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NBA Team Previews: Philadelphia 76ers

Alex Rikleen

Rikleen writes the NBA column "Numbers Game," which decodes the math that underpins fantasy basketball. A certified math teacher, Rikleen decided the field of education pays too well, so he left it for writing. He is a Boston College graduate living in Delaware.

The 76ers are entering Year 2 of a massive rebuilding project. Only two players remain from the roster general manager Sam Hinkie took over in May of 2013, and both of those players could soon be gone. Jason Richardson and Arnett Moultrie were recently described as "likely to be bought out of their contracts" before the start of the upcoming season. Without Richardson, six-year veteran Luc Mbah a Moute would become the team's oldest player, and the 76ers' only player with more than two full seasons of NBA experience. Under Hinkie, the team has amassed youth and future draft picks, prioritizing competing for a championship in the future over anything else. The 76ers had two top-10 picks in the loaded 2014 NBA Draft and used them on a pair of players who may not play a single game in 2014-15 (Joel Embiid No. 3, Dario Saric No. 12). Those selections demonstrate the 76ers' commitment to their rebuilding strategy. It's a strategy that shows a lot of promise for the long-term future of the team. For the upcoming season, however, the 76ers might have a squad even worse than their 2013-14 version.

Michael Carter-Williams is the face of the team and the starting point guard, and his playing time will reflect those roles. Last season, that meant 35 minutes per game, and there is no reason that should change significantly.

Coach Brett Brown played his starting center for roughly 30 minutes per game last season. Whether that starter was Spencer Hawes, Henry Sims, Daniel Orton, or Arnett Moultrie didn't matter. That starting job now belongs to Nerlens Noel, but there haven't been any reports detailing how many minutes the Sixers will give Noel there this season. He's now healthy after recovering from ACL surgery, and even any new acquisitions would be unlikely to unseat him from that role. But health and development, not winning, is the priority, so the 76ers are likely to limit Noel's minutes, especially early in the season. His workload should gradually increase, starting in the low-to-mid-20s, and ending closer to 30 minutes per night.

The starting power forward role will likely go to Henry Sims or Luc Ricard Mbah a Moute, but it's unlcear who will get the bulk of the minutes there. Moultrie, Brandon Davis, and Hollis Thompson could also see time there.

Shooting guard and small forward both appear ripe for time-shares. Tony Wroten and newcomer Alexey Shved will compete for large roles with Thompson and rookie K.J. McDaniels. All four players seem likely to eclipse 20 minutes per game. Of the group, Wroten may have the best chance to approach 30 minutes per game, since he also serves as a backup point guard, although Shved coule help fill that role too.

Casper Ware, Mbah a Moute, Jarvis Varnado, and Davies are all likely to play in most games, but none are likely to play more than approximately 15 minutes per night. Varnado and Mbah a Moute seem in line for the most court time, while Ware might see the least.



Nerlens Noel: Noel is entering his rookie season in the NBA, after sitting out all of the 2013-14 season recovering from surgery to repair his torn left ACL. In his only season at Kentucky, he averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 2.1 steals, and 4.4 blocks in 32 minutes per game through 24 games played. He shot 59 percent from the field on 6.9 attempts per game and 53 percent from the free-throw line on 4.3 attempts per game. Noel is a talented defensive player, having won SEC Defensive Player of the Year and All-SEC Defensive Team awards during his injury-shortened freshman season. He's the rare big man capable of recording multiple steals and blocks per game. Through five games of summer league play, he recorded 1.8 steals and 2.6 blocks per game. His overall offensive game needs improvement, but there are some signs that he could develop into an above-average offensive center. He's comfortable and willing to handle the ball with either his left or his right hand, has a quick first step on drives, and when he gets to the rim, he is a very strong finisher. However, at this point, he has no jump shot to speak of, and unless that improves, NBA defenses will allow him extra space in order to offset his ability to drive and finish. Before summer league, Noel had not played an organized game since February of 2013, so he is likely to begin the season somewhat rusty and out of shape. By the time he feels fully healthy and conditioned, whenever that may come, he's likely to provide statistical value in all formats.

