Sixers Mailbag #13: Which Player Has Improved the Most?

The improvement Jerami Grant has shown, particularly on the defensive end, has been one of this season's pleasant surprises.

Jerami Grant's improvement on the defensive side of the court has been one of the pleasant surprises for the Sixers this season | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Jerami Grant’s improvement on the defensive side of the court has been one of the pleasant surprises for the Sixers this season | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

This week we continue our 76ers mailbag series, where we discuss some of the pressing topics around the team.

In the 13th edition of our Sixers mailbag we take a look at Dario Saric and what role he’ll play with the team, we’ll discuss who has improved the most and what some of the most pleasant, and unpleasant, surprises of the season are, and take a look at some of the best wins in the Sam Hinkie era.

You can read previous editions of the Sixers mailbag here. If you want to submit a question for a future mailbag either shoot me a message on twitter or send me an email.

Note: any opinions expressed here are my own opinions, and not reports or expectations based off of inside information, unless I explicitly state that a statement is based off of inside information.

Scott Krellner (@krellzbellz):

“What is the most impressive process-era win?”

That’s a good question. I certainly think the game on Saturday against the Golden State Warriors was the most impressive game of the season, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. The actual wins the Sixers have had this year, though, have mostly come against either bad, or struggling, teams.

Looking back to last season, they beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they were without Kyrie Irving and LeBron James in the game. They beat a mostly-healthy Washington Wizards, but the Wizards came into the game on a five game losing streak.

I would say it comes down to one of two games: when they beat the Atlanta Hawks, who were 49-12 at the time, last March, or the victory to start the rebuild against LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and the Miami Heat.

As much fun as beating the Heat was, that win, outside of Michael Carter-Williams, was done on the backs of players Hinkie inherited, such as Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, and Spencer Hawes. “The Process” had barely started. Beating the 49-12 Hawks with Ish, Canaan, Covington, Mbah a Moute, and Noel starting, even if the Hawks were without Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll, has to be the most processy Sixers win. I’d go with that.

Samuel Kim (@pickleSAM):

“Out of the 7 current Sixers who were also on the roster by last season’s end, who is the Most Improved Player?”

The contenders: Ish Smith, Isaiah Canaan, JaKarr Sampson, Hollis Thompson, Robert Covington, Jerami Grant, Nerlens Noel.

I think you can make a case for Ish, if for no other reason than the continued improvement in his jump shot, an important (although currently too heavily utilized) portion of his game. And I think most people will focus on Covington’s struggles from late December through early January, but I think his improvement as a defeder is worth pointing out as well. Covington currently ranks 4th among all small forwards in defensive real plus/minus, and his development into a legitimate 3-and-D wing might be the most important development of the season among players on the team last year, even if not the player who necessarily improved the most.

But I’d probably go with Jerami Grant. Again, I think some will focus on his lack of progress as a jump shooter, and that’s certainly fair. Grant is shooting 23.2 percent on 112 shots that were 5-feet or more from the basket. That’s a rate that would make Nerlens Noel do a double take.

But I think those struggles could be masking some of the strides he’s made in his overall game.

His defensive rebounding is better, from a 12.3 percent defensive rebounding rate to 14.1 percent. His man-man defense, which was good last year, is even better this year, as opponents are shooting over three percent less when Grant is guarding them than they are on the season. His defensive rotations are quicker and more decisive. He’s still elite at protecting the rim, with opponents shooting 47.4 percent when he’s in the vicinity, one of the best numbers for a combo forward in the NBA. On the offensive side of the ball he seems to have more of a purpose when he drives down the lane, which has helped his efficiency improve, from a 47 percent true shooting percentage to 51.4 percent, despite his struggles shooting from the perimeter.

He’s really a corner-three away from being a pretty consistent contributor in this league. I’d have to go with Grant.

David Leggieri (@legsanity):

“What has surprised you most so far this season?

This question kind of ties into the one above, as Jerami Grant’s progression has certainly been a surprise.

Outside of that, I’m going to go with two Jahlil Okafor surprises, one positive and one negative.

For a positive surprise, the improvement he’s shown in his face up game is huge for his development as a go-to scorer. How in control he is with his dribble, how comfortable he is changing direction, and how much touch he has on the move and from various angles has been a pleasant surprise, and makes it much easier to integrate him into a variety of offensive sets.

In terms of a disappointing surprise, Okafor’s passing, which I maintain was elite at Duke, simply hasn’t translated to the NBA yet. I think part of it is on his teammates, who still have to learn how to play off of his presence. I think that part of it is Okafor adjusting to NBA double teams, and the speed of the game. But I think part of it is also the adjustment to the 24-second shot clock. At Duke Okafor would be passing out of double teams with 15 seconds left and plenty of time for his teammates to make multiple passes to punish defensive rotations. In the NBA those double teams are coming later, and by the time Okafor has gathered himself, made his move, forced a double team, and surveyed the court for his best pass out of the double team, he may now have just 8 seconds left to operate, which makes it much more difficult to orchestrate the cuts, screens, and passes necessary for the team to really take advantage of the attention Okafor received. Okafor takes time to survey the court and execute his move, and getting him into his moves, and thus drawing double teams quicker, could hopefully help unlock this part of his game, which I think is very important.

