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.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo joined protesters, spoke in Milwaukee, “We want justice”

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Saturday protestors filled the streets from Los Angeles to New York and countless cities in between, speaking out against racial injustice, police brutality, and the systemic racism in our nation. All of it sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, but the movement has gotten much bigger than that, and the voices have gotten louder.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was one of those voices.

The NBA’s reigning MVP joined Bucks’ teammates — Sterling Brown, Donte DiVincenzo, Brook Lopez, Frank Mason II, and Thanasis Antetokounmpo — in taking part in the protest. Giannis also spoke to the crowd.

“We want change, we want justice, and that’s why we’re out here. That’s what we’re going to do today. That’s why I’m going to march with you. I want my kid to grow up here in Milwaukee, and not to be scared to walk in the streets. I don’t want my kid to have hate in his heart.”

Sterling Brown’s participation is fitting. In 2018, Brown was surrounded by a group of Milwaukee police officers following a parking violation at a Walgreens, he was taken to the ground and tased by the officers, then arrested. That incident and Brown’s willingness to fight it has led to a firing and suspensions of some officers. Recently, Brown rejected a $400,000 settlement offer from the city.

Brown has been a public face in Milwaukee for what protestors across the nation were trying to say on Saturday.

Timberwolves head into offseason in need of healing, with big decisions looming

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Another season of setback and tumult has mercifully ended for the Minnesota Timberwolves, this time in the strangest of ways after the NBA’s decision to resume virus-halted play with 22 teams.

The revelation of the makeshift plan immediately put the Timberwolves, who finished 19-45 for the third-worst record in the league, in offseason mode after nearly three months in limbo while the world wrestled with the COVID-19 pandemic and all NBA arenas went dark.

There was no arguing from Minnesota, where the 18 games remaining on the original schedule before the shutdown would have had little benefit as long as star center Karl-Anthony Towns was sidelined with a wrist injury.

“While we are disappointed for our team and our fans that our season is coming to an end, we understand and accept the league’s plan to move forward with 22 teams. It is important that we be a good teammate not only to the NBA, but to the other 29 teams to support the efforts to complete this season and prepare for next season in a healthy and safe manner,” president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said on Thursday after the league’s announcement.

Whether due to injuries or trades, the repeated disruptions during the season made the assessment of 34-year-old head coach Ryan Saunders difficult. First-timers aren’t typically hired without at least some commitment from the franchise to patience, but the Wolves are 36-70 under Saunders since he replaced the fired Tom Thibodeau halfway through the 2018-19 season. No NBA jobs are ever guaranteed.

Rosas, in his season-ending statement distributed by the team, appeared to apply some pressure on what will be for the Timberwolves a critical summer – and fall, since the draft has been pushed back to Oct. 15. Rosas promised an “intensive and thorough” program to help make up for the time lost to the shutdown. He also said Saunders and the rest of the staff would be “creative, aggressive and proactive” in approaching team building and player development in the meantime.

Here are some other key angles to follow as the offseason unfolds:

HEALING FIRST: Before the Timberwolves embark on the free agency and trading period, and enter the draft with two first-round selections, they could use some time simply for healing.

The city of Minneapolis became the epicenter for a nationwide wave of protest, anger and destruction after the death on May 25 of George Floyd, the black man who was handcuffed and pinned to the street by a white police officer who pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck until and after he stopped breathing. Since then, Saunders and guard Josh Okogie have been particularly outspoken on the issue of racial justice, and they joined on Friday a group spearheaded by Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph to distribute essential goods to community members in need in front of a grocery store that was vandalized, looted and burned last week during the worst of the violence.

All this came after the organization was mourning the loss Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, the mother of Towns who died of complications from COVID-19 on April 13.

WHEELING AND DEALING: Rosas proved in his first year on the job that he could swiftly and thoroughly change the roster, making four trades in the span of less than a month that fetched nine new players and dealt nine others elsewhere, not to mention the draft picks that swapped hands. That was more than half of the roster. The linchpin of the early February activity was D'Angelo Russell, who was acquired in a deal with Golden State that sent former cornerstone Andrew Wiggins packing.