Henry Sims: Sims is entering his third season in the NBA. He spent most of his first season and a half bouncing back and forth between the NBA and the D-League, appearing in two NBA games during his rookie season and in 20 of the Cavaliers' first 55 games during his sophomore season. After that, he was traded to the 76ers, where he started 25 of the final 26 games of the season. In those games with the 76ers, he averaged 11.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.5 blocks in 27 minutes per game through 26 games played. He shot 49 percent from the field on 8.8 attempts per game and 77 percent from the free-throw line on 4.1 attempts per game. On most other teams, Sims would probably be buried on the depth chart, only seeing occasional game action. The 76ers, however, are weak at power forward and weaker still at center. Unless either Joel Embiid returns, which may not happen this season, or someone else is acquired via trade, Sims should be the primary backup center behind Nerlens Noel. Especially early in the season, when the 76ers are likely to be cautious with Noel, who is returning from ACL surgery. There's a lot of value and opportunity in that role. Sims could also see minutes as a backup power forward, increasing his availability. He's not a particularly strong scorer or rebounder, but he is an efficient shooter and an above-average passer for a big man.

Jarvis Varnado: Varnado is entering his third season in the NBA. Varnado started last season in the NBA D-League but was signed by the Bulls in February. The Bulls let him walk when his contract expired, and the 76ers signed him in early March. With the 76ers, he averaged 4.3 points, 2.7 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.4 steals, and 1.3 blocks in 15 minutes per game through 23 games. He shot 60 percent from the field on 2.6 attempts per game and 52 percent from the free-throw line on 2.3 attempts per game. Once the 76ers acquired Varnado, he missed only one game through the end of the season. Though Varnado is thin for a big man, he is long and athletic and is most effective in the paint on both offense and defense. Offensively, he takes advantage of his speed to get around defenders. Defensively, he combines his physical strength with strong timing to grab rebounds above larger opponents and to block shots. Varnado left college as the NCAA's all-time leader in career blocks, but he struggles shooting from anywhere outside the paint. Though he's efficient from the floor, he's a poor free-throw shooter. Assuming Varnado makes the final 15-man roster, he's likely to continue to see steady bench minutes, possibly as the first man off the bench at power forward or center.

Brandon Davies: Davies is entering his second season in the NBA. As a rookie with the 76ers, Davies averaged 2.8 points, 2.1 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.5 steals, and 0.2 blocks in 11 minutes per game through 51 games. He shot 42 percent from the field on 2.5 attempts per game and 64 percent from the free-throw line on 1.0 attempt per game. Throughout most of last season, Davies had a steady role in the 76ers rotation, averaging 12 minutes per game in November, December, January, and April. Almost all of Davies' missed games were due to a finger injury that held him out of action from mid-January to mid-March. Davies went undrafted after graduating from BYU, in part due to questions surrounding his athleticism and physical conditioning. He doesn't block shots and struggles to rebound, which could spell doom for a big man who also doesn't shoot well from beyond the arc. Assuming he makes the final 15-man roster, Davies is likely to continue to see steady but limited reserve action in his sophomore season. If Davies can establish himself as a superior alternative to Jarvis Varnado and Arnett Moultrie, he could manage to increase his workload somewhat.

Joel Embiid: Embiid is entering his rookie season in the NBA, having been drafted with the third-overall pick this June. In his only season at Kansas, he averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.9 steals, and 2.6 blocks in 23 minutes per game through 28 games played. He shot 63 percent from the field on 6.1 attempts per game and 69 percent from the free-throw line on 5.1 attempts per game. Embiid shows strong instincts on both sides of the ball, but his game unpolished in some respects, in part because he has only played organized basketball for three seasons. Offensively, he has shown great talent as a finisher, scoring on 76 percent of his attempts at the rim. Defensively, he is a strong rim protector and won All-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. His biggest weakness is his relatively poor performance when he played against larger big men in college. Embiid is often compared to Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, but due to his struggles to remain healthy, he is also occasionally compared to Greg Oden. Embiid had surgery on his right foot in June, and the earliest projections for recovery would allow him to return to the court in March. In light of how the 76ers handled the recovery of Nerlens Noel last season, it's likely that Embiid will not play at all this season.


Hollis Thompson: Thompson is entering his second season in the NBA. As a rookie with the 76ers, he averaged 6.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks, and 0.9 three-pointers made in 23 minutes per game through 77 games played. He shot 46 percent from the field on 4.8 attempts per game, 71 percent from the free-throw line on 0.9 attempts per game, and 40 percent from three-point territory on 2.2 attempts per game. Thompson began his rookie season coming off the bench but worked his way into the starting lineup, starting in 41 games throughout the season, most of which came after the All-Star break. He's 6-8 and plays both shooting guard and small forward. Though Thompson performed better statistically when he played guard, the 76ers are much deeper at the guard spots this season and are likely to use him primarily at forward. Thompson enters the season as the frontrunner for the starting small forward role, but he will face competition for that job from rookie K.J. McDaniels and from veteran Jason Richardson, if Richardson can remain healthy. If Thompson underwhelms, coach Brett Brown would have no reason to hesitate before giving extra court time to McDaniels. Thompson could also lose minutes to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute if the 76ers decide to use some bigger lineups. Given Thompson's tepid production in 2013-14, and the presence of McDaniels and Mbah a Moute this season, Thompson should generally only be considered in deeper leagues at this time, though his efficient three-point shooting makes him a player to watch.

