Trust the Broadcast: ESPN’s Mike Breen on Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and expectations for the Sixers

Sixers season opens Wednesday in Washington. We talked to the guy calling the game.

ESPN's Mike Breen

ESPN's Mike Breen

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Wednesday night, fans will finally get to see the first true manifestation of The Process on an NBA basketball court when the Sixers face the Washington Wizards to open the 2017-18 Season. Mike Breen, calling the game for ESPN with Jeff Van Gundy and Doris Burke, took a few minutes out of his preparation to talk about calling the first time Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will be on the court at the same time.

Breen and I talked before the season last year — after Simmons was ruled out of the opener — and we joked that the questions may be similar, but the answers will be completely different. What a year it’s been for the Sixers. What happens now?

The Sixers have built this team around Embiid, so we start there. I asked Breen — in talking to people, preparing for the game and reading tea leaves — what’s his over-under for the number of minutes Embiid plays in the opener and overall, for the season, what are the expectations in NBA circles for how many games he’s going to play, because everybody in Philly is freaking out over it.

Embiid and Simmons

Embiid and Simmons

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Nobody knows and I’d be silly to guess minutes or games, plus I’m superstitious, so you don’t want to jinx it. All I know is people can’t wait to see him play, and even people who are rivals against the Sixers. If you’re a basketball fan, you want this young man to be healthy because he has a chance to be something special.

He showed it last year in stretches — I think it was last year they went 15-11 over a 26-game stretch. Now that’s almost a third of a season. So if you put that across [an entire season] that’s a 45-win team. That’s pretty incredible. And the thing about it is, he’s not just this supremely talented player, he obviously has the personality to match and he’s one of those guys, and again we’ll have to see it over a longer period of time, that seems to elevate everyone around him.

That’s the exciting part. They’ve had nice young players and all of a sudden they put a star player with them and everybody’s better. It’s like anybody. Like LeBron James. Guys just seem to play better when they go to Cleveland now. Or guys who went to San Antonio to play with Tim Duncan. All of a sudden they were better. Well, they were probably the same, but when you’re playing with special people that bring their talent along with the team framework and how they approach it, then you have something really special.

Everyone in Philly and everyone in NBA circles loved the back-and-forth on social media between Embiid and Hassan Whiteside after last week’s exhibition game. The NBA needs great player rivalries. But if you’re the Sixers, that’s got to sort of freak you out. As talented as Embiid is, he hasn’t proven it yet, and he’s going after some of the best players at his position. It’s funny for us, but should the team tell Embiid, ‘dude, play a little bit first?’

I think first off, that’s who he is. He’s a fun-loving young man who likes to have a good time, no matter what he’s doing. As long as it doesn’t go into the area of demeaning and embarrassing your opponent. Whiteside seemed to have a fun back-and-forth with it, and if that’s the case, great. But if it goes to the point where you start embarrassing an opponent, then I think someone would need to say something because there’s no need to do that.

Trust me, trash talking is part of the game and I sound like an old fool when I come down on that stuff. And it is fun and it can be a fun part, as long as it doesn’t go to the point, again, when you start demeaning and embarrassing your opponent.

But that’s who he is. That’s one of the reasons Embiid might be a good leader, because he’s talking all the time and he’s upbeat and he’s confident and he’s all of those things.

Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons

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This is the first time Embiid and Simmons will take the court in a regular season game together. There was a groundswell of anger that the first preseason game with the two of them wasn’t on TV, and when they got it on TV people just rejoiced. Everyone seemed to care about seeing them together. But Breen gets to call the first time they’re in a game that matters. So I asked how much of the preparation with regard to the Sixers is about the two of them playing together.

Oh the telecast will focus on it a lot. Jeff Van Gundy, who’s the analyst for the game; and Doris Burke, who is working the game as well, they’ll talk about it a lot. I know I’ll ask Jeff a lot of questions about both of them and what he thinks about each of them individually in terms of individual skill and their ability to play team ball. I know Doris is going to do a lot work on finding out stuff. So it will be a part of it, a big part of it.