James (@carbon_manodude):

“Has Brett Brown talked about finding ways to get Richaun Holmes more minutes? Kind of tough when Okafor and Noel are healthy.

I think you hit the nail on the head: it’s really tough to get a third big man playing time when both Okafor and Noel are healthy, and when Brown is looking to stagger Noel and Okafor as much as he has, thus limiting the amount of two big man sets the Sixers run.

And, for as much as Holmes has shown he’s capable of occasionally hitting a perimeter shot, he’s still primarily a pick and roll big man right now who is best finishing around the basket.

Brown mentioned a couple of weeks ago that he’s really cognizant of keeping Carl Landry and Richaun Holmes engaged, and that he can’t let them rot on the bench. But getting both of them into games, while staggering Okafor and Noel and playing the small ball lineups that help each of them, is virtually impossible. So I would expect that Holmes will get some playing time for a week or two, then Landry will take his place, and they’ll almost take turns alternating DNP-CD’s for a few games while the other gets 15-20 minutes of playing time. I wouldn’t expect huge minutes for either, though.

Various Dario Saric Questions


“Who’s the better long-term prospect, Dario Saric or Dragan Bender?”

Bender’s a hard one to get a great gauge on, because there’s just such a small amount of recent film to review. From playing just about 11 minutes per game for Maccabi Tel Aviv so far this year to his exclusion from the Croatian U-19 team because of a conflict in his shoe deal with Adidas (seriously), scouts just haven’t gotten as much tape on Bender as they would have hoped for.

Still, the talent he does flash is undeniable. From the set shot, to the athleticism, to the length and shot blocking, the number of ways he can impact a game is numerous, and rare to find in a 7-footer. He’s probably not as sure of a thing as Saric is, which makes sense since Bender just turned 18 years old a few months ago and Saric will turn 22 this spring, but the upside is higher. For as much passing as Saric has, and how much I think Philadelphia fans will fall in love with the passion that he plays the game with, Bender just has far more physical tools to be a two-way player, which is a huge part of why his stock is so high.

Michael Gallagher (@gall_michael):

“Is Saric a 3 or 4 in the NBA?”

I think Saric is best used as a power forward, both in Europe and in the NBA. I think there are a few reasons for this.

First, I think he’s better equipped to defend the power forward position than he is the small forward position, where his lateral mobility would be a pretty big concern. Second, I think you want to keep him closer to the basket defensively if for no other reason than his defensive rebounding is one of his plus attributes, especially when combined with his ability to push the ball up the court in transition. Third, perimeter shooting, which has been remarkably consistent of late, has the biggest impact at the power forward spot, and the threat he’d pose as a shooter would not only pull an opposing big man away from the hoop so other players could cut and drive to the basket, but would open up driving lanes for Saric as well.

Steve DeLuca (@SteveDeLuca, with a similar question from Andre Smith):

“If Saric was eligible in this draft and coming over next year, where would he likely be ranked?”

It’s a good question. For as much as we’re all excited about Saric, and I think he’s made a lot of progress in his two years with Efes, and I think Philadelphia fans are going to fall in love with his hustle and style of play, he does still have some limitations, most notably on the defensive side of the court. I don’t think he really has the physical tools to be a plus defender at either forward position, and you just hope he develops an advanced understanding of defensive rotations, to go along with his defensive rebounding, to help overcome that.

I’m also not sure how much he’s going to create off the dribble in the half court in the NBA, although the development of his three-point shot does help in that regard. I think his best role is probably as a 6th man type, although next to the perfect frontcourt partner (a la Joel Embiid), it’s not out of the realm of possibility that his skill set could fit in well enough and Saric could find himself in the starting lineup. Saric’s age, at 22 by the time of the 2016 draft, would also factor in to his perceived upside.

I’m also not completely in love with this draft outside of the top-2. Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Dragan Bender, and Jaylen Brown are, I think, pretty clearly better prospects, although if the hypothetical is Saric coming over now and Bender waiting a few years, that could impact their ultimate draft position. I also think Kris Dunn would go ahead of Saric in a draft. But there’s enough intrigue around Saric, and he’s shown enough against tough competition, that I think he could fall somewhere in that 6-10 range quite easily.

That will wrap it up. With how busy the NBA is as a result of February 18th’s trade deadline, the Sixers strong play of late, and the college basketball season being in full swing, we’ll have another mailbag out on Thursday.

Once again, If you want to submit a question for a future mailbag, either shoot me a message on twitter or send me an email.

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