K.J. McDaniels: McDaniels is entering his rookie season in the NBA, having been drafted with the 32nd pick this June. In his final season at Clemson, his junior year, McDaniels averaged 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 2.8 blocks, and 1.2 three-pointers made in 34 minutes per game through 36 games played. He shot 46 percent from the field on 12.6 attempts per game, 84 percent from the free-throw line on 5.1 attempts per game, and 30 percent from three-point territory on 3.8 attempts per game. McDaniels is a natural fit at small forward, measuring in at 6-6, with a 6-11 wingspan. Last season, he won ACC Defensive Player of the Year and first team All-ACC honors. McDaniels is an athletic player who specializes in defense, highlighted by his impressive per-game steals and blocks numbers from college. He played well during the NBA summer leagues but was far from being a standout performer. On offense, McDaniels is a strong transition scorer and can do well in an up-tempo offense, which makes him a good fit in Philadelphia, but he's also a below-average perimeter shooter, which may not matter much since 76ers coach Brett Brown did little to discourage inefficient outside shooters last season. He should earn minutes at both shooting guard and small forward, competing mainly with Tony Wroten and Alexey Shved at shooting guard, and Hollis Thompson and the oft-injured Jason Richardson at small forward.

Luc Mbah a Moute: Mbah a Moute is entering his seventh season in the NBA and his first with the 76ers. He began last season with the Kings but was traded early in the season to the Timberwolves. With the Timberwolves, he averaged 3.3 points, 2.2 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.4 steals, and 0.2 blocks in 15 minutes per game through 55 games played. He shot 45 percent from the field on 2.9 attempts per game and 69 percent from the free-throw line on 1.0 attempt per game. All of those values, except for his field goal and free throw percentages, were career lows. Mbah a Moute's reputation is as a defensive stalwart, but despite being only 27 years old, his defense in recent seasons has not been of the same quality as it was when he was younger. In his best seasons, he was a poor scorer but an efficient shooter and was capable of posting slightly above-average per minute rebounds and steals totals. Over the last two seasons, however, he has declined in every category. The 76ers, with their relative dearth of talent at the forward positions, could give Mbah a Moute the opportunity he needs to revive his career. If he struggles, however, that could open the door for Arnett Moultrie or Brandon Davies. Mbah a Moute's presence serves one additional purpose, though it will not help fantasy managers. Mbah a Moute has known and mentored rookie Joel Embiid since Embiid was 16 years old, and the Sixers drafted Embiid with the third pick, so having Mbah a Moute there, even as simply a mentor, is worth the investment for Embiid's development.

Jerami Grant: Grant is entering his rookie season in the NBA, having been drafted with the 39th pick this June. In his final season at Syracuse, his sophomore year, he averaged 12.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals, and 0.6 blocks in 31 minutes per game through 32 games played. He shot 50 percent from the field on 8.4 attempts per game and 67 percent from the free-throw line on 5.6 attempts per game. Grant is only 20-years-old, and is perhaps the most raw of the 76ers' five rookies. He is 6-8 with a 7-3 wingspan and weighs 214 pounds. Grant's greatest assets are his athleticism and his willingness to hustle on both offense and defense, but his skills need refinement on both sides of the ball. He possesses an unusual ability to draw fouls, reaching the free-throw line on 26 percent of his possessions as a sophomore. Grant is a non-entity from the three-point line, where he attempted only five three-pointers last season, missing all of them. He may have difficulty making the 76ers' final 15-man roster, and if he does, he is likely to spend most of this season buried towards the bottom of the depth chart.

