A year ago, if you’d rounded the corner and walked through the double doors that lead to the Sixers locker room, the last thing you would have expected to see was Furkan Korkmaz with a smoothie in his left hand and his legs casually crossed and eight to 10 reporters circled around him.
And if somebody had told you that you would encounter such a scene the following November, you would have assumed that you would be in some basketball arena other than the Wells Fargo Center, be it in the United States or otherwise.
Yet, there it was, a little before 9 o’clock on a Sunday evening, the Sixers fresh off a 114-106 victory that moved them to 6-3, Joel Embiid and Al Horford and Tobias Harris having combined for 47 points on 19-of-28 shooting, and the marquee attraction was this unassuming third-year pro whose career in this city once seemed all but over.
“I was talking to coach Brett Brown, and he was telling me this is all on the table,” Korkmaz said after scoring 17 points in 28 minutes of action against the Hornets. “Just fight for your spot, and if you make good, I will give it to you. I just came into training camp with that mindset. I will take this jersey and step on the court and play."
It is the story of the season thus far, at least within the feel-good genre. Not only is Korkmaz getting the minutes he has long yearned for, but the Sixers are increasingly looking like they can’t survive without them. At least, that’s how it looked in the third quarter on Sunday night, when Korkmaz scored 10 points and reinvigorated a Sixers offense that had spent much of the previous 12 minutes in a state of stagnation.
The Sixers had led by as many as 14 points in the first quarter, but by the time Korkmaz checked back into the game four minutes into the third quarter, they had watched Charlotte whittle away that margin and then some. A promising first quarter performance by Embiid in the post had waned into the familiar sight of him lingering on the fringes of the halfcourt offense. The Hornets had outscored them 34-20 in the second quarter to enter halftime with a 58-53 lead, the offense was in serious need of a spark.
Once again, they needed the Kork to pop. And pop he did.
With 5:49 left in the third quarter, the third-year pro drained a three-pointer off a feed from Harris to give the Sixers some breathing room at 72-64. A minute later, he hit another one, this time to extend the lead to 79-68. The next time down the court, he got past his defender and floated a nifty eight-footer that drew net. A couple of possessions later, Kyle O’Quinn found him cutting to the rim and Korkmaz responded with a strong, smooth finish.
By the end of the flurry, Korkmaz had his third game of 17+ points on the season, and the Sixers had turned their dreadful West Coast trip into a closed chapter.
“I think his confidence is at an all time high,” Brown said. “And it should be.”
Korkmaz’s role in the Sixers’ rotation is a remarkable thing to behold given what it was a year ago, when the front office declined to exercise the third-year option on his rookie contract despite the relative pittance that it would have cost. He would end up appearing in just 48 games, averaging just 14.1 minutes per contest while looking forward to the opportunity he’d have in the offseason to find an employer that would grant him more of a chance.
“Everybody was telling me, it’s the NBA, you know,” Korkmaz said. “A lot of teams have different things on their minds. That was a difficult two years for me, you know, a lot of ups and downs, but this year I’m (happy) that I’m getting this opportunity and playing well for this team.”
When Korkmaz re-signed with the Sixers this summer, Brown promised him that he would have a chance to play his way into the team’s rotation. Nine games into the season, that’s exactly what Korkmaz has done, thanks in large part to the improvement that he has made on the defensive end of the court, where Brown says he is no longer the sort of liability that teams can routinely exploit.
“They still will try to test him,” the coach said, “but I think he holds his ground way more now than he has in the past.”
His margin for error is also greater than it has been before thanks to his .452 shooting percentage from three-point range, where the Sixers are in serious need of a consistent stroke off the bench.
“Right now I’m starting to make shots,” said Korkmaz, whose game-winning buzzer beater against the Trail Blazers was one of the lone bright spots on the Sixers’ recently completed West Coast swing. “When I see that my teammates and the coaching staff trusts me, I play more and more better.”
As the Sixers offense continues to find its way here in the early going, Korkmaz’s ability to knock down shots and even create scoring opportunities for himself has helped mitigate the impact of some of the growing pains. On Sunday, they turned the ball over 12 times in the first half, shot 10-of-28 from three-point range, and got just 26 minutes out of Embiid. They don’t look like world beaters yet. But if the Sixers come out of this first part of the season with a shooter who can come off the bench and keep defenses honest, the uneven play of the rest of the gang will have been well worth the trouble.