Extra Pass: How Brett Brown and his 76ers have embraced their youth

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BOSTON – “Do we have young-guy film today?” a player calls from the corner of the 76ers locker room.

Curious, I ask the 76ers’ media-relations official what that is.

“What do you think it is?” he replies.

“I’d guess its film young guys have to watch,” I say. “But, on this team, isn’t that everybody?”

“Pretty much,” Thaddeus Young chimes in.

The 76ers, carrying an average age of 23.4 (weighted for playing time and holding a player’s age constant as of Feb. 1 each season), are the NBA’s youngest team. Their youth permeates through their organizational culture, maybe even defining them more than losing has – though it’s not as if those traits are mutually exclusive.

They have the sixth-youngest team of all-time. By comparison they have the relatively non-descript 51st-worst win percentage of all-time, and even if they lose out, that would drop only to 33rd-worst.

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Philadelphia has only one player older than 26 – 33-year-old Jason Richardson, who has missed the entire season due to injury. Every other team has at least three players over 26.

So, when the 76ers hold young-guy film, it’s essentially team film. Only Young and James Anderson, a fourth-year pro, are exempt.

Rookie 76ers coach Brett Brown implemented the film sessions as a way to provide extra tutoring for young players during an NBA season that includes little practice time, and he personally decided who must participate. He likes the system and would have used it with any roster, though had he taken over certain other teams, maybe only a couple players would have been required to attend.

In Philadelphia, it’s become an essential tool.

Many coaches talk about loving the profession for the ability to teach above all else. But few competitors, which all NBA coaches are, would trade a good team (which requires fewer lessons) for a bad team (which requires more).

Brown doesn’t have that option, and if he did, there’s nothing to say he wouldn’t exercise it. However, he has remained enthusiastic through Philadelphia’s 17-60 season, demonstrating a real passion for serving the 76ers’ youth.

“I love coaching these guys,” Brown said. “They play hard. They play with their hearts on their sleeves.”

Philadelphia’s youngest player is 19-year-old Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 pick in last year’s draft who has yet to play this season due to injury. League-wide, only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Archie Goodwin are younger.

Of 76ers who’ve actually played this season, 20-year-old Tony Wroten is youngest.

“You would never realize that I’m the youngest guy playing right now,” Wroten said.

That’s because Wroten spent last season with the Memphis Grizzlies. The guard has played more NBA games than anyone in Philadelphia outside Young, Anderson and Byron Mullens. At times, Wroten feels he should help the 76ers’ six rookies, but it’s a tough balancing act.

“I’m still learning too every day,” Wroten said.

As are all the 76ers.

The players were recently discussing the oldest one on the team besides Richardson. Young thought it was himself. A lot of 76ers probably thought it was Young, too. Jarvis Varnado sure did.

But it’s actually 26-year-old Varnado, who beat 25-year-old Young into this world by a few months.

Varnado and Young actually graduated high school the same year, but Young left Georgia Tech after only one season, and Varnado played all four years at Mississippi State. Their professional careers have followed similar tracks. While Young is in the midst of a five-year, $43 million contract, Varnado is already with his fourth team in two seasons, trying to extend an NBA career that didn’t begin until two years after the Heat picked him in the second round of the 2010 draft. He signed with the 76ers on a 10-day contract before getting a rest-of-season-deal last month.

Never expecting to be the the oldest player on a team at this stage of his career, Varnado he likes the environment in Philadelphia nonetheless.

“We barely know the NBA,” Varnado said. “So, we’re just trying to go out there and trying to play hard. A lot of guys in here are trying to fight for jobs next year. So, we’re trying to impress everybody.”

And as far as his role as elder statesman?

“I haven’t really felt old,” Varnado said. “I’m around a lot of guys who are young guys, but I don’t feel old, though.”

Neither does Young, whom Brown calls the team’s grandfather.

“I’m still relatively young,” Young said. “It’s just I’ve seen a lot more than they have in this NBA structure.”

Including his veteran teammates traded.

The 76ers began the season with a few 25-year-olds – Evan Tuner, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen – but they dealt all three at the trade deadline (Turner and Allen to the Pacers, Hawes to the Cavaliers). A separate deal with the Wizards netted Eric Maynor – who, at 26, is the oldest person to play for Philadelphia this season – but, per his request, Philadelphia waived him after just eight games.

That left Young as the only 76er with a history of quality NBA production, even generously counting a few small-sample seasons by his teammates.

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Philadelphia is not young by accident, and those trades and buyouts are part of a long-term rebuilding strategy. In place of veterans like Turner and Hawes, the 76ers have turned to younger, cheaper and less-productive alternatives.

“It definitely tested my patience a little bit,” Young said. “I was just dealing with so many young guys and them not knowing certain things.

“On any team, you want as many veterans as possible. It definitely helps out having a lot of veterans, because sometimes, younger players just don’t know certain things.”

But for all the downside, Young appreciates aspects of the 76ers’ youth movement. He enjoys going fast – Philadelphia plays at the highest pace the NBA has seen in four years – and he’s grown as a leader.

Though Varnado edges him by a few months in age, Young is the unquestioned face of the 76ers.

“He’s had to carry a young team that is in a total rebuild mode, and he’s endured that,” Brown said. “He’s found ways to compete and lead and not whine or cry about it. He’s dug in.”

