Fans of specific basketball teams often say they want Player X locked in a gym to work on Skill Y ahead of a season. It doesn’t take a long surf on the web to see that phrase in use. It will never happen in reality — breaking news, I know — but what if players actually embraced that mindset? As it pertains to the Philadelphia 76ers, what skill being honed in and fine-tuned would benefit each player? For each Sixers player, the answer is something different.
In this thought exercise, we will take a look at the Sixers' current roster and name one skill for some of its players to work on. Whether it’s a new wrinkle to their game or the continuation of a skill's development, everyone has something to get better at ahead of the 2023-24 season.
Joel Embiid: playmaking
Drew Hanlen has the right idea when it comes to skills that Joel Embiid has to work on this offseason. The Sixers superstar simply must get better at reading defenses and making them pay for playing aggressively on him.
The good news is that Philly's offense should open up more playmaking opportunities for Embiid with Nick Nurse running things. The off-ball movement should be more plentiful and bring out the playmaking skills he flashed at numerous points throughout the season. Embiid has to buy into a holistic vision of offense for the Sixers to be a real threat in the playoffs. His teammates will have jobs to do but it all starts with his ability to process the different looks he gets and willingness to attack them in different, less predictable ways.
Embiid will always be who the Sixers live and die with. He can score on anyone but has not yet shown that he can lead an entire offense against anyone. If that doesn’t change this upcoming season, Philly's future will continue its descent into bleakness.
James Harden: spot-up shooting
We'll keep it brief here since 1) any skill Harden works on will likely benefit his new team (seemingly the Los Angeles Clippers) and 2) the “can't teach an old dog new tricks” proverb has rarely been more applicable. Harden's not going to transform into a great defender this late in his career and he's only getting older, so expecting him to regain some spring on drives to the hoop is a long shot.
Especially as his athleticism fades, Harden should continue shooting more off-the-catch threes. He did a better job in that area this past season with the Sixers and it's the skill that will elongate his career, regardless of where he spends the rest of it. Getting more comfortable as a floor spacer when he doesn’t have the ball can make him a better fit with whatever star he teams up with this season.
Tyrese Maxey: perimeter shot creation
Maxey is one of the rare players whose moves with the ball are too much north-south and not enough east-west. While his blazing speed and shooting touch that is unaffected by his high speeds make him a strong rim attacker, he often relies on Embiid and Harden to open up those routes. Now it's time for him to do the work himself more often.
Being more of a creator is central to Nurse's plan for Maxey. Harnessing his handles and speed is the biggest source of reasonably expectable internal improvement for the Sixers, whose offense can still be too Embiid-centric for its own good. The time has never been better for Maxey to become the All-Star creator that many believe he can become.
Even more specifically, Maxey absolutely must get better at using his left hand. Hanlen is working on this with him, too, and it's a good thing he is. Maxey's tendency to turn drives on the left side of the floor into reverse layups costs him way too many points. He has to be able to attack defenses in both directions in order to make the leap.
Tobias Harris: 3-point shooting frequency
Harris needs to follow whatever blueprint he had at the beginning of last season and fire away from deep more often. He did a fantastic job of not only shooting more often and more confidently from deep but he was super efficient, shooting 40.4 percent through his first 25 games.
In order for the Sixers to be at their best, Harris has to truly become a sharpshooter. Ball-stopping has to be eradicated and Harris can often be the culprit that allows defenses a moment to reset. He must match his above-average efficiency with above-average volume. Making defenders think twice before leaving him open to double Embiid and making them play when they do has to become a fixture of Philly's new offense.
The clamoring for Harris to become a more potent shooter will remain ceaseless until proven otherwise. The first few months of 2022-23 proved that he can do it. This season, he must maintain that level throughout October and April and into the postseason.
P.J. Tucker: speed of 3-point shot
Tucker ended the 2022-23 season with a total of five shot attempts from above the break, per NBA.com. He didn’t even make it to the other hand to count all such attempts, following a career trend of shooting fewer and fewer threes that aren’t from the corner. Still, he can become more effective by getting his shot off quicker.
The Sixers would be wise to stop using Tucker in actions above the break entirely unless he finds a shooting rhythm from there. Keeping him ready to fire away in the corner, and letting him have enough space to set pin-down screens and pursue the occasional offensive board, is for the best if he barely glances at the rim when he possesses the ball near the arc.
Tucker can still be a better shooting threat than he was last season by improving the speed of his shot. Too many times last year he hesitated on a shot, restarting the offense and losing the advantage gained after the ball swung to him. He doesn’t need to reinvent his jumper to be a carbon copy of Kyle Korver's but he should find more comfort letting shots go when defenders close in. The spacing of the Sixers' offense depends (partly) on it.
De'Anthony Melton: finishing at the rim
Whenever Melton squared up from deep, Sixers fans' eyes glistened with anticipation that he would drill it. When he went in for a layup, they readied themselves for anything. Melton's misses on close shots can be downright back-breaking and can be very puzzling for someone who is otherwise a decently well-rounded role player.
