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Progress Report: Analyzing the Sixers’ Individual Improvements and Needs for Growth in 2012

Jan 11, 2012, 2:21 PM EDT

The Sixers are off to a fantastic 7-2 start to the season. Most of the individual players have improved a ton this year, but they also have room to improve still.

For the Philadelphia 76ers, the suspense of the 2011-12 season wasn’t in
seeing how the Sixers would integrate new pieces or adjust to a new
coach or offensive scheme or overcome the loss of a key player or
anything like that—aside from the drafting of rookie big in Nikola Vucevic
and the shipping out of disgruntled backup forward Marreese Speights,
this is the exact same squad as last year. What really held interest for
the team’s fans was in seeing how the returning players—many of whom
are young and still early on in their development as players—continued
to grow their games, both collectively and individually. In the midst of
the lockout, did our guys put in the necessary work to improve their
respective games and help take this team to the next level?

Eight games into the season, we’ve got a pretty good idea of where
our guys are at, so let’s take a look at our eight key returning players
in alphabetical order—don’t bother getting up, Andres and Tony—and see
where players have improved, where they’ve regressed, and what they
should continue to be working on.

Elton.Brand.Celtics.jpg

Elton Brand:

Improved: Though his per
game numbers are down across the board due to his decreased PT, Elton’s
rebound rate has actually improved this year, with the 32-year-old power
forward averaging over ten rebounds per 36 minutes, and battling for
just about every ball off the glass.

Regressed: There’s no denying that Elton’s scoring has taken a
huge dip from last season, though he atoned for a lot of that with his
stellar performance against the Kings lost night. A lot of that is
opportunity, since as previously mentioned, his minutes are down from 35
a game last year to only about 26 this year, and a lot of it is the
increased role Spencer Hawes has played in the offense recently. But
Elton’s also just been less effective—his field goal percentage has
dropped from 51% to about 48%, and he’s taking a higher percentage of
his shots away from the basket—a stunning 89% of his shots this season
have been jumpers, up from 76% last year, and his numbers from just
about anywhere on the court besides at the rim are significantly worse
than they were in ’10-’11.

Needs to Work On: Just sticking that jumper, like he was last
night, and keeping up with the rebounding. Team improvement elsewhere
means we don’t need Elton to be as much of a scoring option as he was
last season, when he averaged a team-high 15 points a game on 51%
shooting and was essentially the Sixers’ MVP for the season. If he can
just be consistent in the areas he can help the team, and remain a solid
leader off the court, that’s good enough—next year he becomes an
expiring contract anyway, and likely far more valuable to the team as
such.

Spencer Hawes:

Spencer.Hawes.Pistons.jpg

Improved: Where
to start? Spencer’s offensive game is virtually unrecognizable from
where it was at this point last year—he’s gotten craftier around the
basket, honing his back-to-the-basket post game and developing close
range scoop and hook shots, and he’s become an absolute machine from
range, draining jumpers with impunity and becoming absolutely deadly in
the pick-and-pop. He’s also gotten better at subtle offensive things
like providing good back screens to give three-point shooters space and
looking for the high-low pass with fellow post presence Elton Brand
(though the chemistry is still something of a work in progress there.)
His numbers are off the charts compared to they were last year in just
about every respect, and he’s among the league leaders in field goal
percentage with his 62%, with last night’s 0-1 marking his first game
shooting under 50%.

As if all that wasn’t enough, he’s also improved considerably on the
other end of the court, most notably in his rebounding. He’s become a
smarter and tougher rebounder, picking his spots better and getting his
hands on the ball to try to tap it to teammates when he can’t corral the
boards himself. He’s a real threat to average a double-double this
year, and he’s averaging about two more rebounds per 36 minutes than the
guy he was traded for, the far more established Samuel Dalembert, is
this year in Houston. So often, the Most Improved Player race comes down
to guys who are basically the same player as they always were, but were
given more minutes or greater exposure to do their thing. If Spence
wins this year—and he’s certainly a candidate early on—it’s because he
will legitimately have improved in just about every respect. Fun to
experience.

Regressed: Uh, well he’s still yet to hit a three this year
in three tries, after shooting a smoldering 24% from deep last year.
It’s something, anyway.

Needs to Work On: If you want to
nitpick, The Unibrow’s work at the charity stripe still leaves much to
be desired. It’s not so much his free-throw percentage—60% through eight
games, which obviously isn’t great—as much as it is that he never gets
there, shooting just ten free throws so far this season. For a guy who’s
quickly turning into one of the team’s greatest offensive threats (I
know, right?), that’s a pretty lackluster rate, and to take the next
step as a scorer, he’s gotta figure out a way to get to the line and
pick up some cheap points that way.