Arnett Moultrie: Moultrie is entering his third season in the NBA. Last season, he averaged 3.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, 0.2 assists, 0.7 steals, and 0.3 blocks in 16 minutes per game through 12 games played. He shot 42 percent from the field on 3.2 attempts per game and 80 percent from the free-throw line on 0.4 attempts per game. In 2013-14, Moultrie was limited, in part, by an ankle injury and a five-game suspension. After appearing in only 47 games as a rookie on a squad that featured more talented big man depth, and then only appearing in 12 games as a sophomore despite a wealth of opportunity, there's legitimate concern that Moultrie's time with the Sixers may come to an end soon. Moultrie is big enough to play either power forward or center and is quicker than most other players his size. He's also a strong free-throw shooter when he gets to the line, having shot 83 percent during his final year of college. Moultrie is a strong per-minute rebounder and has the ability to be an effective scorer. Before he entered the NBA, there were concerns that Moultrie needed improvement in his basketball IQ, but the biggest problem for Moultrie has simply been getting onto the court. He saw less action as a sophomore than as a rookie, despite a weaker depth chart. Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus young are now gone, but Henry Sims, Nerlens Noel, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute have replaced them. There are minutes available for big men, but Moultrie will first have to make the final 15-man roster. If that happens, he must then beat out Jarvis Varnado and Brandon Davies for minutes in the frontcourt, and both of those players saw more action than Moultrie in 2013-14.


Michael Carter-Williams: Carter-Williams is entering his second season in the NBA. As a rookie with the 76ers, he won the Rookie of the Year Award, averaging 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.6 blocks, 0.8 three-pointers made, and 3.5 turnovers in 35 minutes per game through 70 games played. He shot 41 percent from the field on 15.1 attempts per game, 70 percent from the free-throw line on 5.2 attempts per game, and 26 percent from three-point territory on 3.0 attempts per game. His 1.9 steals per game ranked sixth in the league, and his 6.2 rebounds per game were the most in the league from the point guard position. On the season, Carter-Williams totaled 68 more rebounds than the next-leading point guard, Kyle Lowry, despite playing in nine fewer games. Carter-Williams' ability to provide points, rebounds, assists, and steals can make him a valuable commodity in many league formats, but he is also turnover prone. He's both an inefficient shooter and a primary scorer for the 76ers, which is a combination that causes significant damage to a fantasy team's overall field goal percentage. Carter-Williams should remain the starting point guard and continue to see heavy usage in 2014-15, but the acquisition of Alexey Shved and Casper Ware provides depth that was not there in 2013-14.

Tony Wroten: Tony Wroten is entering his third season in the NBA, and his second season with the 76ers. Last season, he averaged 13.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 0.6 threes, and 2.8 turnovers in 25 minutes per game through 72 games played. He shot 43 percent from the field on 11.2 attempts per game, 64 percent from the free-throw line on 4.5 attempts per game, and 21 percent from three-point territory on 2.6 attempts per game. In the 16 games Wroten started, usually at point guard in place of Michael Carter-Williams, Wroten's averages increased to 17.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.1 three-pointers made in 34 minutes per game. Carter-Williams will continue as the 76ers' starting point guard, but James Anderson, who started 58 games last season at shooting guard, was waived in June, opening the possibility that Wroten could climb into the starting lineup. Jason Richardson's unreliable health should force Hollis Thompson into the starting small forward role, which, coupled with Andersons' departure, leaves a potential opening for Wroten at shooting guard. He'll have to compete with newcomer Alexey Shved and rookie K.J. McDaniels for that starting role, but based on his performance last season, Wroten may enter that competition with an advantage, albeit only a slight one. Wroten is turnover prone and an inefficient shooter, especially from three-point range, but he provides good per-minute value in points, rebounds, and assists.

Alexey Shved: Shved is entering his third season in the NBA, having played his first two seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves. As a sophomore, he averaged 4.0 points, 1.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, and 0.5 three-pointers made in 11 minutes per game through 63 games played. He shot 32 percent from the field on 3.8 attempts per game, 76 percent from the free-throw line on 1.4 attempts per game, and 29 percent from three-point territory on 1.6 attempts per game. Those numbers represent a significant step backward for Shved, who was much more efficient and more heavily used during his rookie season. Part of his decline was due to the improved health of starter Ricky Rubio, whose absence for 25 games during the 2012-13 season created a window of opportunity for Shved, and the arrivals of Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin before the 2013-14 season, crowding the depth chart. Those changes, however, do nothing to explain Shved's steep downturn in field goal percentage. In Philadelphia now, Shved will be competing against less talented players for the roles of backup point guard and starting shooting guard. Shved is a sort of handyman who lacks any one characteristic skill but also only has one statistical negative his poor shooting. If he can improve his shooting efficiency and earn a starter's workload, Shved could be a cheap source of assists and steals.