Even excusing a few missed bunnies here and there that are bound to happen over dozens of games, Melton's shooting percentage of 57 percent of shots within four feet of the hoop is appalling. He uses his wiry frame and agility to get tough rebounds and throw down dunks with relative ease. Yet when he goes up for a layup, he can’t harness his physical tools to convert the shot at an efficient rate. It's a problem that has plagued him for most of his career.
One of Melton's habits at the rim is to jump into defenders while keeping the ball behind him and sending up a mini prayer to the rim. Such shots rarely even get there, so cutting them out of his shot diet should already help. He should also focus more on getting lift with his legs and keeping his layup attempts simple.
Paul Reed: verticality
By Reed's account, Nurse is helping him become better in numerous aspects. As he takes baby steps toward being more like the player he showcased in the G League, he should harness a lot of his energy on fouling less. The quickest way is to master the art of verticality on shot contests.
Abundant fouling may not be as big of a benching sentence under Nurse as it was under Rivers. More time to work through those struggles should absolutely help. But the fact remains that, among qualified players, Reed led the NBA in fouls per 100 possessions last season. For more reasons than just getting himself in foul trouble, Reed should aim to hear fewer and fewer whistles from refs. Opponents often made runs against the Sixers by continually drawing fouls. Reed wasn’t the entire reason for this but he can’t escape culpability with that fouling frequency.
Many of Reed's fouls occurred when the opponent looked to get up a shot while Reed had his hands down by the ball and/or his waist. Especially for crafty, seasoned scorers, BBall Paul's paws in that position are targets for rip-through moves that generate fouls. Keeping his hands up may not result in an uptick in steals or blocks but it will bolster his already substantial value on defense.
Jaden Springer: layups/finishes at the rim
Three-point shooting is the obvious skill that would make Springer more playable this season and he knows it. But that's really obvious, so let's wander a little further. When attacking the Springer, has the muscle and the explosiveness to get himself into the teeth of the defense and get up a solid attempt. Maintaining that impressive level of finishing should be a key for him heading into training camp.
Aiding Sprnger in this goal is the comfort he has shooting in the middle of the floor. In the G League last season, Springer shot 56.3 percent on shots between eight and 12 feet out, using an array of pull-up shots and push shots/floaters. As someone who brings value as an off-ball scavenger for open space and will likely have space to work with that's created by his star teammates, he should be able to find comfort in the defense's soft spots and steal points around or in the paint.
Again, spot-up shooting is a skill where Springer has to show some competency at the NBA level. That area seems like a long-term project that he should absolutely keep working on. In the meantime, ahead of what could be his first season in the Sixers' rotation, his focus should be on fortifying one of his strengths.
Patrick Beverley: above-the-break shooting
Shooting is key for Beverley, who will command the ball on offense mainly just to pass it to one of the Sixers' stars. If there's one particular area that the newcomer should focus on, it's above-the-break threes.
With Tucker being a permanent corner shooter, Harris taking corner looks more frequently and Maxey being one of the very best corner shooters on the planet — cashing in on over 50 percent of such shots in each of the last two seasons — Beverley should get used to shooting a lot from the top of the key. He was once elite at converting shots from that area, hovering around the 40-percent mark for half a decade.
The last two seasons have been some of Beverley's worst as a shooter and he's about to play his age-35 season. The Sixers may struggle often to find success with him on the floor if he can’t bounce back.
Mo Bamba: in-space defense
Bamba growing more accustomed to playing the four should certainly give the Sixers more faith in a two-center look. To both do this and become a better defender overall, zeroing in on his defense in space is the key.
Nurse might not use Bamba in a switch-everything scheme — that would likely be lineups with Reed or Tucker at the five — but with Embiid's bread-and-butter drop coverage, being more versatile could be the pick that chisels his path to minutes. Bamba is more fleet on his feet than most guys his size and possesses a stupendous wingspan. He may be asked to be the corner defender in a zone or to hedge and recover on the perimeter and needs to be prepared.
Danuel House Jr.: on-ball defense
House is a 3-and-D player to his core. Getting his three-point percentage back up to above the league average would certainly be a welcome development for the Sixers. But if he wants to truly stand out to Nurse, one way to do it is to improve as a defender, particularly on the ball.
Nurse certainly has plans to make the Sixers' defense more diverse and reliant on covering lots of space on the perimeter. House is one of the few Sixers big and quick enough to thrive in a scheme like his. Plus, he knows how to stick with star scorers and force them into uncomfortable shots. He has yet to prove himself as a true lockdown defender but the frame of one is there to be built into. In addition to getting up shots that mimic live-game scenarios, he should do so with defensive situations.
With Tucker getting older and becoming less effective against quicker opponents, House could see more playing time in clutch possessions. If such opportunities arise, he will have to keep them by becoming a more reliable defender against bigger ball handlers.