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.”

Chris Paul says players don’t really talk about money in locker room

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Locker room banter flies all over the conversational map: Clubs/restaurants to first cars to rappers to Fortnite to why Player X never has any lotion and always has to borrow someone else’s.

What doesn’t come up? Money.

That according to Chris Paul, who should know after 14 years in the league and now serving as the players’ union president. He was talking about his campaign to help players become more financially aware and said this to Clevis Murray of The Athletic.

“I think the reason why I’m so passionate about this is because I’m finishing up my 14th year in the NBA, and I’ve been around long enough to realize that guys in our league, we talk about everything in the locker room except for finance, except for money,” he said. “Nobody talks about money, because it’s one of those uncomfortable things.”

It’s a strange dynamic in an NBA locker room because everybody knows what everybody else makes, it’s very public, and that provides a certain measuring stick of worth.

Yet how does one player tell another “man, your entourage is too big, you’re blowing your money.” Players finally making money understandably want to take care of family and close friends, but other people come into their life and things can spiral fast. CP3 says he gets it, and he is working with Joe Smith — who made $60 million in NBA earnings and lost all of it — to help prepare rookies.

The stories of NBA players blowing through their money absolutely happen, but they also are not the majority, and the numbers are shrinking. More and more players are learning to be smarter with their money and set themselves up on some level for life after basketball. Not all, but guys who stick in the league a few years tend to learn. If Paul and the union can come up with ways to reach players at an earlier age and prepare them for what is to come, all the better.

Bobby Portis says watch out for underrated Knicks, they could make playoffs

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You don’t want a player on your team that heads into the season thinking, “we suck, I just hope we can get to 20 wins and not be embarrassed every night.” Even if that might be the reality for that roster.

Enter Bobby Portis of the New York Knicks. The Wizards let him walk to save money and he has ended up on a Knicks team with a lot of guys who see themselves as underrated: Elfrid Payton, Marcus Morris, and Julius Randle. Plus New York has young players with a lot to prove — especially after Summer League — in Kevin Knox, R.J. Barrett, and Mitchell Robinson.

Portis likes this underdog team, he told Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype.

I love being underrated, man. I’m an underdog. I say that every day. We’re the team that’s being counted out right now. People are looking past us. They’re talking about stars going to new teams and this and that, and that’s okay. Everybody on this team has a huge chip on their shoulder. We’re the guys who are always picked second. I think that’s going to make us close. Our practices are going to be top-notch; we’re all going to be competing and that’s going to make us better. We have a lot of dogs on this team, which will help us out as well. Collectively, we all have a chip on our shoulder – a log on our shoulder – so we’re going to go out there and play with an edge. I think that’s great for us.

So… playoffs?

Yeah, for sure, for sure. The naysayers, the haters, the people who are doubting us will say that we’re crazy as hell for saying that. But we have a bunch of guys who are coming in each and every day with that log on their shoulder and that’s going to push us to become a great team. We have a lot of pieces who can play. I think we’re loaded at every position; there are two-to-three players who could start at every position. When you have that much talent, that rises the competitiveness and improves the team as a whole.

That is exactly the attitude you want to see heading into the season.

The Knicks are going to struggle this year, talent wins out in the NBA and the Knicks don’t have enough of it. However, if the goal is to build a culture of gritty players who go play all out and are tough to play against — the cultures the Nets and Clippers developed that drew stars to them — the Knicks are on a decent road. New York didn’t pull a classic Knicks this year and overspend on a couple of second-tier stars when they struck out on the big guns, they went out and got decent players on short contracts. Stay flexible, build a culture.

We’ll see if Portis will be part of that going forward, but he has the right attitude.

Report: Lakers claim Kostas Antetokounmpo off waivers

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is a 24-year-old MVP playing in Milwaukee and heading toward a super-max decision that could have him hit 2021 unrestricted free agency.

Big-market teams are licking their chops.

That probably has something to do with the Lakers adding his brother, Kostas Antetokounmpo.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kostas Antetokounmpo was the last pick in last year’s draft. He spent the season on a two-way contract with the Mavericks, who just waived him. He’ll remain on a two-way deal with the Lakers. The 21-year-old was alright in the NBA’s minor league, but he’s not a tantalizing prospect.

Except for his connection to Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he could never see himself playing for Los Angeles. But maybe he’d change his mind if someone close to him has a positive experience there. That must be the Lakers’ hope, at least.

It’s worth a shot, and the Lakers aren’t the only team trying this angle. The Bucks also signed Thanasis Antetokounmpo this summer.

Harden on fit with Westbrook: ‘When you have talent like that, it works itself out’

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It was the question everybody asked about 30 seconds after they heard Russell Westbrook had been traded to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul (after the initial shock of the deal wore off):

Do Westbrook and Harden, two of the most ball-dominant, isolation heavy players in the NBA, actually fit together?

Harden says yes. Of course, what else is he going to say, but he was earnest about it in comments to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle at the Adidas and James Harden ProCamp event last Friday.

“When you have talent like that, it works itself out. You communicate. You go out there and compete possession by possession. You figure things out. Throughout the course of the season, you figure things out. That’s just what it is. When you have talent, you have guys with IQ, you have guys willing to sacrifice, it always works itself out.”…

“It works,” Harden said. “It’s that trust factor. I trust him; he trusts me. And with the group that we already have and the things we already accomplished, it should be an easy transition for him to be incorporated right in and things are going to go.”

That is essentially is what Mike D’Antoni said, and what Rockets GM Daryl Morey is betting on.

Will Westbrook, and to a lesser degree Harden, be willing to make sacrifices and adjust their games? It is the question that will define the Rockets’ season.

My prediction: The duo works it out on offense and becomes one of the hardest teams to stop in the NBA. They will work it out. However, having to play Harden and Westbrook together on defense for extended stretches will cost Houston in the playoffs earlier than they planned.