Young has done so as the 76ers have gotten progressively younger, especially after the trade deadline. They were always headed toward one of the eight youngest seasons ever, but now they appear likely to close sixth.

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Perhaps, I’m overstating the 76ers’ youth. After all, I’m counting their age in human years. Like dog years, maybe another measure – Sixer years? – is more appropriate.

On Jan. 29, the 76ers won in Boston. Their next game began a 26-game losing streak. During it, they traded Turner and Allen, traded Hawes, traded for Mullens, traded for Maynor, waived Earl Clark, waived Danny Granger, signed Varnado, waived Lorenzo Brown, signed Darius Johnson-Odom, waived Maynor and signed James Nunnally.

Finally, they returned to Boston this weekend and won again. Brown recalled Philadelphia’s first victory over the Celtics, just 65 days prior.

“That,” Brown said, “seems like a thousand years ago.”

Michael Carter-Williams and Tim Frazier ejected for altercation, leading to hilarious Dwight Howard free throws (video)

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Jason Smith pushed down Michael Carter-Williams while going for a rebound. Carter-Williams pulled Smith to the floor. Tim Frazier flew in heated.

It was more than a typical NBA altercation – Carter-Williams clenched his fist, though never swung – but it wasn’t quite a fight. It was just reserves getting feisty late in a blowout, the Hornets’ 133-109 win over the Wizards on Wednesday. Carter-Williams and Frazier were given double technical fouls and ejected.

One catch: Smith was called for personally fouling Carter-Williams, who was due free throws. With Carter-Williams unavailable, Washington could pick his replacement at the line.

Wizards coach Scott Brooks chose Dwight Howard, a poor free-throw shooter who’d been resting the entire fourth quarter and surely figured his night was over. Maybe it was only about Howard’s team-worst 53% shooting from the line, but it’s also possible Brooks was trying to make an opponent uncomfortable.

The Charlotte crowd went wild, and Howard only added to the fervor.

He sunk both free throws – padding his stats (18 points, 15 rebounds, two blocks and two steals) – and blew Brooks a kiss. Howard might appreciate the extra points Brooks afforded him, but they’ll likely come at a cost. Howard celebrated with the Sam Cassell/big-balls dance, which usually draws a fine from the NBA.

Kent Bazemore hits game-winner to lift Hawks over Pelicans (video)

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Just when it seemed as if the Pelicans were rolling… they lose to the lowly Hawks.

This was the second game of a back-to-back after beating the Celtics in overtime, and New Orleans looked the part, blowing a 15-point lead in the final 19 minutes.

Kent Bazemore‘s jumper with 2.1 seconds left stood as the game-winner when DeMarcus Cousins missed a rushed post-up on the other end.

Jalen Rose calls Paul Pierce petty to his face (video)

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Paul Pierce is being petty about Isaiah Thomas‘ tribute video.

And that’s from someone who empathizes with Pierce’s point of view.

When retiring a player’s number, teams tastefully use stoppages to show highlights and tributes to the player. The whole night, not just the moment of raising a number into the rafters, can be about celebrating the player. It’s reasonable for Pierce to want the entire package.

But to go on television and advocate for not showing Thomas’ video? To continue the campaign after Thomas made clear how important his video was to him? To tell the Celtics not to show a short video for Thomas during introductions?

It’s way too far.

Too many people around Pierce enabled his flawed approach. Jalen Rose put that to a pointed stop.

Rose on ESPN:

I’ve got say a word for you, fam. I think it was petty.

On Paul Pierce’s part.

I love Paul. This is my brother. Because to me, there are going to be all type of announcements that happen in the 48 minutes during that game. All types. Including Isaiah Thomas could be one of them. It does not take away from your situation. Like Kobe’s, it happened during the game. Because they’re doing yours post-game.

The look on Pierce’s face while Rose was talking!

NBA: Referees missed multiple intentional-foul attempts by Mavericks in loss to Nuggets

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The Mavericks trailed the Nuggets by 23 points in the second half and 16 points with 5:15 left in the fourth quarter last night. But Dallas rallied and cut its deficit to only one with 10.4 seconds left. Denver had the ball, so the Mavericks had to foul.

They tried… and tried… and tried before finally succeeding.

Per the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report, Dennis Smith Jr. should have been called for intentionally fouling Will Barton with 8.2 seconds left. Failing that, Wesley Matthews should have been called for intentionally fouling Barton with 6.7 seconds left. Mercifully, officials (correctly) whistled Matthews for fouling Gary Harris with 1.7 seconds left.

Harris made both free throws, and the Nuggets escaped with a 105-102 win once Dallas couldn’t get off a shot with so little time left.

The Mavericks probably would have lost even with a correct call on this sequence. They were trailing in the final 10 seconds and without the ball.

But allowing Denver to run off an extra 6.5 seconds and get the ball to a better free-throw shooter certainly hurt Dallas’ odds.

I’m not so concerned with the result of this game, though. The Mavericks are better off improving their lottery position by losing. It is a bad break for the teams jockeying with the Nuggets for playoff position, but, again, Denver probably would have won anyway.

The bigger takeaway: Even if players are more concerned about communication than calls, if referees can’t even get consecutive intentional fouls right, that doesn’t instill much confidence in the officials.