I don’t wanna be that guy, but Sixers basketball returns to the Wells Fargo Center in 33 days, with Australia’s Melbourne United coming to town for the first preseason game of the 2018-2019 campaign.
Training camp starts up next month, so we’ll have the full team assembled in Camden for the first time in a while, which doesn’t really seem like it was that long ago. It feels like it was two weeks ago that we were doing exit interviews and talking to Brett Brown and Josh Harris about the resignation of Bryan Colangelo following the burner account scandal.
The Sixers still don’t have a general manager, and they didn’t land any superstar free agents in the offseason (or trade for one), but it doesn’t feel like expectations are tempered. It still feels like there’s a lot of buzz surrounding the squad, and that was evident in Stone Harbor on Saturday where at least 1,000 fans came out to see Jonah Bolden, Landry Shamet, and Julius Erving and enjoy a Sixers takeover of the 82nd street recreation center. Bring your kids next year if you have any kids, because there really is a ton of stuff to do at these shore tour events.
There was a small media contingent there, including The Inquirer’s Marc Narducci and The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann. We caught up with the trio during the event and talked about a variety of Sixers topics:
What are your thoughts on Maurice Cheeks going into the Hall of Fame?
Erving: I’m very happy and very excited. It’s so well deserved. I think just like Artis Gilmore and George McGinnis and Louie Dampier, Charlie Scott who’s going in this year.. it might even be sweeter to let a number of years go by as opposed to being a first ballot guy and I think Maurice probably has that same attitude. I’ve talked to him once or twice and he’s pleased. You know he doesn’t usually have a whole lot to say. But being an assistant coach has brought him out a bit. This validation of his basketball career is a monumental moment, you know? It’s not something that’s going to happen to everybody. It’s probably not something you set as one of your goals when you sit down and you say that you’re trying to be the best basketball player that you can be. You usually don’t say, “I want to be a Hall of Famer.” You say, “I want to make a team.” (laughs) Or you want to represent your city, your family, you want to be a champion. The Hall of Fame thing is like super, super icing on the cake.
When you look at the Eastern Conference, where do you see the Sixers right now?
Erving: Anywhere between one and four. They finished third last year. They’re gonna be one of the top four teams. Even losing Belinelli and (Ilyasova) they can probably return to the form they did at the end of the season and get over that hump. They were so close last year. And you know when the team basically got blown up, it was blown up to get to this point and be better prepared to get over the hurdle. They got to this point six or seven years ago (2012 playoffs) with a different team, a different cast of characters, and a different coach. Now I think the team is back there and has enough in terms of commitment and fan support. The fans have been tremendous in terms of showing their patience and all of the things associated with the fans with the Process, is historic. I think everybody is going to be happy at the end of the day.
What do Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have to do to take the next step forward this season?
Erving: I always thought that you work on the skills that you’re weak in and work to also improve where you’re strong, then just try to be a consistent force night-in and night-out. With Ben’s shooting, mid-range and long-range shooting, I’m sure he’s put a lot of time into practicing that. In Joel, from a skill standpoint, he really was a guy who showed no weaknesses offensively or defensively. So I think he just needs to be more of a leader, maybe more of a vocal leader. In terms of night-in and night-out, doing things in terms of matchups on the court that will allow him to be a consistent force.
With LeBron James out of the east, do you see the conference being wide open now?
Erving: Well, you know Cleveland was fourth last year and went on to the championship. So, LeBron’s presence, going west, it’s a relief for all of the Eastern Conference teams from Miami to Maine. And then the central division as well. I take my hat off to LeBron for going west after having such dominance in the east. It’s a very ballsy play, a gutsy play, something that not everybody would be willing to do, because the money was probably the same no matter if he decided to go east or west. But he decided to go out there and take that challenge of joining a franchise that historically is no worse than second in terms of their overall success in the NBA. So to become a part of that and a part of that legacy is an even greater challenge. At his age, it’s even a GREATER challenge, or whatever. So all of that coming to pass was an interesting story to follow. But I think we need to shift our attention to the business at hand, which is the Sixers getting back to the top and being the best in the east and the best overall.
Taking into account some of the roster changes and injuries, do you feel like this team is complete?
Erving: The team’s not complete. The team is not complete. I think the team has the core, which is very, very important to have. Now you have to get the tentacles. You have to get the role players. Then you have to get the surprise guys, the guys who are better than you thought, and when you throw them in there, it’s like, “man, I didn’t know this guy could do that. They can show you more. And going away in the offseason they have probably added some wrinkles to their game. So I think taking care of business is the most important thing, focus on that and I’m very confident that all of the players have done their part and that management is doing their part.
With no superstar free agents coming this season, the focus really is on Ben and Markelle and Joel to improve in their second and third seasons. Looking back at your career, did you feel like you made big strides from year one to year two and year three?
