During the Philadelphia 76ers’ first practice following the All-Star break, Ben Simmons felt some discomfort in his back. The team initially listed him as questionable for their game against the Brooklyn Nets before ruling him out after a pre-game warmup.
The official designation at the time was back tightness, a seemingly short-term nuisance. Concerns were further alleviated when Simmons was listed as probable for a showdown against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday before starting that game.
Sixers fans’ halcyon lasted no more than five minutes, as Simmons was sent to the locker room early in the Bucks game. He was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game and reports followed saying that Simmons would be given an MRI on Sunday.
On Tuesday, it was announced that Simmons had suffered a nerve impingement and would be re-evaluated in two weeks. The actual timeframe for his return to action will likely not be decided on until that re-evaluation.
With Simmons out for an extended period, the team will need contributions from an ensemble cast of ball-handlers. Brown was asked before the game about his decision on who will take the lion’s share of those duties. He answered that it will be “by committee,” citing Josh Richardson, Alec Burks, Shake Milton and Raul Neto as possible candidates.
Out of those four, Milton may be the best option. His combination of point guard skills and three-point shooting make him a good candidate to play with the starters as he did Monday against the Hawks.
Milton’s start was not the only surprise, as Al Horford was also moved back in the starting lineup after being relegated to the bench just before the All-Star break. The decision was prudent as that group got off to a hot start and powered the Sixers to a 41 point first quarter.
Milton was asked after the game about the conversation that preceded his starting nod.
“There was no conversation,” Milton said. “He just came in and slapped my name on the board, that’s how I found out.”
Milton was then asked whether there was any specific preparation for the role.
“No, but it’s my job to be ready for whatever the team needs me to do, I feel comfortable on the ball, I feel comfortable off the ball. When someone goes down, and you don’t want to see injuries, but it’s next man up.”
Milton looked prepared enough, albeit against one of the league’s worst defenses. In 26 minutes, he tallied 7 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists while tying for a team-high plus-21.
While Milton is a riskier play than veterans Burks and Neto, he has a clear advantage in upside. He has shown an improved ability to get to the rim this season and has flashed nice passing ability in tight spaces.
One of the keys to running the offense while Simmons is out will be the ability to get the ball to Joel Embiid on time and on target. Here, the Sixers run one of their more frequently used plays with Richardson setting the screen for Embiid to roll to the rim. The Hawks get caught up on the screen, Milton recognizes that Embiid has sprung free and makes the pass. It’s a tad high, but Embiid hauls it in and gets the layup.
The Sixers also like to run dribble handoffs with their star center. None have perfected it as JJ Redick did in the previous two seasons, but Milton could be useful in this action. This was not on display Monday night, but they have run it with Milton earlier in this season. Here is an example from an earlier contest against the Hawks last month.
Damian Jones jumps out to contest the shot, so Milton finds the rolling Embiid for the dunk.
The obvious caveat here is that both of the above clips were from games against one of the league’s worst defenses. Milton will face more resistance against other teams who will not allow Embiid to get a wide-open role to the rim, leaving Milton with the task of either driving or hitting the pull-up jumper.
His proficiency in those plays will certainly be a factor in his playing time. His passing overall is solid and maybe the best out the Sixers’ backup guard contingent. He can read defenses well thanks to his experience as a point guard through college and in his time in the G League. If he begins to flash close to the pull-up scoring ability of Burks, he will quickly rise to the top of this group.
On the other side of the ball, Milton has held his own. He came into the season with defense being one of his most apparent weaknesses, but he has worked to improve on that end and was tested on Monday against some solid offensive players. While Milton isn’t close to the defender that Simmons and Richardson are, his length and effort level can make him serviceable on that end.
Milton was even tasked with guarding Trae Young for brief periods. Young can make any defender look silly, but Milton managed to play him tight. In this play, he does a good job of sticking with Young around the screen and recovering to block the floater.
Of course, things are a little easier when a player of Embiid’s caliber is patrolling the paint. The perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate has been upping his defensive intensity the last few games, and on the above play makes Trae Young think twice about going all the way to the basket or attempt the lob.
Basketball Insiders asked Brown after the Hawks game about the confidence he has in Milton’s defense.
“He comes in and plays as if he belongs,” Brown said. “He can guard better than I originally thought. He’s got some legit point guard thinking in his psyche and I think he can guard multiple positions.”
And, further, on his defensive improvement:
“Just having a year being around players who are as good as they are,” Milton stated. “When you’re going up against guys like these every day, it forces you to get better and it forces you to work harder.”
Given the success in Philadelphia’s first game, Milton will likely stay as the starter. With Simmons out for an extended period, Brown should stick with him in that spot to foster some chemistry between the young guard and Embiid.
If Milton continues to play well, he could carve out a role for when Simmons returns to the lineup. It’s certainly possible that a tightened playoff rotation leads to Richardson being the only guard on the floor when Simmons sits. If Brown feels more ball-handling is needed, though, it will likely come down to Milton and Burks for that spot.
Burks has the edge in experience, which is usually one of the biggest factors in rotation decisions come April. Burks also is a proven scorer out of the pick-and-roll, an area where the Sixers lack. With that said, Milton’s all-around play could be more valuable for a team with two stars that he will likely be sharing the court with.
There is time for those decisions, though. For now, the Sixers will need to find a way to go on a run and secure home-court without their star point guard.
Taking a chance on Milton’s upside may be their best shot.