76ers Musings: The Battle for the Final Roster Spot

With injuries to Nik Stauskas and Brandon Paul, the battle for the Sixers final roster spot has been off to a slow start.

Brandon Paul is among the players fighting for the Sixers final roster spot | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Paul is among the players fighting for the Sixers final roster spot | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

This week we continue our 76ers musings column, where we focus on a couple of (relatively) quick-hitting thoughts on topics being discussed about the Philadelphia 76ers.

You can read previous entries in the “Sixers Musings” series here.

The “battle” for the final roster spot

Assuming no trades, the Sixers have 11 players virtually guaranteed of being on the 15-man regular season roster once the season begins: Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson, Sergio Rodriguez, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Richaun Holmes, and Robert Covington.

(Note: even of Luwawu-Cabarrot is sent to the D-League, he will continue to occupy a spot on the 15-man roster).

That leaves 4 roster spots remaining for 7 real contenders: Nik Stauskas, Hollis Thompson, Elton Brand, Jerami Grant, T.J. McConnell, Brandon Paul, and Cat Barber.

McConnell is probably close to a guarantee, especially with the injuries to Ben Simmons and Jerryd Bayless limiting the ball handlers Brett Brown has at his disposal. With the improvement Grant has shown in his jump shot, the impact he’s shown as a defender, and how much head coach Brett Brown likes him, he falls into the virtual guarantee category as well.

I also think that whatever benefit the team sees in having Elton Brand around the team in training camp also extends to the regular season, and I’d be surprised if they brought him out of retirement just to have him babysit their young bigs for a month.

That leaves Stauskas, Thompson, Barber and Paul competing for the final roster spot.

So far this preseason, that competition has been more a crawl than a sprint. Stauskas has been dealing with a strained left hamstring he suffered in the Sixers’ first preseason game, and has not appeared in a game since. After a strong showing in the preseason opener (15 points on 6-10 shooting in 12 minutes), Brandon Paul suffered an oblique injury against Washington, and also has not appeared since. Cat Barber finally made his preseason debut last night in a game few saw. That leaves just Hollis Thompson as the only healthy player fighting for that spot.

Based solely on what they have shown so far this preseason, Brandon Paul would probably get that spot. But there’s a comfort level Brown has with Hollis, and Stauskas is only two years removed from being the 8th pick in the draft, even if he hasn’t shown that promise in NBA action to date. If Paul is to win the battle, it’s going to be difficult to do so without showing showing more in the final three games of the preseason.

Ramping up Embiid’s minutes
Earlier this week head coach Brett Brown talked about targeting 20-24 minutes for Embiid by the time the regular season begins.

So far in the preseason Embiid has yet to break the 13 minute mark in a game, but you can see his activity level remaining more constant throughout his first-half runs. At this point, how quickly his minutes get ramped up is based on his conditioning.

With only three preseason games remaining, and exactly two weeks from opening night against the Thunder, 20-24 minutes might seem optimistic, and maybe it is. But the fact that they’ve set that lofty of a goal is reason enough for Sixers fans to be optimistic. I think most fans would have been happy with 25 minutes at any point in the season, so shooting for that number from day 1 opens up the possibility of regular starter minutes later on in the season, an exciting proposition for Sixers fans.

Lack of perimeter shot creation
With the loss of Ben Simmons, the Sixers, once again, have a real lack of perimeter shot creation on the team.

Sure, Saric is a great passer, but that’s more likely to materialize in the form of transition opportunities and quick passes on the perimeter than it is in him getting into the paint and forcing the defense to rotate. Sergio Rodriguez is a real pick and roll threat, but he struggles to get by the initial defender and is unlikely to truly collapse the defense. Jerryd Bayless, the presumptive starter before he started dealing with a sore left wrist, has never been much of a shot creator, instead brought in because his catch-and-shoot skills were a good fit with the now-injured Simmons. Ben Simmons was the one guy who had the athleticism to get by his man and the court vision, creativity, and anticipation skills to deliver the ball on time and on target, and the Sixers don’t have anybody who can really replace that.

That’s once again going to put a lot of pressure on Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid to create in the post, not just for themselves but for their teammates as well. While both showed some promise in that regard in college, the Sixers don’t have many players who move well without the ball, which combined with their overall youth and inexperience places Okafor and Embiid in a tough position to learn how to handle that pressure. Okafor struggled to create for his teammates last year, and Embiid has struggled to react to NBA double teams after a 2.5 year layoff. Simmons’ injury also delays seeing a potentially great pick-and-roll tandem of Embiid and Simmons, and might make Embiid’s offense a little bit more stagnant as a result until Simmons’ creativity and court vision  return to the lineup.

Despite the upgrade in talent, the Sixers’ offense is still likely to struggle quite a bit this season, especially until Simmons returns. Just hope the turnovers don’t become as problematic as they did to start last season and that the Sixers’ defense has the chance to get set and compete.

Keep expectations low for Luwawu-Cabarrow
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot posted a solid stat line last night, scoring 13 points to go along with 9 rebounds in a game almost nobody saw. That followed up a 7 point, 5 rebounds, 2 assist performance against Cleveland on Saturday, progress for the 21-year-old rookie.

Even when Luwawu-Cabarrot shows the promise that made him a prospect many had slated to go in the lottery last June, it’s important to keep expectations in check.

Despite being relatively old for a rookie, Luwawu-Cabarrot was a late bloomer, playing in second division France just 17 months ago. The skill development he needs is obvious, from improving his ball handling to consistency in his three-point shot to adding upper body strength. Even beyond that, his decision making is still a work in progress, more green behind the ears than his pure age would otherwise indicate. While he’ll occasionally show flashes of his defense and athleticism, he’ll also sprinkle in equal parts hesitation and uncertainty that come with an inexperienced rookie making the transition to the NBA. Being able to use that athleticism to make an impact, on either end of the court, is going to be very inconsistent right now. That’s especially true after the loss of Simmons, as Luwawu-Cabarrot’s ability to sprint out in transition was an easy way to contribute early on in his career, and there will be fewer opportunities to do so with Simmons out of the lineup.

Luwawu-Cabarrot certainly has the physical tools to be a real valuable three-and-d role player, and that’s relatively exciting to grab with the 24th pick in the draft. It’s just going to take some time and experience before he can consistently fill that role.

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