Cap-strapped 76ers must focus on helping Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle take big steps forward

The Philadelphia 76ers had plenty of salary cap space and financial flexibility to work with heading into free agency last offseason. That’s not the case this year, however, as the team now has the vast majority of its money tied up in the contracts of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson. As such, the Sixers will be very limited with what they can accomplish in the upcoming free agency period.

Thus, barring any major trades, Philadelphia’s roster will likely look a whole lot like it did last season. New head coach Doc Rivers will certainly make some changes in terms of game plan, style of play, rotation and other things of that nature. Yet when it comes to personnel, improvement is going to have to be largely internal. That’s where Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle come in.

While the 2019-20 season was a disappointing one for Philly, the combined play of Milton and Thybulle was a bright spot for the franchise. Both players have high ceilings, a lot of room to develop and both are still very young — Milton is 24, Thybulle is 23. The Sixers have reason to be optimistic about both players, and they’ll need both of them to take a major step forward next season in order to keep Philadelphia in the contention conversation. 

Milton is entering his third season in the league with 60 games of regular-season experience under his belt, including 24 as a starter this past season. Injury issues thrust Milton into Philadelphia’s first five during the back half of the season, and he took advantage of the opportunity. During his starts, Milton averaged 12.5 points, 3.8 assists and 2.8 rebounds, while shooting 50 percent from the field and 45 percent from long range. 

Ironically enough, Milton’s best game of his professional career to date was against Rivers’ Clippers in March. In the game, Milton scored 39 points in 40 minutes of action, and also added five assists, three rebounds and a steal. In the first half alone, Milton scored 26 points and missed just one shot from the floor: 

The performance left a lasting impression on Milton’s new coach. 

“The only thing I told Shake, if you can play like you did against us in L.A. then I don’t need to say another word to him,” Rivers said of Milton at his introductory press conference with the 76ers. “He’s phenomenal and I think if my memory serves me correctly, I don’t think Ben or Joel played in that game. I just remember Shake almost single-handily beating us and from that point on, he took off. He’s not scared to take the shot. I love players like that.”

Milton is gifted offensively and remains full of potential. It will be interesting to see how Rivers unlocks his game given the success he’s had with similar guards like Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams in the past. Rivers will have to encourage Milton to develop defensively, as that part of his game isn’t as far along as his offense is. Some improvement on the defensive end of the floor will come with experience, an area where Milton is still lacking. Bulking up a bit should help him, too, especially in the post where bigger guards have been able to take advantage of him. And then there’s effort. If Rivers could get Milton to consistency buy in on that end, Milton has the size (6-foot-5), length and athleticism to be an above average defender. 


While Milton is pretty advanced offensively but not yet on defense, Thybulle is the opposite. Thybulle was just a rookie last season, but has already established himself as one of the league’s top perimeter defenders. He ranked in the top 20 league-wide in steals per game last season (1.4) despite playing under 20 minutes each night. He also added 2.6 deflections per game — a number indicative of his constant activity on the defensive end. His instincts on that end of the floor are about as advanced as you ever see in a player his age, and he appears destined to make several All-Defensive teams over the course of his career. Offensively, though, he needs some work, especially when it comes to shooting the ball. During his rookie campaign, Thybulle averaged just 4.7 points per game while shooting 42 percent from the field and 35 percent from deep. Despite never having coached him before, Rivers is well aware of which end of the floor Thybulle will need extra attention. 

“He is an NBA All-Defensive Player now. He has a chance right now to make a difference defensively,” Rivers said. “Offensively will be his next step and we’ll work on that.”

For now, the Sixers mainly need Thybulle to develop as a catch-and-shoot player. He’s not going to have the ball in his hands to initiate offense often, and instead he’ll be expected to space the floor around Embiid and Simmons. In other words, to provide maximum value to Philadelphia, Thybulle will need to be able to consistently knock down open opportunities like these: 

All of those misses came in Philadelphia’s first-round series loss to the Celtics, during which Thybulle made just one of his four 3-point attempts. All three of the above attempts were relatively open, but the first miss from the first quarter of Game 4 was especially egregious. Alec Burks penetrated, collapsed the defense and set Thybulle up with an uncontested corner 3 — a shot he clanked off the side of the backboard. It’s the exact type of shot that the Sixers will need Thybulle to be able to knock down. Over the offseason, he should be shooting hundreds of shots from the wings and corners each day. If he can become a consistent shooter from those areas, he will become invaluable to the Sixers. 

Given the up-tempo style of play prevalent throughout the league, dynamic guards and 3-and-D wings are two of the most important pieces in the NBA today, and in Milton and Thybulle the Sixers may have one of each. As such, their continued development could be central for success for the Sixers moving forward, especially considering the team’s options for external roster improvement are as limited as they are. 


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