Embiid we’ve seen play in person. I’ve never seen Simmons play in person and I can’t wait. I can’t wait to see him play in person because you get a feel for how a guy plays on TV, but until you really see him in person it’s hard to really tell how special they can be.

Fans across the country feel that way. We all remember the first time we saw this player or that player. It’s cool when you’re able to say 10 years down the line when a guy’s on the verge of another All-Star appearance or the great players are going into the Hall of Fame you say, ‘I remember the first time I saw him play. He played that game against the Wizards on opening night.’

Stuff like that, fans love that. And if you’re a true basketball fan and you appreciate skill and talent and charisma and all those things that go into making a great player, there’s nothing like watching one of those special young players making their debut. And how they start to evolve and how they start to get better.

For a basketball fan, it’s like Christmas morning.

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Even without Simmons last season, the Sixers still had two players up for Rookie of the Year. Breen voted for Saric — I’ve been on record since halfway through the season that I would have voted for Saric — but he didn’t have Embiid in his top 3. I wanted to know if that was because of the body of work, or because Embiid was in his third year in the league and you shouldn’t be able to win rookie of the year if you’re in your third year in the league.

I’ve got this silly thing about how you’ve got to play at least half the games to be up for an award. That was my only reason for it. I just felt, he clearly was the best rookie in terms of talent and impact, but he only played 31 games.

For me, part of those awards, part of the NBA, is playing a complete season, which few do these days. That’s all it was. I just felt as great as he was, he only played 31 games.

2017.10.01 Sixers Blue-White-8
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The GMs had their vote and Simmons is on the short list for Rookie of the Year. And look, it’s better for the Sixers, but again, I am of the mindset that if you’ve been in the league — not like Saric who was drafted but hadn’t been in the NBA — but if you’re sitting on an NBA bench, you’re taking these road trips, all of that’s new for these other guys. Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball and all those other guys have to go through that for the first time this year. Simmons already went through all that. He’s been an NBA player, he just hasn’t been on the court yet. So is there something to be said about changing to the award to ‘first year players’ because I don’t feel like he’s a rookie. Embiid wasn’t a rookie to me last year. Breen disagreed:

You know … yeah, I get you and I do think it’s a legitimate argument, but he’s still never played in an NBA regular season game and that won’t happen until Wednesday. So, there’s a big difference between practicing…there’s guys who play in the G-League for years or are free agents and practice with teams all the time but never get into a real game, they’re still rookies. They’ve never played in a real game, and a real game that mattered. So, he’s eligible in my mind for Rookie of the Year.

I get what you’re saying, and does he have a little of an advantage? Absolutely. But he’s still a rookie.

Markelle Fultz

Markelle Fultz

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To the Sixers’ other rookie, Fultz — I don’t want to say he’s the forgotten guy on this team, but he’s been injured a little bit and people in Philly are always nervous about injuries because the team doesn’t exactly disclose the truth when it comes to injuries. But there’s been less excitement with Fultz than concern. His jump shot’s weird. He’s finally admitted he’s had some shoulder issues that have been impacting it. He’s not practicing as much, but he’s coming off the bench to start to the season.

Are people in Philly so anxious for this team to be good right away that we’re almost not willing to let Fultz play out? He’s 19 and he’s hurt. Give it some time.

Well, patience is non-existent in pro sports, both with the media and with fans and, in many cases, even with organizations now. You do need the patience.

I know Philadelphia fans are hearing me and saying, ‘oh shut up. I don’t want to hear patience anymore.’ But with any kid, especially someone who is 19, it’s true.

The best thing for [Fultz] is for Simmons and Embiid to be playing and all the focus is on them. How often does a No. 1 overall pick come in and he really is the third person that fans and media are even interested in. So the pressure is off on that. He doesn’t have to come out and do something special every night. He just has to come out and learn the game while these two other special young players get a lot of the spotlight.

It’s a really good situation for him in terms of pressure. I think he’s going to be fine. They need to figure this thing out with the shot and more importantly, make sure his shoulder is okay, but I think he’s going to benefit from Simmons’ debut and Embiid being healthy.

