4 Players Who Need Strong Starts to 2017

Sep 26, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; General view of the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex during media day. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 26, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; General view of the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex during media day. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With winning 2 of the first 3 games, the Philadelphia 76ers began the year impressively. 4 players on the team need an equally strong start to 2017

Sixers Surging in 2017

Three games into the 2017 calendar year have brought nothing but excitement for the Philadelphia 76ers. Despite two victories coming over teams with a dozen or less wins and faltering down the stretch against the Celtics, the Sixers turned in three respectable performances.

The Minnesota Timberwolves game arguably should not have been as close as it ended up being. Losing by four points to a talented Boston team that saw its All-Star point guard recently score 50 points is no debacle. The Nets game showcased a solid overall team game with lead contributions by Robert Covington and Dario Saric.

The fast start to the year even has Joel Embiid talking about making a playoff push which can only be bolstered by a possible debut of Ben Simmons.

While the notion of the Sixers making the playoffs is an unlikely scenario, the fact that the Sixers have already matched last year’s win total and are 6-7 in the last 13 games has changed the conversation around the team. The team as a whole has a chance to get to 25 wins if they continue this strong start.

There are 4 players I’ve identified that had good starts to the year and need to build on their progress to begin 2017 for a variety of reasons. We begin with the starting point guard for the first 3 games TJ McConnell.

Jan 8, 2017; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Isaiah Whitehead (15) defends against Philadelphia 76ers guard TJ McConnell (1) during the second quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

T.J. McConnell

Next year, T.J. does not have a guaranteed contract with the Sixers. They can release him without impunity. So a fast start by T.J. to 2017 means improved chances of one of two positive outcomes for the former Arizona Point Guard: a roster spot and role for the 2017-2018 Sixers or a more substantial case to catch on somewhere else.

This begs the question for McConnell, since he already has posted 2 solid outings against Minnesota and Boston this past week, what will he have to do to continue to make his bones for the Sixers or another NBA Team next year?

Keep Starting Job Away from Sergio

In 2016, T.J. averaged about 20 minutes a game thanks to Jerry Bayless’ injury… In the 3 games of 2017, McConnell averaged over 35 minutes per game. Taking into account that this is a small sample size, the numbers do stand out. He posted averages of over 6 points, 6 rebounds and 10 assists per game. Perhaps more importantly, T.J. only had 6 turnovers total within those games.

It will be difficult for McConnell to keep up those stat lines with Sergio back, but he will have to manage those numbers in proportion with those lower minutes because Sergio himself had a respectable month of December. He tallied less than 3 turnovers a game, shooting over 40 percent from 3-point land, and almost 12 points a game to go with 5 assists.

For T.J., a continued strong start to 2017 will have to mean strong defense and more alley-oops to Nerlens and Joel. But a strong 2017 for T.J. must include proving he can play next to Ben Simmons more ably than Sergio and newly signed Chasson Randle. T.J. needs the ball and so does Ben, his ability to show he can be efficient and productive without the ball will define his future existence on the Sixers and another NBA Roster.

Apr 5, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Nerlens Noel (4) during the first quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Apr 5, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Nerlens Noel (4) during the first quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Nerlens Noel

Nerlens needs a good start to 2017 the most out of any 76er. He is battling for a new contract in free agency, for playing time ahead of Jahlil Okafor, and for increased trade value to potentially get to a desirable destination. Needless to say, there is not much to build on from the previous 2 months of the season on the court. Thankfully, the first 3 games in 2017 has featured Nerlens over Jahlil with positive results.

Tape from Boston serves as a showcase to the front office and the league to show what Nerlens is capable of on a basketball court. The activity Nerlens had on defense was spectacular. Offensively, he was incredibly efficient. He caught lobs from TJ McConnell and got a good stretch of game with Joel Embiid.

Going forward, Nerlens can further display he can play more minutes with Joel and if the opportunity presents itself, Ben Simmons. In the same way, a Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons transition offense is intriguing, a Nerlens, Ben Simmons transition can be equally as terrifying to opponents. Nerlens is extremely fast for his size and demonstrates good hands above the rim (below the rim not so much). The pace with Ben and Nerlens on the floor could be deadly and entertaining as hell. All basketball fans should be given a chance to watch it.

Nov 23, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Robert Covington (33) moves toward the net during the fourth quarter of the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at the Wells Fargo Center. The Memphis Grizzlies won 104-99 in double overtime. Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 23, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Robert Covington (33) Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Covington

Its been a whirlwind of a week for Robert Covington. Despite struggling from 3-point range, he has been stellar on defense. Both Andrew Wiggins and Isiah Thomas struggled with Covington’s length — neither player got into a rhythm. I hope after the game winning shot and a very strong outing from Robert in Brooklyn (15 points, 11 rebounds), any boobirds among the fan base will quiet down. To outside observers, booing Robert Covington is not a good look. It even made Zach Lowe’s 10 things I like and don’t like. Spoiler alert — he was not pleased with the Philly fans in this instance.

So with this good start already in place, what would this continued stretch for Rock Covington look like and mean for him going forward?

Solidifying the Wing

Shooting and Defense surrounding the front court with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid is paramount. Brett Brown asks Robert to guard the best wing or guard on opposing teams on any given night. He is tied with Draymond Green in most deflections per game according to NBA Hustle Stats with 4.3 deflections per game to go with 1.8 steals per game.

The 3-point percentage has unfortunately not caught up yet. He is still averaging 28.4 percent from deep. But the slump is not as severe as it seems. If he makes 1 more 3-pointer every 2 games, his average bumps up to 37 percent. RoCo keeping up that momentum means making a little improvement on the 3-point shooting. Fortunately, if Ben Simmons returns in the next month, open shots may be more available soon.

Better shooting from Robert gives the Sixers more options heading into free agency and the draft. It means less of an urgency to go with a wing in the draft or have to get a veteran at that position in free agency. Finally, the more significant the improvement on offense, the higher the trade value if the front office has an opportunity to use Robert Covington’s cheap contract to help get a star player via trade.

So let it fly, Rock, and make sure it goes in just a little bit more because the last player on this list will love to get more assists.

Jul 9, 2016; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons (25)  Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Ben Simmons

While Ben has yet to see the court, his rehab has gotten off to a great start so far in 2017. Going from a walking boot and shooting videos with his various pets (which are delightful) to doing stuff like this before the game, qualifies as a great start if you ask me. H/t  to Nick M — @sportsdirectTV

A fast start for Ben helps psychologically as well. Getting over a Jones fracture is no easy feat. It’s a bit cliché to say players may be hesitant to go into the lane because of a worry of injury, but it is also human nature to want to work yourself back into the flow of the game.  It is important to get over that mental hurdle.

Getting on the Court

Starting off on the right foot (pun intended) when he hits the court, will be just as significant. Developing a chemistry with Joel Embiid may not lead to too many more wins this season, but will go a long way to bringing success to next season. The pick and roll between those two could be devastating offensively.

Joel has already been quoted as saying he wishes to win defensive player of the year. The current leader of the team is placing emphasis on defense, echoing the coaching staff. Dario Saric is busting his ass on rebounding and staying in front of players who are faster than him.

Ben needs to start out by falling in line with that example. Developing some range (Ben Simmons only took three 3-point shots in college) and being tenacious on the defensive end will determine how high of a ceiling Ben has in my opinion. A good start in this half of season of basketball can give everyone not only a lot of fun, but also a window into the future potential of the team.  Finally, Ben has sat on the sidelines while Joel has dominated pretty much everything on and off the court. I imagine Ben wants to prove this is his team too.

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