Cooney: Sixers' new point guard critical to big men's progress

THE 76ERS' past three seasons can't be measured in wins and losses, in their eyes. The plan that former general manager Sam Hinkie put in place was to strip the organization to its core, acquire a plethora of draft picks and then start the rebuild.

While the foundation for the rebuild seems to be taking shape, other problems arose during 246 games that produced 199 losses. In Brett Brown's first season as coach, he oversaw Michael Carter-Williams run the point well enough to be named rookie of the year. It was thought that MCW would be the team's point guard of the future. But Hinkie didn't see it that way and unloaded Carter-Williams at the trade deadline of his second season.

Since then, the point-guard revolving door has spun wildly, spitting out many, many players who are no longer in the league. And now, that revolving door has brought Sergio Rodriguez back into the league.

Yes, the original goal was to accumulate losses, in a competitive way, so that high draft picks could be garnered. Maybe what Hinkie didn't see, however, was that not having a true point guard at any time hindered the progress of his big men - Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, among others.

Noel's offensive game was suspect from the moment he entered the NBA out of Kentucky. After being sidelined his first season while recovering from knee surgery, Noel did nothing his first year on the floor to make people believe he would make his offensive game much more than it was - someone who could catch lobs and get an occasional put-back.

But in the middle of his second season, Hinkie signed Ish Smith and Noel's improvement at the offensive end was remarkable. Smith was able to get Noel the ball where he was most effective. They comfortably ran pick-and-rolls. There seemed to be a connection between guard and big men that hadn't been here since Brown arrived. But the team didn't bring Smith back to start the next season, and Noel and Okafor struggled mightily to figure out how to coexist at the offensive end. When Smith was finally brought back near the holidays last season, the offense immediately was better. But Okafor then tore the meniscus in his right knee, ending his season, and the possibility that he and Noel would learn to play together with a true point guard was washed away.

New team president Bryan Colangelo was keenly aware of how not having a true point could stunt the growth of his big men. So he decided to bring back a veteran to the league in Rodriguez, a first-round pick of Phoenix in 2006 (27th overall) who played five seasons in the NBA before heading home to Spain to play. He last played in the NBA in 2010. He is now back as a heady 30-year-old who was a key part of the Spanish team in the Rio Olympics. All the slender, 6-3 Rodriguez has done this preseason is run an offense to perfection and guide Joel Embiid through his first NBA minutes. He'll no doubt help Okafor and Noel, as well, once they return from injuries - Noel to his groin and Okafor's knee.

In the three games this preseason, Rodriguez has shown he is the type of true point guard whom big men love playing with.

"He's really helpful," said Embiid, who will still be on a 12-minute limit for Tuesday's preseason game in Memphis. "When we play, he always talks to me and tells me where I need to be and how to get position. It's big. He's been in the game for a long time, so he kind of knows. He has played with good big men and he just knows the game."

Rodriguez has an old-school game. He won't wow with quickness or speed, but he has just the right amount of juke in his game to keep defenders at bay. He sees the floor the way a point guard should and his high IQ is contagious. It is something sorely lacking the past three seasons, and we can't measure how much it might have hindered the young big men.

"He really knows how to play and so it helps, always, a lot," Brown said. "He has played a lot of basketball, high-level basketball, and I think he thinks like a point guard. He sure passes like a point guard. The challenge for us and him is going to be always guarding NBA point guards. He's so important because not only is he a point guard, but he is a point guard who can shoot. I think the intellect and the ability to space is really important."

"I always like to help the people that play next to me, especially the big guys," said Rodriguez, who had 15 points, eight assists, two steals and no turnovers in 27 minutes against Cleveland on Saturday. "For me, it's easy to play with them. All I can do is try to talk to them, find out where they are comfortable on the floor and to help them in that way.

"We have to figure out how things are going to be (with Embiid). I try to help my teammates and coaches. I think communication is a big part of our job, especially a point guard. I try to be as vocal as I can be.

"I saw him play a few times in college. I know people told me what he's capable of doing. I saw highlights of him in the summer, and I was pretty excited to play with him. It's going to be huge for us - how we involve him on the floor and how he develops is going to be key to our team."

In that regard, Rodriguez might be just as important to the progression of Embiid as the 7-2 center himself.


cooneyb@phillynews.com

@BobCooney76

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