BETTER WITH BEASLEY?: The pairing of Towns and Russell gave Rosas the potential star duo he sought. Shooting guard Malik Beasley was another key acquisition during the flurry of activity, should the Timberwolves decide to keep him. The 23-year-old averaged 20.7 points in 14 games.

“We’re big fans of Malik. We tried hard. We paid a very, very strong premium to get him here in Minnesota, but we’re excited,” Rosas said.

WHAT’S NEXT: There are six players on the roster whose contracts are set to expire, with Beasley, power forward Juancho Hernangomez and power forward James Johnson the most notable.

Johnson, who at 33 is the oldest on the team, had a productive 14-game stretch after arriving from Miami during the trading spree. He has a player option he can exercise for about $16 million next season. Hernangomez, who is only 24, will be an unrestricted free agent. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound native of Spain averaged 12.9 points in 14 games with the Wolves, after coming with Beasley in the deal with Denver.

Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu not expected to be back for Magic when games restart

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Jonathan Isaac was having a breakout season for Orlando. He had become a go-to defensive stopper for the Magic, a long, athletic, switchable defender averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals a game. He was going to get All-Defensive team votes this season and looked like a future Defensive Player of the Year candidate. (On offense he’s averaged 12 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, both career bests, but he is still a project.)

He hyperextended his knee and suffered a bone bruise in January, but it looks like neither he nor veteran Al-Farouq Aminu (torn meniscus) will be on the court for the Magic when games restart in July, reports Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel.

Injured forwards Jonathan Isaac (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (knee) most likely will not be healthy enough to return…

“Not a whole lot of news there,” [Magic president of basketball operations Jeff] Weltman said when asked about the possibility of Isaac or Aminu returning. “As always, we’re going to wait and see how they respond to rehab. They’re both working very hard.

“There’s a difference of being healthy and then being safely healthy. It will have been a long, long time since those guys played and you know organizationally that we’re never going to put our guys in a position where they’re exposed to any sort of risk of injury. So that being said, we’ll just continue to see how they progress.”

Put plainly, the risk is not worth the reward. Isaac is a key part of what the Magic want to build in the future and they do not want to push him too hard to return for this handful of games.

Come July, the Magic will head down the street to the Walt Disney World resort complex in Orlando as the eighth seed in the East with a 5.5 game lead over the ninth-seeded Wizards (who will not have John Wall back). If Washington can close that gap to four games or fewer during the eight “seeding games,” then there will be a two-game play-in series between the teams, with the Magic just needing to win one of the two to advance (assuming they are still the eight seed).

After that, it’s on to the first round of the playoffs and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Isaac’s defense would be helpful against Bradley Beal and/or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Magic are thinking bigger picture.

Winning percentage will determine final seedings in NBA restart; regular tiebreakers used

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Heading into the NBA’s restart in Orlando, the Trail Blazers are the nine seed in the West, followed by the Pelicans and Kings. All three of those teams are 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed, however, Portland gets the nine seed because it played two more games than either New Orleans and Sacramento, went 1-1 in those two games, and that gives Portland a slightly better winning percentage (.439 to .438).

That winning percentage matters because it’s how the league will determine seeding in a situation where teams have played a different number of games, reports Tim Bontemps of ESPN.

In practical terms, this may not matter much.

In the West, if Portland and New Orleans both went 8-0 in the seeding games then winning percentage would play a role with the Blazers getting the higher seed. However, that scenario is highly unlikely. More likely is wins and losses in Orlando will decide this and other tiebreakers (New Orleans beat Sacramento in their one head-to-head meeting, but our projected schedule for those teams has them playing twice, so the head-to-head tiebreaker is still up in the air). Because of how the records shake out, tiebreakers are irrelevant to Portland — it will not tie any teams, winning percentage will decide their seed.

In the East, winning percentage is irrelevant for the playoff chase — either Washington gets within four games of Orlando hand forces play-in games for the final playoff spot, or it doesn’t and Orlando is in.