Elliot Williams: Williams is entering his third season in the NBA. As a sophomore with the 76ers, he averaged 6.0 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.5 steals, and 0.6 three-pointers made in 17 minutes per game through 67 games played. He shot 42 percent from the field on 5.0 attempts, 73 percent from the free-throw line on 1.8 attempts, and 30 percent from three-point territory on 1.9 attempts. Williams is average height for his position, but he is underweight. There's plenty of opportunity available for 76er shooting guards and small forwards, as no player holds a clear lock on those starting roles. With that said, however, due to his size, Williams is only really in consideration as a guard, and the arrival of Alexey Shved and Casper Ware adds depth to the guard positions that didn't exist in 2013-14. If Williams can again earn the amount of playing time he saw last season, he should have value in some deep leagues as a strong per-minute scorer and rebounder.

Casper Ware: Ware is entering his second season in the NBA. After playing most of last season in Italy, he signed with the 76ers in late March. With the 76ers, he averaged 5.3 points, 1.0 rebound, 1.1 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.8 three-pointers made in 13 minutes per game through nine games. He shot 43 percent from the field on 4.7 attempts per game, 83 percent from the free-throw line on 0.7 attempts per game, and 33 percent from three-point territory on 2.3 attempts per game. Ware is coming off a strong summer league performance, where he was the second leading scorer and fifth leading assist-getter in the Orlando Summer League. In addition to scoring and passing, Ware showed improvement from three-point range, averaging 37 percent from beyond the arc in Orlando. He's small, even for a point guard, which limits his positional flexibility. Ware will have to compete with incumbent Tony Wroten and newcomer Alexey Shved for the backup point guard position, but both of those players can also be used as shooting guards. If Ware manages to carve out a significant role for himself, he could be a valuable contributor, especially in points, three-pointers, and steals in deeper leagues.

Pierre Jackson: Jackson is expected to miss the entire 2014-15 season after rupturing his right Achilles tendon during summer league play. The 42nd pick in the 2013 NBA Draft played for the Idaho Stampede in the NBA D-League for most of the 2013-14 season, where he earned a spot in the 2014 D-League All-Star Game. In late February, Jackson left the Stampede to join Fenerbahce Ulker in Turkey. Despite his season-ending injury, the Sixers signed Jackson to an NBA deal, so he'll spend this season rehabbing with the team.

Jason Richardson: Richardson is entering his 13th season in the NBA and his second season with the 76ers. He sat out the 2013-14 season after surgery on his left knee. During the 2012-13 season, he averaged 10.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.5 blocks, and 1.7 three-pointers made in 28 minutes per game through 33 games played. He shot 40 percent from the field on 10.2 attempts per game, 61 percent from the free-throw line on 1.0 attempt per game, and 34 percent from three-point territory on 5.1 attempts per game. If healthy, Richardson might appear to be the frontrunner for the starting small forward position, but it's been a couple years since Richardson was fully healthy, and he last played an NBA game in January of 2013. In his prime, Richardson was a hyper-athletic former Slam Dunk champion who provided strong scoring, rebounding, and three-pointers. Now 33 years old, he has aged poorly, which is highlighted by his struggles to stay healthy, his deteriorating field goal percentage, and his deteriorating three-point shooting.


Jarvis Varnado: Too many people expect big things from Nerlens Noel for him to qualify as a sleeper, but few have ever heard of his backup, Varnado. A slightly underweight 6-10 power forward with a 7-4 wingspan, Varnado has incredible leaping skills. He blocks shots, grabs rebounds, and shoots a strong field goal percentage. Varnado is arguably the most talented 76ers big man after Noel and the injured Embiid, and he only needs to outperform Brandon Davies and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to earn extra playing time. Varnado joined the 76ers on March 1. Through the final month and a half of the season, his per-36 numbers showed Varnado was a top-10 shot blocker, ahead of Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan, and Roy Hibbert. There's no reason to draft him in standard leagues, but Varnado will probably be a common waiver acquisition for teams in need of blocks.


Alexey Shved: In 2012-13, Shved averaged six assists in 33 minutes per game during a stretch when he was starting in place of an injured Ricky Rubio. Managers hoping Shved might see a season-long reprisal of those numbers are likely to be disappointed. Shved took a major step backward in 2013-14, most noticeably in his decline in field goal percentage (from 37 percent as a rookie to 32 percent last season) and in his assist-to-turnover ratio (from 1.9 to 1.4). Even if Shved does reverse that decline, he will have difficulty earning playing time in a crowded backcourt.