Star Search: 76ers in the market for franchise players

PHILADELPHIA (AP) Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown had an A-list comparison for 1-B first-round pick Zhaire Smith: Disgruntled San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard.

”I think that when you look at just where I believe Zhaire can be, there are some common denominators that Kawhi had when we first brought him to San Antonio,” Brown said.

High praise for the Texas Tech guard.

But why settle for a rookie who may never develop into a franchise player when the Sixers can try and aquire the real deal?

The 76ers are open for business this summer and an organization that has long preached patience is now in the market for marquee talent to team with blossoming stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

”We are star hunting or star developing,” Brown said Friday. ”You’re not going to win a championship any other way.”

Brown hit on the ”star hunter” phrase at Thursday’s draft and again when he introduced Smith, acquired from Phoenix in a swap of first-rounders, and Wichita State guard Landry Shamet at the team’s New Jersey headquarters.

Brown had called Smith the team’s 1-B choice in the draft after they traded their 1-A pick, Villanova forward Mikal Bridges, to the Suns in a trade that also saw the Sixers net an unprotected first-rounder in 2021.

Sure, the Sixers could keep that pick until `21 when draft rules are expected to change in time for high school graduates to again be eligible. But the real perk of the pick is the ability to dangle it as trade bait as the Sixers hunt in the rarefied air of NBA stars.

”It’s a tiny number of players,” Brown said. ”As we figure out who we deem to be stars, we understand that’s going to be a challenge. We also understand we don’t have to solve all this now.”

Meaning, the 2019 free-agent crop sure looks good, too.

Brown is calling the shots in the front office as the Sixers look for a new general manager in the wake of Bryan Colangelo’s resignation. Brown made the final decisions on draft night and – though he said he has no desire to balance dual roles – he’ll be the face of the franchise with plenty to offer in talent; success (52 wins; playoff series win); a first-class training facility; and at least $26 million in salary cap space.

The Sixers are also dealing with a wild card in Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft whose rookie season was slowed by shoulder and mental issues that resulted in a broken shot and no playing time in Philadelphia’s last seven playoff games.

Fultz has been working with noted skills coach Drew Hanlen on rebuilding his mechanics. Fultz will likely skip summer league as he works on his jumper and tries to join Embiid and Simmons to form a trio of homegrown talent capable of making the Sixers contenders in the East. There’s always a chance Fultz could be packaged with a pick to try and pry Leonard from the Spurs.

Brown was an assistant with the Spurs and has a solid relationship with Leonard. Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time NBA defensive player of the year, has requested a trade from San Antonio after missing most of last season with a right quadriceps injury. Spurs GM R.C. Buford said there was a fractured relationship between Leonard and the only franchise he has played for.

Leonard is due just over $20 million next season, and can become a free agent in the summer of 2019. He is eligible to sign a $220 million extension with San Antonio.

If the Sixers strike this summer, they’d have to be confident Leonard would be willing to re-sign with them instead of walking away with nothing to show for the gamble.

The Sixers have their own free agents to deal with, and they’d love to have 3-point ace JJ Redick return, perhaps on another one-year deal. Wayne Ellington and Tyreke Evans, both Philly-area natives, are unrestricted free agents that would fit in a happy homecoming. And, of course, Paul George and LeBron James are on just about every team’s wish list this summer.

The Cavs can offer James a five-year, $209 million deal this summer. It’s possible James could choose to sign a one-year deal again with a player option and go through the free-agency dance again next summer.

The Sixers will get to make a pitch after letting others do it for them.

At Barclays Center, the NBA draft site, a plane flying above the arena carried three banners. One had LeBron James’ No. 23 with a crown and the Liberty Bell; another urges him to ”Strive for GOATNESS”; and the last reads (hash)PHILLYWANTSLEBRON.

Power Home Remodeling, a Philadelphia-based company, has become a James recruiter, originally setting up three billboards in Cleveland urging him to come to the city. The company also flew Thursday’s billboards in Brooklyn.

”We’ll be aggressive and attractive in the free-agent marketplace,” Brown said.

But will it be enough?

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