Point Guard Kendall Marshall Looks to Lead Sixers By Example

A former lottery selection, Marshall hopes he's found a home leading the young 76ers.

Philadelphia 76ers guard Kendall Marshall (5) during media day at Stockton Seaview Hotel. Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers guard Kendall Marshall (5) during media day at Stockton Seaview Hotel. Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

You wouldn’t expect Kendall Marshall to be this well-traveled only three years after being selected 13th overall in the 2012 draft.

Yet here Marshall is, about to suit up for his 4th NBA team, with a journey that also includes being traded twice, waived three times, and two stints in the NBA Development League.

Marshall split his rookie season between the Phoenix Suns and the Bakersfield Jam, the Suns’ D-League affiliate. Marshall’s rookie season ended with him averaging a disappointing 3 points and 3 assists per game, playing only 14.6 minutes per night in 48 contests with the Suns.

Phoenix would bail on their lottery pick next fall, trading Marshall — along with Shannon Brown, Marcin Gortat and Malcolm Lee — to the Washington Wizards at the conclusion of training camp. Washington would go on to waive Marshall three days later.

Sixteen months after being a lottery pick Marshall was looking to pick up the remnants of his career by proving his worth in the NBA’s Development League. The team he would land on would be the Delaware 87ers, the 76ers D-League affiliate.

The contract Marshall signed was one with the D-League itself, not with the 76ers. The distinction is important because it gave the Sixers no rights to exclusivity with Marshall, and any team in the NBA could call him up. After eight games with the Sevens, where Marshall averaged 19.4 points and 9.6 assists per game, the Lakers did just that. Finally, Marshall would have another chance to prove his worth.

“Throughout that first year I had been through so much, mentally and with not playing, when I went to the Sevens I just wanted to be on the court,” Marshall said when talking to the media before the start of training camp. “I just knew, I hoped, that everything would fall into place once I got on the court.

“And, thankfully, it did.”

With the Lakers experiencing a slew of injuries, including setbacks to point guards Steve Nash, Steve Blake, and Jordan Farmar, Marshall was afforded something the point guard laden Phoenix Suns couldn’t offer: consistent playing time.

“This league is all about opportunity,” Marshall explained about his Lakers stint. “There’s not one guy in this league that can’t play. It’s just a matter of them getting that opportunity to go out there and show it.”

With that playing time, and the knowledge that he was going to go out there and play every night, Marshall figured out how to play against the league’s best athletes.

“The opportunity [with the Lakers] was huge for me,” Marshall described. “When you’re on the court and you’re getting to learn from your mistakes, and learn what you can and can’t do, I think that’s huge for any player.”

Even after a successful stint in Los Angeles, the Lakers waived Marshall at the end of the 2014 season. Marshall was picked up off of waivers by the Milwaukee Bucks and played an important role off the bench for Milwaukee last season before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in January.

Marshall was then traded back to Phoenix as part of the three-team trade that saw the Sixers ship Michael Carter-Williams to Milwaukee, getting the Los Angeles Lakers 1st round pick from Phoenix in return. Phoenix waived Marshall two days later, the third time the former lottery pick had been waived in his brief three-year career.

This all set up a return back the Philadelphia 76ers organization, the parent club of the Delaware 87ers where Marshall had rejuvenated his NBA career just a few years prior.

Looking back on his time with the Sevens, 76ers head coach Brett Brown admitted that they may have let him go before they should have.

“Maybe we did let him go too soon,” Brown said. “It’s probably a little bit easier to assess [him] when you actually see him on an NBA court, instead of in a D-League game. I feel like he had some good NBA games that made us pay attention.”

There’s one thing Marshall can do, and it’s something Brown values immensely.

“Kendall Marshall can pass the hell out of it,” Brown went on to say. “The pass is king. The pass is everything. When you look at the qualities of successful teams, and especially successful offensive teams, the pass is everything.”

Those words are music to Marshall’s ears, as passing has always been his forte. Marshall averaged 8 assists per game in 28.8 minutes during his two-year college career at UNC, leading the nation with 351 assists during his sophomore season. In fact, those 351 assists are the most anybody has accumulated during an NCAA season dating back to at least the 1996-97 season, the farthest back the sports-reference database goes.

For the most part, that part of Marshall’s game has translated to the NBA level, where Marshall has averaged 9.5 assists per 36 minutes during his brief three-year career. Since Marshall entered the NBA he ranks 3rd in assists per minute, behind only Chris Paul (10.7 assists per 36 minute) and Rajon Rondo (10.2).

“It’s been pretty clear from day one, even since I was in college, what my calling was,” Marshall said, referring to his passing. “I take pride in getting the ball up the court, getting it up to guys and letting their talent take over. We can really use our athleticism. I think [playing up-tempo will] fit me as well as fit the team.”

Marshall admits that, with all the peaks and valleys his career has already gone through, that it’s tough to think about anything more than the here and now. Right now, his goal is to return from the torn ACL he had surgically repaired last February.

To that end, Marshall says he has been fully cleared, although he’s still experiencing some pain as a result of tendinitis. He’ll start off training camp limited to walkthroughs, and slowly ramp up his activities as the pain subsides.

But he seems to be on much more solid footing than he was even 12 months ago, which he attributes to rounding out the other facets of his game, such as defense, his perimeter shot, and the ability to generate his own offense. In that regard he’s shown signs of life that made teams, including the Sixers, re-evaluate his ability to stick in the NBA.

“[It’s been about] getting better at shooting the ball, getting better at defending my position, and doing it at an NBA level,” Marshall said when asked about what’s been different for him of late.

The perimeter shot was a big addition to his game, especially with the addition of Jahlil Okafor to the team and the Sixers’ newfound emphasis on the three-point shot. Marshall went from connecting on just 31.5% of his three pointers during his rookie season, and only 22.2% during his stint in the D-League that year, to over 39% in each of the last two seasons.

The next step in Marshall’s development may be as a leader on this young, inexperienced 76ers team. At 24 years of age Marshall may not seem old, but he is the 7th oldest of the 20 players the Sixers invited to training camp. His 130 games played do not seem like a lot, but it’s the 4th most of any player on the team, with only Carl Landry having played substantially more at 477 games played.

More than either his age or his service time, it’s been the trials and tribulations of his career that give him valuable perspective as a leader.

“I don’t want to say that 3 or 4 years makes me a veteran,” Marshall said, referring to the limited number of years he’s been in the league. “I think it’s more of everything that I’ve been through that kind of makes me a veteran.

“I have to be a leader,” Marshall continued. “Showing guys how to be professionals, understanding how to take care of your body, understanding showing up early and getting the work in. It’s the foundation. Doing things the right way every single day.”

The point guard spot is the 76ers biggest question mark, with Marshall among a group of six players fighting for a spot on the 76ers roster. Brown said last week that he expects to retain three of them when the 76ers are forced to trim their roster to 15 before the regular season.

Marshall signed a four-year contract, with just over $2.1 million guaranteed for this season, and is a pretty sure bet to make the Sixers regular season roster. When healthy, Marshall is likely to be battling Tony Wroten for the starting spot. Wroten is also working his way back from a torn ACL suffered in January.

While Marshall doesn’t allow himself to think too far ahead, there’s quite an opportunity sitting there waiting for somebody to claim it.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.