MIAMI — A call of “Bus 3!” rang through Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, a signal for the lingering 76ers to leave the court following the shootaround for Thursday’s Game 6 of their first-round playoff series against the Raptors.
The last player on the court was Paul Reed, who moved from the left corner to the wing as he fired three-point shots with an exaggerated flick of the wrist. As teammate Georges Niang said about a week earlier, while glancing over a media crowd and to Reed working on the far side of the Sixers’ practice court, “That’s normal.”
“He’s a gym rat,” Niang said of Reed, “and the basketball gods reward guys like that.”
Reed is now seeing those extra hours in the gym transferring to game action at the season’s most critical juncture. The high-energy fan favorite now widely known as “BBall Paul” was the backup center in the Sixers’ first-round series victory over Toronto, matching the length and athleticism of a Raptors roster with no true center. And with MVP finalist Joel Embiid out with an orbital fracture and concussion for at least Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Reed likely is set to see more minutes against the top-seeded Miami Heat in the best-of-seven series that begins Monday night.
The new responsibility for Reed seemed improbable as recently as a few weeks ago, when he was still toggling between the Sixers and the G League. He played in just 38 regular-season games with the Sixers in 2021-22 — and logged double-digit minutes in 13 of those appearances — and averaged 3.1 points and 2.4 rebounds. But Reed and the Sixers practiced patience, which eventually turned to trust between the second-year big man, his teammates, and coach Doc Rivers.
“It just shows that, [if] you keep working, your time is coming,” Reed told The Inquirer while sitting courtside in Toronto before Game 3 of that series. “That’s what everybody tells me, so I was believing that all year. Everybody said, ‘Your opportunity’s going to come,’ and here’s my opportunity in front of me.
“I’ve just got to take full advantage of it and make sure that I help the team win any way I can. That’s the most important thing for me.”
Reed credits his upbringing with instilling that tireless work ethic. While growing up in Orlando, Fla., his mother, Michelle, never let him skip a workout. That effort naturally made him a tenacious rebounder, a skill he carried to his college career at DePaul before becoming a second-round pick in the 2020 draft.
“We grew up not very rich, so I always knew I had to go out and hustle,” Reed said. “… I take pride in it, for sure. I think it works.”
As a rookie, Reed was the MVP of the G League’s shortened 2021 season and a Summer League star, a player capable of collecting 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game against that level of competition. He then flashed potential with the Sixers earlier this season, most notably when he held his ground while guarding Chicago Bulls All-Star DeMar DeRozan and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks. Reed was briefly the backup center immediately after the Sixers traded Andre Drummond at the deadline to the Brooklyn Nets as part of the package to acquire superstar James Harden. But when veteran big men Paul Millsap and DeAndre Jordan joined the Sixers, that pushed Reed back out of the rotation.
When asked about Reed’s progress, Rivers regularly suggested that Reed still struggled with executing the Sixers’ plays and being in the right spot on the floor. That’s a necessity when plugged in with veterans on a team with championship aspirations, and is a shortcoming players “will let you know [about] … because it’s frustrating,” Rivers said. Reed’s overaggressiveness on defense also led to his frequently picking up fouls.
Coby Karl, the coach of the Sixers’ G League-affiliate Delaware Blue Coats, said Reed would also “start BBalling” — aka freelancing instead of running the system — with his team. Karl assured that Reed’s approach came from a place of eagerness, not selfishness. But it can cause confusion when an NBA assignment player is dropped into an established team, prompting Karl to begin tasking Reed with singular goals such as “becoming a Hall-of-Fame dribble-handoff player.”
“He’s so ambitious and he’s so driven and he’s willing to do whatever that he wants it all now, like most of us do,” Karl told The Inquirer earlier this season. “… So I think it gets in his way of that consistency, because he wants to do everything, not just one thing really, really well.”
Reed also grappled with the uncertainty of his situation. His G League assignments and calls back to the Sixers often came with little notice. He described one December trip to the Blue Coats, when he had virtually no time to pack the night before driving to Wilmington to reunite with the team ahead of a flight to Las Vegas for the G League showcase. A couple of days later, Reed rejoined the Sixers in Boston when the omicron COVID-19 variant began ripping through the NBA and putting players, including Drummond, in health and safety protocols.
“I can never really plan anything, because I never know what’s next,” Reed said. “So that’s been the toughest part of the season. … That’s what comes with it. That’s what I learned this season.”
Eventually, though, Reed began to shift his outlook, using a morning prayer routine to foster a mindset of gratitude and adaptability. A late-December meeting with Rivers helped Reed define what was needed when he played with the Sixers: rebounding, defending, running the floor, and setting good screens. That simplicity was reinforced by Karl during Reed’s G League stints later in the season.
“Getting [those] reps really helped me a lot,” Reed said. “[Karl] kind of taught me, if you [are] consistent with your movements, with your teammates, then they’re going to know what you’re going to do every time. So that’s kind of what I’ve been focusing on, and I try to translate that to the NBA — just doing the same things every time so my teammates know where I’m going to be.”
Reed returned to the Sixers’ rotation during the final week of the regular season, when the team faced the Raptors and then rested Embiid on a back-to-back. Reed exploded for 25 points on 12-of-14 shooting — drawing “Bball Paul!” chants in the process — during the last game of the regular season against the Detroit Pistons, prompting questions about potential playoff minutes for Reed and a terse response from Rivers.
“I’m not going to go on the Paul Reed victory tour, so don’t start,” Rivers said. “We’re trying to win a world championship, man. … He’s had to earn it, and he’s done that. There’s a lot of things we didn’t like [about] what he was doing. He’ll tell you that, and he’s come around to playing the right way.”
Reed slid into that backup center role against the Raptors. He was the stopgap when Embiid rested, playing between eight and 12 minutes a game and averaging 4.2 points and 3.5 rebounds. He still picked up the occasional “Paul Reed foul,” a phrase Rivers coined for the calls that were partially because of Reed’s style and partially because he is not an experienced or big-name player.
Reed is also learning about the adjustments, the intensity, and the attention to detail required to succeed in the postseason. In the series-clinching Game 6, he scored nine points on 4-of-5 shooting and added five rebounds (four offensive), in part because of a rotation tweak by Rivers to give Reed stints playing with the starters. That could turn out to be fortuitous if Reed becomes a member of that first group against the Heat.
“We intend to do that a lot,” Rivers said of giving Reed minutes with the first unit.
Just before the playoffs began, Reed responded to a text message from Rivers with a, “Thank you for being patient with me” (and, in an example of his random sense of humor, a “whoompy whoompy woo”). Between Games 1 and 2 of the Raptors series, Rivers described a shootaround moment when teammates congratulated him for a sharp rotation because “those little things go a long way … not only just for him, but for the trust that his players have in him that he can do it.”
And as the Sixers’ practice gym began to empty following Saturday’s session, the non-rotation players began a pickup game with staffers. On the floor in front of that scrimmage, Reed worked individually with skill development coach Dwayne Jones.
Because, for Reed, that’s normal.
“He’s learning so fast and he’s a hell of a player,” Jordan said. “So we’re going to need that from him, mistakes and all.”