Markelle Fultz and T.J. McConnell

Markelle Fultz and T.J. McConnell

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Breen and I discussed the Sixers’ sudden luxury of point guards. Not only does the team see Simmons as the primary ball handler, but now Jerryd Bayless, who joined the team last season and only played three games while dealing with a wrist injury, is slated to start the season in the backcourt. And T.J. McConnell is going to show he deserves minutes too. Sure, he was a second round pick, but last year’s Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon only started 28 games. It’s different that he was the first overall pick, yes, but is Fultz coming off the bench that big a deal?

Most organizations don’t have that luxury of being able to do that. A lot of organizations have the No. 1 pick because the team was so bad in a lot of cases and they need that guy to play big minutes, not only to develop him but to sell tickets and generate interest.

The Sixers, because of the situation they’re in, don’t, necessarily. If he played for the first half of the season just 15 minutes, got his feet wet, got comfortable in the league, that’s fine. There’s no pressure to play him more than that. Fans aren’t going to say ‘how can you not play him?’ As long as the team is playing well and he’s part of it, that’s all that matters.

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Jahlil Okafor

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From the No. 1 pick to the No. 3 pick. Jahlil Okafor is still on the Sixers roster. How? Why?

It’s still a matter of, you know, Embiid’s not a given in terms of being healthy and being able to stay on the court. I understand the hesitancy. And, again, if he was like the 14th pick or the 15th pick, it’d be a little different than being the third pick. So, say Embiid — and hopefully this isn’t the case — say he goes down again. And then where are you?

Okafor still has a tremendous low post game. He certainly still has some holes in his game, but in terms of a low-post scorer, he’s really very talented.

The thing you worry about now with him is that he’s in a really bad place mentally. For him to say, publicly, that he might be better off with a change in scenery. For him to say, publicly, that sometimes he doesn’t feel like he’s part of the group, that’s not good.

That’s like the player who starts thinking about retirement? Well, once you start thinking about it and talking about it, ehhhh, you’re kind of losing something from a mental edge standpoint. That’s not to say he can’t be welcomed back and contribute and be a part of it, but it’s not a good sign when he’s publicly talking about being somewhere else. The problem is now, you’ve just got to wait and see on Embiid. And you don’t just want to give him away for nothing. The guy was the third overall pick with a lot of offensive talent.

Brett Brown

Brett Brown

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Brett Brown not only has a full complement of young stars, he has a lot of talent he has to juggle, from J.J. Redick to Bayless and McConnell to Robert Covington to Saric.

The Sixers are going to blow some teams out, but there’s also nights where they go up against playoff teams and get blown out. Wednesday could be one of those games as this is a quick reality check at the beginning of the year: This is a young team and it’s not necessarily a team that has it all figured out. So as Breen is calling this game and and as the ESPN crew discusses the talent this team has and the prospects for success in the future, I wanted to ask where he sees the Sixers. Will we talking again before the playoffs because the Sixers are part of that? Or is this going to be the most fun team to watch that wins 35 games?

It’s so hard to do it because of the injury thing. If they stay healthy, if Embiid plays, say, 70 games and Simmons plays 70 games, I really believe they have a chance to get a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That’s a big if, though, with guys who have had their fair share of injuries thus far. But if they do, they’ve got a chance because as you point out, it’s only those two young players.

They’ve added some nice veterans. They’ve got a couple of other young guys who are playing roles that were too big for them. Whether it be a Covington, or, you know, Bayless getting a starting role as a veteran or McConnell. They’re good players, but now as you put them as backup (role) players who don’t have to produce the big numbers, now all the sudden you’ve got a little depth. Now it makes for a team that can be fun.

I said this before. You look at that 15-11 stretch, that’s a third of the season. That’s a third of an NBA season they were over .500. So they’ve got that kind of potential to win those kind of games if they’re healthy.

It is a big difference when now there are expectations. When all of a sudden people think, ‘you know you should be beating these teams’ as opposed to just going out and playing. So they have to deal with that, but I know there’s nobody happier than Brett Brown to have expectations and now finally have a team that’s supposed to win some games that’s healthy with talent.