Cooney: Sixers' bigs can only get better through competition

Sixers 3 bigs Okafor Noel Embiid 0614016
Three of the Sixers' young big men: Nerlens Noel (left), Jahlil Okafor (center), and Joel Embiid.

JOEL EMBIID had set a pick on the baseline and then popped to the foul line area to receive a pass. As he raised his hands for the ball, he accidently raked his huge right hand across the face of fellow center Richaun Holmes. After a quick check for blood, Holmes raced toward Embiid and continued the battle. It's impressive that Holmes could withstand the inadvertent swipe from the 7-2, 275-pounder, but that is what training camp is all about. No time for recovery.

A day earlier, while posting up Holmes and practically performing an eclipse of his 6-10, 245-pound teammate, Embiid couldn't find a way around the defensively skilled Holmes. An attempted spin move toward the lane was thwarted by a digging guard.

Watching the slimmer Noel play defense against the bigger Embiid and Jahlil Okafor, who also packs 275 pounds on his 6-11 frame, you get a lesson in finesse positioning as Noel feels and finds his way to ball strips and block shots.

Rarely has Okafor played basketball against a player who is much bigger than he is, the way Embiid is, or can keep up with his bountiful low-post moves, as Noel can do.

Yes, the biggest question surrounding this team - before it was discovered that Ben Simmons had fractured a bone in his right foot on Friday - is how Embiid, Okafor and Noel, all natural centers, can play together, if at all. It is the biggest dilemma facing coach Brett Brown and perhaps one that can't be solved. In the meantime, however, the three certainly will benefit from going against one another each and every day in practice.

Okafor, a potential dominant offensive force in the league moving forward, will go against two players who could become elite at their position in the coming years. How could he not improve what already is an overwhelmingly impressive offensive game?

And while Noel and Embiid continue to try and improve their offensive game, who better to absorb from than Okafor? While there probably is no possible way this organization will move forward with these three on the roster for an extended amount of time, Brown could be watching each of them extract an incredible amount of talent and knowledge while they're together.

"It went great," Embiid said of training camp, which broke Friday. The team will begin practice Sunday at its new facility in Camden.

"I didn't get to practice (Thursday), they had me take the day off, but it felt great. I went through the whole practice (Friday, Monday and Tuesday) and everything just felt great.

"I get it back more and more. (Friday) was a good day, especially going against Jah. It was great. It makes me elevate my game, and I'm sure he works on his game against me, too. It's great playing against him and it's good to have him. That's what I needed, because when we play, I don't really have anybody to guard on the post. I feel like nobody wants to post up against me, but I'm trying to work on my defense in the post, and that's what I did. He's a tough guy to guard and we went at it."

Though the media are not allowed to view a full practice, but rather only a handful of minutes at the end, you can't help but wonder how entertaining those battles are, along with being beneficial to everyone.

As important, there is a real bond among the three. Embiid is the practical joker, while the other two feed off his personality. While Noel might have caused a bit of a stir with his comments that it was "silly" that all three are still on the team, there's no tension evident among them. The youth in them allows a general likableness for one another and the professionalism of knowing that nothing good can happen through complaints and moping doesn't seem to be an issue.

"You just keep moving along," Brown said of keeping a special eye on Embiid and his surgically repaired right foot. "I try not to think too much about it. We all know his importance to our program and the work that he's put in, just on a personal level. There's a human side of all of this, for me, that you just want him to succeed, you want him to play. Forget even being a selfish coach. He's put in so much time through so much heartache that he deserves it. I look at it through that lens, as well. It makes the game easier for me, because you know where you need to go a lot at the end of games, and when things break down, he needs the ball and you need to play off him. Jahlil is a little bit the same way. For both of those reasons you're happy and Joel had an excellent week."

As for Okafor, Brown couldn't hide his praise there, either.

"He looked good. He had a great motor. The thing we talked about more than anything was coming in with just a high motor. What do you do when you script five-on-zero? Do you move? What do you do when we go up and down the court five-on-zero? Do you move? And his personality, his energy has been excellent. He's moved like a pro, all under the script that we need his motor. If we can get four- or five-minute clumps out of our bigs and they just go - they guard, the run, they guard, they run - I can turn that out, then that position is solid. I feel like he's bought into that."

Brown has constantly talked about the competitive nature the three possess. Games certainly will bring that out, but so will practicing against one another every day. For the time being, maybe that will outweigh the dilemma of finding enough playing time for all three.


cooneyb@phillynews.com

@BobCooney76

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