More importantly, Spence needs to just work on staying healthy—his
back, which kept him out for most of the early season last year, has
started acting up again, and forcing Collins to play him limited
minutes. He should probably sit out tonight against the Knicks, and
maybe take a couple other games off here and there to ensure he’s in
decent shape for the season’s stretch run and (hopefully) the
post-season.

Sixers.Hornets.Jrue.Holiday.jpg

Jrue Holiday:

Improved: Jrue’s been
extra nice around the basket this season, and he’s learned to use the
glass with a craftiness that few point guards—few guards of any stripe,
really—have in their arsenal. He’s also stepped up as the team’s most
reliable big-shot maker, hitting game-sealing threes at key moments in a
couple games so far this season.

Regressed: While the big shots have been nice, on average,
his outside stroke has mostly been a little off-kilter so far this
season—it would have been nice during Jodie Meeks’ struggles to see Jrue
step into the role of knockdown shooter, which I believe him capable of
filling, but it just hasn’t been there yet. His assist numbers are also
down, from 6.6 last season to just under 5 this season, but again, with
so many ball-handlers in this offense, you can’t get too upset about
Jrue not being able to pad his stats in that area.

Needs to Work On: Commanding the ball in late-game
situations. There’s no one on this team I trust with his ball in his
hands in the waning minutes as much as I trust Jrue, who has proven his
cold-bloodedness on several occasions (without slamming it down our
throats the way Sweet Lou does), but he still shows a little hesitance
to be That Guy for the Sixers. He also just needs to show more
confidence in taking open threes when set up for them—too often this
season, Jrue has driven or passed out of such opportunities, rarely
resulting in a better scoring chance than what The Damaja originally
had. He’s gonna be the team’s best guy sooner rather than later, and he
should start acting like it.

Andre.Iguodala.pacers.bomb.jpg

Andre Iguodala:

Improved: It’s been
pretty feast or famine with Andre Iguodala from the field this year, but
at least he’s taking less twos this season and more threes, where he’s
been fairly effective on average, shooting about 47% from deep.

Regressed: The assists are down a little from last year,
though that’s more a function of him being used less in the offense as a
point forward (in favor of primary ball-handlers Jrue Holiday, Evan
Turner and Lou Williams) than anything he’s doing wrong. After a hot
start, his shooting is dropping precipitously, but in the end it’ll
probably average out to about where it’s always been for ‘Dre.

Needs to Work On: Not being a hero. So far, ‘Dre hasn’t had
to do much final-possession work, which is unquestionably a good thing,
though he did hit a big turnaround jumper against the Pacers a few
nights ago with about a minute left, but it’s better to see him serve as
a last-ditch option in the half-court and an occasional drive-and-kick
guy than as the legitimate centerpiece of the offense, which is always
going to be a crapshoot.

jodie.meeks.jpg

Jodie Meeks:

Improved: Uh. Well, he’s not killing the team on defense anyway.

Regressed:
Where’s the shot been, Jodie? It shows up on occasion—Meeks’ hot
shooting clinched that game against Detroit for the Sixers, and helped
them blow it open against the Kings last night—but otherwise, it’s just
been MIA, and Jodie’s not the kind of all-around player that can still
be a contributor when the shot’s not falling. Under 40% from the field,
just 34% from three—that’s not gonna cut it for our team’s starting two
guard. Since Doug Collins likes the balance he provides to the starting
lineup, he’s probably not gonna lose his SG1 spot to Evan Turner (who’s
yet to hit a three all year) anytime soon, but there’s no doubt he’s
been the team’s weak link so far this season.

Needs to Work On: OK, as bad as Jodie’s been from range, it
hasn’t been nearly as frustrating as how bad he is on the break. Nobody
on this team can screw up an odd-man rush quite like Jodie, who lacks
any kind of passing instincts and is very OK with taking on two
defenders on the way to the hoop. Collins should spend a good 20 minutes
of each practice with Meeks practicing 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s with him
until he shows the ability to make the most rudimentary of correct
decisions in the full court.

evan.turner.mediaday.jpg

Evan Turner:

Improved: First and foremost, Evan has learned what not
to do on the court—he doesn’t try to beat his man off the dribble
anymore and get stuffed, he doesn’t go hurtling into traffic and get his
shot blocked, he doesn’t fall for pump-fakes and pick up cheap fouls,
and he doesn’t get too far up on his man and get totally smoked en route
to the hoop (no Zumoff). Eliminating the rookie mistakes from his game
has allowed him to be a real contributor off the bench, upping his
scoring (both in total points and efficiency), his rebounding and his
assist numbers in the process. He’s shown real craftiness around the
basket, using his sneaky quickness to dive in for easy layups and his
deceptiveness off the dribble to create space for his jumpers, and he’s
shown real chemistry with his teammates, running the pick-and-roll
brilliantly with Hawes and Vucevic and hitting Thaddeus Young for a
couple lovely finishes on the break. And his rebounding has been perhaps
his greatest asset this season, crashing the boards (grabbing about six
a game, among the most of NBA guards) and then initiating the offense
quickly as the team’s primary ball-handler.