Erving: I did. I did. I started at a very high level and I think it had a lot to do with what I did the summer before, because I played in a pro summer league and I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know. I got supremely confident in a lot of things, in my ability. Coming out of college it was like the chains were on. We couldn’t dunk the ball in college and I was a guy who attacked the basket and liked to dunk the ball. So that first year out of college, that summer, it was like Hercules unchained (Dr. J makes a gesture as if he’s ripping off his shirt). You’re slamming and driving and going coast to coast and doing those things, so I was able to bring that to the pros with me. I was a completely different player from my last year of college to my first year in the pros, and then each year I was able to improve. I felt the improvement, yeah.
How’s your summer going and what have you been up to since summer league?
Bolden: Summer’s been great. After summer league, I went home for a couple of weeks and my mom got married, had a little down time with family. After that, came back to Los Angeles and been working out; they had that rookie transition program and then I came straight here. So it’s been good. I’ve been kind of on the road a little bit with home and then Los Angeles, New York and then here, but I’ve been in the gym, I’ve been in Philly for the past week working out, a couple of days by myself and then one time actually with Joel. It’s been good. It’s been real good.
What are your expectations this year for yourself?
Bolden: My expectations are always up there. You talk about goals, for me it’s about doing what I can do for the team. I know I need to get better in a lot of different aspects, one being the weightroom, the other being consistency. I’ve begun to do that since summer league. But I think everything I do is with another goal in mind and that’s the team.
What was working out with Joel like?
Good. He’s a different animal, that’s for sure. I’m between 230 and 235 (pounds) and Joel is like 280, so he’s got a good 50 pounds on me. But it was good, really good actually, we did like seven spots one-on-one and I had done my lifting and my workout before then and they said “you have to wait a little bit, we’ve got something for you.” I didn’t know what was coming and I went over to get taped and here you go, I see Joel out there and they said we were gonna be playing one-on-one. It was fun, it was competitive. A bigger dude, going up against someone like that you have to humble yourself and just take a step back and know that you have to go at them. I think his competitive nature and my competitive nature was good going at each other. But yeah it was fun.
Where we those workouts?
Bolden: They were at the (Sixers practice facility)
So where do you see yourself fitting in this year? Are you backing up Joel and Amir Johnson at center? Do you see yourself playing power forward in the NBA? What’s your fit and your role this season?
Bolden: Yeah, backing up Joel and backing up Amir, playing at the four. I look at myself as a versatile forward. If someone’s in foul trouble at the four or five, I’m there. If you want to give me minutes at the three to give some guys a break, I’m there. I feel like that’s one of my strengths, is versatility, and knowing that my role is whatever coach needs it to be. Whatever needs to happen, I’ll be there.
You mentioned working out with Joel; do you look forward to training camp when you get to play with that level of talent across the board?
Bolden: Yeah, of course. It was fun for me just getting a taste of what’s to come by just going up against Joel. But yeah, no doubt, I look forward to training camp where everyone’s here. Right now there’s only a couple of guys. I think there’s like, guys are in and out, so it’s not really a consistent flow of players where we can have a day of playing. I think next week we’re probably going to start getting everyone in and having more people. Training camp is definitely something I’m looking forward to.
You grew up with Ben Simmons in Australia, playing with him – what did you make of him this season watching from afar?
Bolden: I personally didn’t doubt too much of what Ben can do. I grew up, I wouldn’t say with him – for a little bit I was with him in Melbourne but I grew up in Sydney when he was in Melbourne. But we reconnected on the national team and I always knew what he could do, that kind of ‘alpha’ mentality that he plays with, when he gets the ball in his hands and he’s in control of the team. I didn’t really doubt too much. Rookie of the Year for him, I kind of saw that coming.
Did you have any reaction when the Twitter stuff that unfolded with Bryan Colangelo? I know you were overseas last season but Bryan did draft you in 2017.
Bolden: From afar, my focus was on Maccabi. I knew it was going to be handled in the right way. Whatever happened happened and I knew I had no control over it. I’m not one to try to control something I have no control over. It was out my hands and I was focused on the task at hand, which was Maccabi.
How’s your ankle?
Shamet: Great. I feel good.
Are you 100%? Are you back to full health? Where are you right now?
Shamet: I feel good and we’re progressing, working out, don’t need to really speak on that too much, but I feel well, feel good.
How excited are you to head off to camp?
Shamet: Yeah, really excited. A lot of anticipation. I got play, what, 10 to 12 minutes or something like that in summer league, so I haven’t played a ton of basketball. It’s exciting to get back to that and progress towards games and have that goal in mind.
Have they talked to you about just being a point guard or maybe playing off the ball? Have they talked to you about a role?
Shamet: My versatility, I can play either spot. But ultimately, coach Brown, that’s gonna be on him and how he sees fit to utilize me. Whatever situation I’m gonna try to do my best. I’m comfortable in either spot.
You only played that one half of summer league ball. Does that make you come into camp feeling like maybe you’re a little bit behind or that you have some catching up to do, just sort of trying to stay on that curve in year one?
Shamet: Nah, I think I had a good minicamp before summer league. I felt good. It’ll be an adjustment phase, for sure, getting used to my teammates and the speed of the game. The NBA is just different. But I don’t, by any means, feel like I have any pressure on myself to catch up or anything like that. Basketball is basketball. It’s just gonna be a matter of adjusting to the NBA game.