GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. - There is an affinity for ice-cream flavors for a couple of sports bigwigs in this town. Eagles vice president of football operations Howie Roseman, talking before the NFL draft about which of the top two quarterbacks the Eagles would land with the No. 2 pick, said he liked vanilla and chocolate, meaning either Jared Goff or Carson Wentz would be fine.
In his three years overseeing the 76ers, you could feel coach Brett Brown's frustration with being unable to dive into defensive schemes and multiple offensive sets, simply because he didn't have the talent to execute properly. Describing his non-complex style, Brown always used the word "vanilla."
Oh, there were times he would draw something up late in the game when his team needed a basket, probably something he carried over from his years spent on the bench with Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. But when his players took the court and needed to get the ball from A to B to C, with an option of D, the play rarely got to the B part.
That all very well could change for the team this season, as Brown is surrounded by legitimate NBA talent, a luxury he hadn't been afforded.
A quick look at the end of a scrimmage Tuesday at Stockton University proved that. Point guard Sergio Rodriguez commanded the floor, firing no-look passes after a dribble drive. Jahlil Okafor perfectly executed a pick-and-roll and then a wonderful baseline post-up that led to an easy layup. The vibe in the gym spoke volumes about the upswing in talent. Players are bigger, faster, stronger, smarter. Better.
In rookies Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, Brown will have a pair of 6-10 players who can grab a rebound at the defensive end and convert it into an instant fastbreak. He has knowledgeable veterans in Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson. He has a group of young players whom he has had a chance to watch grow, and can now figure out how to implement them into what he's going to do this season.
Robert Covington, with Brown for the third season, will be the team's best shooter. Third-year pro Jerami Grant is looking to continue his improvement, especially at the defensive end where the 6-8 Syracuse product has become an elite shot-blocker. Nik Stauskas, Hollis Thompson and T.J. McConnell will supply help and comfort for Brown.
And then there's the problematic big-man trio of Okafor, Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel, sprinkled with a little Richaun Holmes.
Winning is a priority this year, which certainly wasn't the case the past three seasons. Though the team played hard almost every night, management didn't assemble a group that would have many chances to pull out games.
But Brown toes a fine line this season. While many anticipate/hope for a season that can be as successful as a playoff possibility, that might not help the club in the long run. When you break it down, this is another season of development. Embiid, Simmons and Saric haven't played an NBA game. Okafor has suited up for all of 53. Familiarity might be a long way away, as might be Brown's ability to mesh the unit.
"I've been talking to coach a little bit, and he's been talking to me about stuff, and it's a tough situation," said Elton Brand, who is with the team largely to provde a veteran presence to the young players. "How much does he develop and how much does he try to win? Can he do both? That's his job, that's what he's got to try and do. But if you have a young guy who is a high pick or guys that haven't been around, they need to play and they need to grow, even if they're not succeeding.
"At the same time, if you're losing, you want to do anything to try to win. That's just the competitive spirit. If you choose to win, you may do it at the expense of not developing one of the top picks of the last few years. Maybe they aren't playing in the situation where you are trying to win a game, so then they aren't developing, but you're winning. Or you may go the development way and you need a guy to grow and (because of too much losing), you may not be around to see the fruits of that labor. You're the coach and you developed him and you lost (your job), and he becomes a stud because you've played him. It's a tough situation, but Brett will figure it out.
"In my mind, this is a development year. I'm not putting pressure on the young guys for a sixth, seventh seed. Yet. This is something that is in a developmental stage. But it's coming, and it's coming fast. In the imminent future, it's going to be a good team, a really good team, and competing for an Eastern Conference (title) and maybe beyond, soon. We have that kind of level here."
The obvious hope is for development and winning. Perhaps that's a possibility. Maybe the skills of Simmons and Embiid exceed expectations.
"I do think ultimately we will get there," Brown said. "Do I feel like we could get more creative and do more with this group of players that I have this year? The answer is yes. Yes, I do. But it won't speed things up for the first six sessions we have here in Stockton. We'll grow something we feel is solid and move it further along, from a creative standpoint and a variety standpoint, than perhaps we've been able to in the past.
"I feel like the difference between hope and hype sometimes is fine. The fact that we all feel that today is a new day with a new team, a new home that we're about to go back to when we get to Camden, they look around and they see what I see. We have talent, we have youth. We have positionally interesting players. There will still be some challenges, as we're all aware of, how we construct this, but, on the first day, you see a real bounce and a spirit with a group."
Perhaps a group that will make vanilla the flavor of yesterday.