Feel for ta­lent, not the process, has made Six­ers better

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - SPORTS - Jack McCaffery Colum­nist

The 76ers had won three of their last four, and in a cou­ple of hours they would win again. And there was Brett Brown, down­stairs at the Wells Fargo Cen­ter, try­ing to ex­plain how it all hap­pened.

For that mo­ment, the talk was not about as­set-col­lec­tion or a process, not about the draft, not about the lot­tery, not about any back-door slide into bas­ket­ball ful­fill­ment. For that mo­ment, he was dis­cussing play­ers, among them Ger­ald Hen­der­son, Robert Cov­ing­ton and T.J. McCon­nell. And more. And he was talk­ing about their char­ac­ter, and their guts.

“You have to have it,” Brown said, “in your DNA.”

If the Six­ers are ever made to be great again, there will be

many rea­sons. Pa­tience was one, yes. They had it when it was not pop­u­lar to have it, and that be­gan with Sam Hinkie. That al­lowed them to find Joel Em­biid and to wait for him to work through two years of foot re­con­struc­tion be­fore sur­fac­ing as a le­git­i­mate NBA All-Star can­di­date. When it hap­pens, if it hap­pens, that will be the fea­tured an­gle.

But when­ever bas­ket­ball peo­ple would gather on the perime­ter of the process, and of­ten that lit­er­ally in­cluded half­time of Wells Fargo Cen­ter games, in the press room, where scouts of­ten min­gle, there was this ever-present hum: You can’t cheat the game. The talk was that, even­tu­ally, the only way to build real suc­cess was through iden­ti­fy­ing tal­ents, iden­ti­fy­ing win­ners, iden­ti­fy­ing that bas­ket­ball DNA that Brown was dis­cussing be­fore McCon­nell scored at the horn to beat the Knicks, 98-97, Wed­nes­day.

“Some of it is just gut­feel,” Brown was say­ing a day later, af­ter prac­tice. “When we draft peo­ple, we sit them in a room. You look across, they sit there, and you just talk to them. You have a gut feel about the per­son. And you un­der­stand the per­son, and you un­der­stand the pedi­gree. And you re­search coaches and team­mates and re­ally study the per­son.

“So that DNA, that tough­ness, the per­son­al­ity, the pas­sion … do they re­ally love bas­ket­ball? Do they want to get better? I think that’s a truly re­veal­ing ques­tion: Do you want to get better? And what does that look like? What does that mean? How do you see that hap­pen­ing? You start lis­ten­ing

and learn­ing, and you just form an opin­ion of the per­son.

“I think the peo­ple we are grow­ing and have in the pro­gram – and we have a long ways to go to get it to where we want – but there is a DNA emerg­ing that is very ap­peal­ing and en­dear­ing to me from a tough­ness stand­point, from a de­fen­sive stand­point and from a com­pet­i­tive stand­point.”

The Six­ers have won this sea­son, 11 times al­ready, more than they did in 2015-2016 when they were 10-72. And there are do­ing so pre­cisely be­cause they are not cheat­ing the sport at all. Rather, be­hind Brown, they are fi­nally ap­proach­ing game nights the proper way.

Maybe it’s be­cause Brown is into his fourth sea­son as a head coach and is tired of only fronting for a cock­eyed process, but sud­denly he has be­gun to swing his pro­fes­sional el­bows. Yes, the Six­ers tanked an en­tire sea­son to ac­quire Jahlil Okafor. But Okafor doesn’t ad­e­quately de­fend, and so, a reign­ing NBA All-Rookie player no longer starts. And, yes, the Six­ers spent more than $6 mil­lion for vet­eran pro Ser­gio Ro­driguez to help run the point un­til Ben Sim­mons was ripe. But in Brown’s view, McCon­nell, the for­mer walk-on, pro­vides more value, early in games and late.

Ner­lens Noel? A good player, also sold as a cen­ter­piece for the fu­ture. But he is not as com­plete a cen­ter as Em­biid and not as re­li­able a for­ward as Er­san Ilyasova, and so, he is a backup big man.

Brown sees some­thing in Dario Saric, and is bring­ing him along at a steady pace. He sees even more in Hen­der­son, the 29-year-old vet­eran. That’s why he plays him late in games, like the one Wed­nes­day, when he made

a dif­fer­ence at both ends as the Six­ers ral­lied from 10 points back in the fi­nal 2:29.

“He ac­cepts what­ever role I want to give him,” Brown said. “And I just have a lot of re­spect for Ger­ald Hen­der­son.”

The Six­ers needed play­ers like Ger­ald Hen­der­son, and McCon­nell, and Em­biid, Ilyasova, Saric and even Nik Stauskas, who has sur­faced as a valu­able guard. And they needed Brown to fig­ure out when to play them in or­der to win bas­ket­ball games, not ping-pong balls in that goofy lot­tery.

The Six­ers re­main a de­vel­op­ing team. The sea­son is nearly half over and they are squat­ting at 14 games un­der .500. So that con­fetti is a long way from flut­ter­ing, no mat­ter how many times Em­biid chirps about mak­ing the play­offs. Their sched­ule is about to take a tough turn. Em­biid still doesn’t play in backto-back games. The over­all shoot­ing is ques­tion­able.

And yet … the Six­ers have a fresh bounce, one that comes from win­ning.

“It feels good,” Em­biid said. “It shows that you have to give a lot of credit to the coach­ing staff. They have done a great job of get­ting us ready, and the play­ers are play­ing very hard. That’s how we are able to come back and win games.”

They are win­ning with play­ers. They are win­ning with coach­ing. They are win­ning with proper ro­ta­tions. They are win­ning with de­fense.

They are win­ning be­cause they have play­ers with the bas­ket­ball DNA that de­mands noth­ing else.

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