Cooney: Sixers beginning to shape up

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Joel Embiid (right) hugs T.J. McConnell, whose buzzer-beating basket lifted the Sixers over the Knicks on Wednesday night.

THE FACT that it was Shirley Temple night at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday lets you know just how young this 76ers team still is.

The promotion was tied into center Joel Embiid, who admittedly has an addiction to the sugary concoction. He talked at length on Friday morning about his introduction to the drink, how his fondness grew while at the University of Kansas, and his desire to cut back on his intake.

Funny stuff. Kid stuff. That's where the Sixers are right now as far as age and maturity when it comes to the real world. They're still sort of there on the basketball court, too, but maturation and hope seem closer around the corner than at any time.

The signs are all around, but they begin with the cornerstones of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. After those two, it's filling out the rest of the roster to best surround their talents, and it appears to be coming together, unlike the shapeless puddle that has been the past three seasons.

"Way more so, but for me it's still a ways away," said coach Brett Brown. "For sure more so. There is still so much to be learned and so much to be filled in if you want to go where we want to go. I think the reality and the certainty that we all have in Joel, that he is something unique and special. We believe Ben is going to be in that same species, that same genre. But we haven't seen him. You feel like that's going the way that we hoped that it would. And then you start feeling other things out. What's going to happen with Jahlil (Okafor) and Nerlens (Noel)? What's going on with the wings. We're going to try Ben at point. How's that going to work? So all over the place, when you really set the bar as high as we have, there is a lot left to be learned and done and improved upon.

"But it's a heck of a lot clearer now than it ever was."

It is clearer because, aside from the superstar potential of Embiid and Simmons, Brown has seen the always clouded future become a little more focused. There are key veterans sprinkled about in Gerald Henderson and, though hurt, Jerryd Bayless, players who most likely will be here again next year. Should the draft and, perhaps, free agency go the way the Sixers want, they could be two key backups. Dario Saric has shown, more times than not, that he will be a key role player moving forward, as his versatility will allow Brown to use him in a variety of ways.

There is the progression of Robert Covington, especially as a perimeter defender, and T.J. McConnell and Nik Stauskas. Future stars? No, but perhaps valuable bench producers when those holes Brown spoke of are filled. It can't be understated how important a strong second unit is for a good basketball team. This time next year, the Sixers could have one of the better ones in the league.

The growth is obviously important, but so are the lessons they've been learning over the past week or so, and that's grasping how to win games. They found another way Wednesday when T.J. McConnell buried a baseline, spinning 10-footer against the reeling Knicks for a 98-97 win in a game they trailed by 17 at one point. It was the team's fourth win in five games.

For this Shirley Temple drinking group, the growth process lends a lot to the brightness that many see.

"I do think it's headed in the right direction," said Noel, a witness to all the losing the past three seasons. "I do think winning games, you start envisioning what it could look like. With the addition of Ben, we will kick it even more into start. It's early in the season and we could grow even more. With this team, there are a lot of guys who have a lot of different skill sets on the court and have a real feel for the game. I think this team is the best team that I've had and been around since I've been here. You can see something is around the corner.

"We've got a lot of pieces and spots filled up, like Dario. I think he's going to be a great player and fills a lot of voids. Ersan Ilyasova is a knock-down shooter. T.J. has made a lot of strides in how he can manage a game. We are getting there."

The Sixers still need a shooter or two. If Simmons is handling the ball, there needs to be a defender of the opposing point guard. Who is running with and behind Embiid?

As Brown said, still many gaps to be filled but also many solid possibilities filling the roster.

"It's a good thing with Joel and Ben, and once with Jah and Nerlens we figure out the whole situation with that and how it's going to pan out, it's scary where this team is going," said Covington. "We're doing so much and we're playing the guys that we're playing. Once we have our full team and once we're playing and rolling, that's going to be it and even more to look forward to in the future because it's scary what we're capable of. We're young, we're gifted and we've got a team that never quits. The future is bright for us.

"I've seen Joe Joe put in the work for two years and I always said that once he stepped onto the court it was going to be a problem (for opponents). And that's what has happened. He's a matchup problem for a lot of bigs because he's so versatile. He can shoot, he can score in the paint, he can take you off the dribble. There's just so much that he can do."

And for the first time in his tenure, there's a lot that Brown can do. It's not all there yet, but way more than at any time over the past three years.

You can raise a Shirley Temple to that.


cooneyb@phillynews.com

@BobCooney76

Blog: philly.com/Sixersblog

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