When Shake Milton got his first phone call from his new 76ers coach Doc Rivers, the conversation began with the third-year guard’s career-best performance.
Why wouldn’t it?
Last season on March 1, Milton scored a career-high 39 points in a 136-130 loss at the Los Angeles Clippers, where Rivers coached the previous seven seasons.
“When he called me, that was one of the first things we talked about, but yeah, that was about it,” Milton said Wednesday, smiling ever so slightly.
It isn’t in Milton’s makeup to trash talk, and he wasn’t going to do it with his new coach, but he could have if desired.
Missing injured All-Stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, Milton shot 14-for-20 from the field, including 7-for-9 from three-point range and 4-for-5 from the foul line. His performance was in the middle of a sizzling five-game stretch where Milton averaged 22 points and shot 67.7 percent from three.
Milton wouldn’t maintain that pace, but he surpassed expectations in his second year, one that included six games in the G League. By season’s end, he averaged 14.5 points and shot 40% from three in the Sixers’ playoff sweep against Boston.
Milton saw some playing time early last season before missing six games due to a bone bruise and mild sprain of his left knee. When guard Josh Richardson suffered a hamstring strain in a 107-95 loss to Toronto on Jan. 22, Milton got his chance for extended playing time and took advantage.
Now entering this season, he’s viewed as a critical part of the offense, whether he starts or comes off the bench, whether he plays point guard or shooting guard.
“Right when I took the job, Shake has been where my focus has been,” Rivers said. “I’ve got to let him play even freer, which is a crazy thought. ... When I told him [about playing freer], he was very happy with the news.”
It’s possible that Milton, who started 24 regular-season games and all four playoff contests, could be coming off the bench. But that is no indictment of his ability.
Rivers has gotten a lot of mileage by using instant-offense guards off the bench, especially with the Clippers, in his coaching career. During his seven seasons in Los Angeles, Rivers had five NBA Sixth Man of the Year winners. Jamal Crawford and former Sixer Lou Williams each won twice, and Montrezl Harrell won the award last year.
While Rivers expects instant offense from Milton, he also has high expectations on the other end of the floor.
“I told him I would hold him more accountable defensively than I did for Jamal and Lou, for sure,” Rivers said.
Milton is up for meeting the defensive expectations.
“He said he was going to challenge me defensively and I told him I was all for it,” Milton said. “So I’m excited to put in the work and hopefully see some things happen.”
The 6-foot-5 Milton put in the work well before training camp. He said one of his offseason missions was working on his body. Milton said he played around 204 to 205 pounds last year and is now up to around 217 or 218.
Most of all, he enters this season with a different mindset. Unlike last year when he didn’t know his role, Milton realizes he’s a key part of Rivers’ rotation.
“I feel more confident, just being out there,” he said. “How I feel is the biggest difference.”
Being healthy has also added to his confidence.
“A lot of times going in, I was injured coming into the preseason in some way so that kind of kept me out and I was always feeling like I had to play catch up, but now I feel like my body is feeling good,” Milton said. “I am healthy and I just feel a little bit more comfortable, just moving out there and the way I’m getting my shots, how I’m shooting the ball, just an overall feel for the game, I just feel better.”