. Even the three men on his “team” in the four-on-four scrimmage were part of the testing process. Assistant coach Billy Lange drew up sets for the offense, but the ball was always designed to go to Monk, whether spotted up or coming off a screen or at the roll end of a pick and roll. It was just motion basketball of the most basic screen and cut variety, but it was played at a vicious, physical pace and with Monk the rat being chased endlessly through the maze.
Monk was defended by assistant coach Lloyd Pierce, a full-grown man twice his age who knows a little about the demands of being a combo guard in college. Monk had to adjust his game to fit alongside De’Aaron Fox at Kentucky, and that required some give and take. Pierce played two seasons next to Steve Nash at Santa Clara, and that will make you develop some combo very quickly.
The funny thing about Monk, and maybe the funny thing about deciding what a player might become in the future, is that he entered Kentucky a year ago with the reputation as a slasher and rim finisher who needed to work on his mid-range and long-range accuracy. As he enters Thursday’s NBA draft, he is considered the best pure shooter on the board, with his other attributes in the back seat.
Did he change that much, or are perceptions merely leaves that blow in the wind of circumstance? If Monk didn’t play next to Fox, with John Calipari giving Monk the main job of spreading the floor from the perimeter, the scouting report might read a lot differently. If Monk had chosen to play for Arkansas — rather than breaking every basketball heart in his home state — he might enter this draft as a preeminent, if somewhat undersized, transition guard with the entire 94 feet as his highway.
At the Sixers workout, the right-handed Monk got to the basket and finished well with both hands (an ability attributed to breaking his right collarbone early in life). He fought off Pierce, who bodied him relentlessly, used screens properly, handled extremely well, even in traffic and changing directions, and made good passes to targets that could only be identified by great court vision and anticipation. What he didn’t do, go figure, was shoot the ball particularly well. If fact, not well at all in the scrimmage portion.
What did it all mean when it was over and the folding chairs were empty and everyone shook Monk’s hand and thanked him for coming? Presumably, it was another set of images to place within the organization’s collective decision-making bank. At one end of the opinion spectrum, Monk is going to be an all-star, three-point machine in a league that is increasingly dependent on them. At the other, he will be a nice scoring option off the bench. The Sixers, who hold the third pick in the draft and desperately need perimeter shooting, can spend that pick on one of those, but not on the other. Franchises rise and fall on getting these calls correct.
It’s very unlikely the team will trade out of its spot for multiple first-round picks. For one thing, the Sixers have two first-round selections in 2018 and two in 2019. (And very well might have two in 2020, one coming from Oklahoma City, depending on various protections.) That’s a lot of youth to cram onto an already young roster, and a lot of rookie contracts that would expire around the same time. It is far more probable the Sixers will move first-round picks rather than take on additional ones.
So, in the specific case of Malik Monk, the question is whether he is the best player to answer their greatest need, or not good enough to make them pass on someone else whose anticipated skills aren’t as exact a fit.
Unfortunately, the answer won’t come on Thursday. That’s merely when we find out what the guess is. The answer comes after it’s too late to change your mind or schedule one more workout just to be very sure.