Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the 76ers season was, for lack of a better term, disappointing. The originally planned lineup of Simmons-Richardson-Harris-Horford-Embiid combined to play 19 total games. Injuries and inconsistency played major roles in why this lineup didn’t work. The team currently sits at 39-26, with an NBA best 29-2 home record and an abysmal 10-24 road record. However, in the midst of all the disappointment and erraticness, one bright spot illuminated itself: the development of Shake Milton.
Since the inception of the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid era of Sixers basketball, the Sixers have lacked stability in the form of shot creation and a second ball handler after Simmons. Of course, there was the disappointing (and puzzling) ordeal that was the short-lived Markelle Fultz era in Philadelphia. Fultz was supposed to be that 3rd star who could be the scorer the team desperately needed. However, a confusing shoulder injury and off court drama ended that experiment and now Fultz plays in Orlando. There was also the Jimmy Butler experiment last year, which showed exactly what an elite shot creator could bring to the team. As everyone reading this knows, the team finished 3rd in the Eastern conference and came a (preposterous) quadruple bounce away from making the Eastern Conference Finals. Butler brought a flat out bucket getter mentality to the offense. When a shot was needed he was able to go and get it. When the offense stalled, he could go and get them a bucket. The only thing is, that lasted one year and Butler now plays in Miami.
This offseason, General Manager Elton Brand assembled a starting lineup of Ben Simmons-Josh Richardson-Tobias Harris-Al Horford-Joel Embiid. It was to be predicated on physicality on defense and (in the words of Brett Brown), “bully ball” on offense. The only problem with that lineup is, there’s almost no shot creation within that lineup. The offense, throughout the first half of the year, was clouded with spacing issues between Horford and Embiid. These issues only furthered criticisms on Ben Simmons, who also operates mainly in the paint on offense. The entire “bully ball” iteration of Sixers basketball didn’t work out at all.
Enter Shake Milton.
Milton got his first start against the Los Angeles Lakers back in January. He shot 3-5 for 7 points and put up 3 assists, along with 9 rebounds. This would be the first of 8 straight starts for Milton. During this 8 game run, in which he was starting for an injured Josh Richardson, he was mostly quiet outisde of a 27 point game in a loss against the Atlanta Hawks. However, considering the fact that Milton was never given consistent minutes in the NBA up until this point, it’s understandable that he’d need to get into a rhythm. Milton himself spoke on this point, saying (Via ESPN’s “The Jump“) ,”Everybody wants to play, everybody wants to be out there and be in the rotation, but it’s about staying ready.” Milton was then benched when Richardson returned and once the all-star break hit, Milton was told by Head Coach Brett Brown, that he wouldn’t be in the rotation unless an injury occurred.
Ben Simmons would suffer a back injury against the Bucks and Milton would come in and score 17 in a loss. This would be the start of another 8 game run in which Milton started, only this time, he had rhythm. Averaging 17.9 points, 4 assists and shooting an absolute lights out 58% from 3, Milton showed he was ready. The biggest evidence for his arrival on the NBA stage came against the Clippers. Milton exploded for 39 points on 14-20 shooting and connected on 7-9 shots from 3. This game put Milton on the national stage. Most had never heard of him before this but now they have.
Milton starting alongside Ben Simmons gives the team a very versatile lineup, offensively speaking. The spacing will be there and Simmons, in specific will benefit greatly in pick and roll sets as the roller. Simmons 6’10 240 pound frame attacking the rim is a scary sight for opposing defenses. Also, within this Milton can come off a screen and pop a jumper, if needed. This is the most important part about Milton being incorporated into the starting lineup, being the spacing he can provide and what he can offer for how Ben Simmons and the rest of the starting lineup can be used. Milton is currently shooting 45% from 3. His shot has to be respected by opposing defenses. This means the paint won’t be clogged and Joel Embiid will have room to operate in one on one settings. Milton can also be incorporated in lineups where Ben Simmons is at the 4 or 5 and surrounded by shooters. An example of this can be seen in the January 20th game against the Brooklyn Nets in which Simmons played some minutes at the 5 and put up a 34-12-12 triple double. Raul Neto was the guard in the minutes that Simmons played at the 4/5, he scored 3 points. A good shot creator/ball handler sharing the floor with Simmons gives him the ability him to attack mis-matches and use his size to his advantage. That shot creator/ball handler is Shake Milton.
On Monday, Brett Brown met with the media and said he’d started experimenting with using Ben Simmons in more off-ball situations, specifically as a power forward or, “All universe point forward,” in Brett Brown’s words. He’s placed Shake Milton in the starting point guard role. A front court of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons along with Shake Milton operating as the ball handler and the sets they can run is a salivating thought for many Sixers fans. Joel Embiid spoke on this, saying, (Via Tom West of Liberty Ballers) ,”…in half court play, we can use him (Simmons) in a lot of ways — pick and roll, or me and him we can play out of that pick and roll too, out of the post. So, I think we’re going to be great.” However, all of this starts with the point guard, Shake Milton, as he can and will be a threat to score everytime down the court, but add in a Simmons and Embiid frontcourt with the versatility that pairing offers, and this offense has a chance to become very lethal.
Along with what Milton gives you on offense, he can also provide length defensively. With a 7’0 wingspan he can add to the already lengthy defense that the Sixers already possess in Simmons-Richardson-Harris-Embiid. His wingspan can allow him to deflect passes, force turnovers and help start fast breaks. One of Brett Brown’s core philosophies has always been that everything starts with defense and Milton can effectively contribute on that end as well. Ultimately, Milton receiving more minutes on a consistent basis can only help both the Sixers and him from a development standpoint.
Sure doubters may say Milton’s performances may just be a flash in the pan or he isn’t elite enough, however if you go back to his days at SMU you can see that scoring is what he does. In his junior year at SMU, he averaged 18 points, 4.7 points and 4.4 assists before a broken hand would end his college career. Before this injury, Milton was projected as a first round pick. At SMU, Milton played for former Sixers head coach, Larry Brown. Brown said on Milton, “You won’t find a better kid than him, and somebody that really trusts the process,” Brown said. “The greatest thing is they had patience with him.” (Via Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia). Milton’s playmaking ability has always been something he excelled at and, as stated, teams were aware of this due to him being projected as a first round pick before injury. Milton’s time in the G-League only furthered his development and offered him a chance to refine his skills as a smooth playmaking scorer.
As mentioned, since the beginning of the Simmons-Embiid era there has been almost no consistency in developing or keeping a second ball handler/shot creator. That problem may have met its solution in the form of one: Shake Milton. With him in the starting lineup, gone are the spacing issues, gone is the lack of a pure bucket-getter. In, is the versatility, spacing and length that should be the calling card of this team. Milton may very well be the 76ers missing piece.