The most important predraft workout conducted by the 76ers might have taken place on Monday more than 3,000 miles from the team’s Camden practice facility. While home base has welcomed a stream of potential draft picks so steady and long that Bryan Colangelo was still there to greet the first group, the meeting on Monday was between one player who has already been drafted and one coach who needs to decide if that was a horrible mistake.
Brett Brown flew to Los Angeles to meet with guard Markelle Fultz, the top pick in last year’s draft, and to observe his progress as he recovers from whatever physical and emotional issues made Fultz a first-year bust. Fultz is doing his work in California with trainer Drew Hanlen, but as long as it isn’t the genius guru who had him shooting with a weighted ball or while sitting in a chair last summer, it is probably a step in the right direction. For their part, the Sixers have no doubt demanded more oversight this time around.
It can be assumed that Brown’s mission was not just to watch Fultz but to encourage him to take part in summer league play this year. High draft picks rarely are asked to play a second summer-league season, but high draft picks rarely contribute less than T.J. McConnell, either. Still, there is a pecking order of entitlement that goes with the territory, and Brown has to deal with that, even if it makes no sense whatsoever.
Of course, getting some run with rookies, role players, and wannabes in Las Vegas doesn’t usually mean all that much. Far more important might have been Brown’s observations on the court Monday. He knows a little something about shooting, and knows his team needs more of it, and also knew he was three days from running a draft room that would need to define its priorities.
When the draft opens Thursday, the organization will have decided if it needs to draft a teammate for Fultz or a replacement. Planning for a future without the former No. 1 pick in the draft is not lightly done, but the very core of Sam Hinkie’s Process philosophy was that not every big swing will result in a home run.
Just in the last several seasons, the Sixers have moved past four players who were selected by someone among the top 12 picks in the draft and acquired here to hopefully fulfill that promise. (Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Nik Stauskas, and Jahlil Okafor are on that list. You could technically add Gerald Henderson, but he was older and in a different situation.) Another four players taken that highly remain on the roster – Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, and Fultz. (Like Henderson, you could technically add Jerryd Bayless to this second group, but let’s not.) That balance of hits and misses, about 50-50, is close to the success percentage Hinkie would have predicted. If Fultz also falls into the discard pile, that wouldn’t disturb the overall probabilities even if it seems like a momentous failure at the time.
The biggest factor allowing Brown and the Sixers to contemplate life without Fultz is that Colangelo is gone. Failure is often an orphan within sports organizations, but the deposed general manager can be given paternity in this case. If Fultz ultimately represents Colangelo’s biggest basketball goof here – surpassing the preposterous contract awarded Robert Covington – then those left behind can rectify it without suffering the blowback themselves. (Colangelo was sensitive to the end about this one, asserting in his season-ending news conference that landing Fultz cost the team only one first-round pick, not two, which is math that gets better marks for creativity than accuracy.)
Undeniably, it’s still possible Fultz could shake off his woes like a dog exiting the water, and the Sixers would be loathe to see that happen for another team, so any real cord-cutting will likely be delayed. Fultz isn’t exactly a valuable asset at the moment, anyway. Still, the Sixers, with the No. 10 and No. 26 picks in their pocket, will need to narrow their primary target. Will it be a forward with a good outside shot and the ability to defend on the perimeter, something dreadfully lacking in the Boston playoff series? Or will it be a guard who can fill it, defend, and share some ballhandling with Simmons? It has to be one or the other.
If the Sixers don’t get Villanova’s Mikal Bridges, who would be a perfect fit capable of being a full-time backcourt player in the NBA, I’d prefer to see them trade down into the middle of the round, where a fleet of rangy shooting guards are going to fall. My personal favorite at the moment is Jerome Robinson from Boston College, but I’d also be happy with Miles Bridges from Michigan State, who should transition easily to guard in the league, or ‘Nova’s Donte DiVincenzo, although his overall defense will be a work in progress.
Moving down in the draft, or moving up, perhaps in conjunction with trades for players already in the NBA, will require deft maneuvering from a new front office hierarchy that has never faced these challenges. It might be a lot to expect everything to go smoothly.
That’s why having those priorities in place ahead of time is the best way to proceed. What do we have? What do we need? It is also why the most important meeting of the week took place in Los Angeles between a player who needs to play and a coach who suddenly needs to do more than just coach.