There’s no doubt that Spencer Hawes has been the team’s most
improved player this season, absolutely night and day from where he was
last year. But Evan Turner has been a close second, and even if he may
never quite live up to that #2 pick, worries about him being a bust are
starting to fall by the wayside.

Regressed: The major criticism of the Extraterrestrial in his
second season is that his outside jumper, which he was said to have
been working on all off-season with shooting doctor Herb McGee, doesn’t
seem to have improved much—the further Evan gets from the basket, the
exponentially worse his shooting numbers become, and as previously
mentioned, he hasn’t hit a single three all year. The good news, at
least, is that he’s taking them less—he’s only hoisted seven threes all
year, and a much higher percentage of his FG attempts have come around
the rim this season than his rookie year. His free throw shooting has
also been subpar to start the season, though a small sample size is
almost certainly the culprit on that one, and he made all four against
the Kings last night.

Needs to Work On: Getting that jumper down. He’ll never be a
reliable starting two-guard in this league without at least an average
outside stroke, and if he wants an increased role on this
team—especially if, God forbid, they ever actually trade Iguodala—he
needs to prove he can knock down open baseline jumpers and threes from
the wing and the like.

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Lou Williams:

Improved: Well, Williams
is basically the same player he’s always been, but I should probably
take this opportunity to give The Boss some credit for what he’s done so
far this year. I don’t talk about Sweet Lou as much as I should
perhaps, because I find him so frustrating to root for some times, but
there’s no doubt he’s been big for the Sixers this year, leading the
team in points and PER, maintaining a decent FG% and assist to turnover
ratio while getting to the line (and converting once there) at a far
greater rate than anyone else on the team. We wouldn’t be where we are
right now without Lou Williams, and it’s time for me to acknowledge
that.

Regressed: That being said, there’s one aspect of Lou’s game
that continues to infuriate me: His need to dominate every
end-of-quarter possession. Part of the blame must go to Collins for
enabling him—really, how he got any burn at all last night after that
hoisting that pathetic excuse for a two-for-one three (ensuring them a
possession of three seconds after the Kings scored on the other end) is
beyond me. But it happens every time—Lou sees the clock winding down,
decides this is the Sweetness Hour, and ends up taking a contested three
or fadeaway jumper as the clock expires. He never scores on it.
It’s like he thinks every final possession is one of those possessions
where there’s only four seconds left and he has to chuck it as quickly
and haphazardly as possible. It’s like he thinks every final possession
is one of those possessions
where there’s only four seconds left and he has to chuck it as quickly
and haphazardly as possible, even if there’s a full 24 on the clock.
But, sure enough, as the next quarter is ending, guess who’s got the
ball again? I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.

Needs to Work On: Getting horse-collared by one of his
teammates on the bench any time there’s less than a half-minute left in
the quarter. Otherwise, he’s about as good and reliable a sixth man as
the team could ask for.

Thaddeus.Young.jpg

Thaddeus Young:

Improved: The offense
was there for Thad last season as well, but the defense feels much
improved. Everyone’s favorite announcer Malik Rose has often expressed
his appreciation for Thad’s footwork on the defensive end, and
deservedly so, as he’s shown an incredibly ability to stay with some
skilled offensive players on the block without getting burned—not to
mention all the charges he’s picked up by anticipating what spots on the
court he needs to get to, and beating his man there. With his improved D
and the usual offensive arsenal—the running flip-shot across the lane,
the jab-step-and-drive, the ability to get out on the break and finish
with the best of them—five years, $42 million seems like a bargain.

Regressed: If only he had a jumper. Thad did hit a couple
against the Pacers the other night, but elsewhere this season he just
hasn’t looked comfortable away from the basket, and his FG% stats
plummet the further he drifts from the hoop. He’s a valuable player even
without the range—and no one’s suggesting he starting chucking threes
again like he did in the Eddie Jordan era— but if he did have a reliable
touch from 10-15 feet, he could be a star.

Needs to Work On: The jumper would be nice, of course, though
if he wanted to concentrate on perfecting that running flip-shot, that
could be a pretty valuable tool as well.