ESPN is going all out this Friday with its ‘Philadelphia All Access’ tour, in advance of the Sixers hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder. The network is showcasing the Sixers across its entire platform all day, from SportsCenter to First Take to Snapchat and other social media promotional gimmicks. Ultimately, though, the Philly takeover by ESPN is leading up to an actual basketball game — 7:00 p.m. on ESPN — so we spoke with in-game analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy about some of the Sixers’ top stars.
Billy Penn: The Sixers are obviously a big deal here, but nationally how big a deal have they become? When you go into other cities, is this a team everyone is talking about and paying attention to now?
Jeff Van Gundy: I think everybody is intrigued by their talent, right? I think the Embiid-Simmons combination is, yeah … people are intrigued by it. I don’t think it’s the same as in Philly because they didn’t have to live through the down period of the whole tanking thing to appreciate what they have now. But I think everybody recognizes their talent and they also have great respect for Brett Brown and how much he had to endure to come out on the other side.
I think there is a good amount [of attention], where people have a lot of respect for the Sixers.
BP: Brett Brown has been a great influence on the young Sixers roster, having pulled the team from the doldrums of the tanking part of The Process era. Is this the first time Brown has to prove he can actually coach, not just be a good leader of young men?
JVG: I don’t look at it like that because when you’re a young team, you’re going to have some struggles to finish games maybe the way you’d want at times. I look at how they pass the ball — they’re a high assist team. I look at how they’re constructed — they’re big, so defensively I think they’ll continue to get better.
I think some people expect a little too much from them. You don’t go from being historically bad forever to all of a sudden being a dominant team. There are steps that you just can’t skip.
Listen, I think the guy is not only a fantastic coach, but an incredible ambassador for the Sixers. How he managed coming through a really hard period, I think it was a remarkable teaching tool that all coaches can really, really learn from.
BP: Speaking of ambassadors, Joel Embiid has become the face of Philadelphia — let alone of the Sixers. With the Twitter stuff and not playing for so long, with people so anxious to get him on the court… Now when he’s on the court, he’s as good as advertised. We can still see the rawness, but in terms of where he is now compared to where he was when he came into the league, where is he in relation to other bigs, and to where we expected him to be?
JVG: Well, I think it’s actually remarkable when you consider he doesn’t play. He doesn’t get to play very often and he doesn’t get to practice very often. For him to be so good — I think the thing about him for me is his level of competitiveness. He is a great competitor and he’s got a true nastiness about his approach. He’s one of those bigs who can get to the free throw line, and also make a critical three. I think he’s a more willing passer now than when he first started. I think he missed people a lot. He makes great passes, particularly to Simmons late in [the OT win over Minnesota.] This guy is the real deal. He’s really that good.
BP: It’s easy for us to look at Embiid in Philly and say, ‘oh, he’s the next Hakeem Olajuwon,’ and then look at Ben Simmons and say, ‘oh, he’s the next LeBron James.’ Is that true, on the second one? Obviously time is going to tell on that, but in terms of skillset…
JVG: Yeah, you know what, I’m loathe to compare players at all. Because I think that comparison is the thief of joy in many respects, in that you start comparing people and what happens is you’re talking about two of the all-time greats and you’re comparing them to players who have yet to play … I don’t know, how many games Embiid has played in at this point in his career?
I’m not going to participate in that comparison, but I would say that Embiid and Simmons both are going to be outstanding players that can only be limited by health. Does that make them all-time greats? Time will tell on that, but they’re certainly going to be All-Star caliber players if healthy.
I think the future for Philly — I was saying to someone yesterday, when I coached, there was no better city to go to a game than against the Sixers. The fans are great. They’re intense, they’re enthusiastic. It’s just such a great basketball city. And I don’t think people, because they went through this down period, I don’t think there’s any basketball city on the East Coast that would have supported their team like Philly did. And I think a lot of it was because they did see the methodology that was being used, and I think Embiid is just that personality that everybody in Philly could embrace.
It’s pretty miraculous, actually, if you think about it. They drew pretty well last year and they weren’t even that good.
BP: Regarding a guy who hasn’t played … and I don’t mean Jahlil Okafor because he’s gone now, but Markelle Fultz: Given what we’ve been through in Philly with Nerlens Noel, Embiid and then Simmons, every time we write about Fultz people say, ‘oh, he’s never going to play this year.’ But the Sixers keep saying they’ll reevaluate in three weeks, trying to be as upfront as possible given past experiences with injury information.
What advice would you have — let me ask it this way — for Sixers fans? Wait and see? Is he going to be as good? Does anybody have any idea what’s going to happen now?
JVG: That’s a weird situation to me. The one thing I don’t ever do is believe the team. I’m not just talking about Philly, I’m talking pro sports. Their interests and the truth don’t often collide. I’ve been a little wary of the whole explanation of his injury, how that impacted his shooting and, you know, the early-season thing where supposedly he was alright. And now he’s going to be out two months, or whatever it ends up being. So, I’m just leery by nature. I guess you can call me old and cynical.
But I don’t think as fans, like, this is why you don’t rush to judgement on young players. With a guy at his age like Fultz, what you hope to see is glimpses and the character traits that it take to be really good. Other than that, after missing so much time, it’s going to be hard to be as impactful as Embiid and SImmons have been.
And, long range, what’s his position? Because Simmons is a point guard. Brett Brown made a terrific coaching decision to put the ball in his hands. Is Fultz able to effectively play off the ball? We’ll see.
That’s how I look at it. I think the rush to judgement is oftentimes mistaken in how you evaluate young players, whether that’s for the good or the bad. Fultz has obviously had a rough start, but a lot of this, your rate of improvement in professional sports is tied directly to how much you love the game, and how much you love to work. So that will be revealed over time.