Daddy Yankee’s song “Problema” provided the soundtrack for Jaden Springer’s and Charles Bassey’s Tuesday on-court workout at FTX Arena. That’s because Miami Heat dancers rehearsed their routine for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at midcourt while Springer took one-dribble, pull-up jumpers and Bassey backed down skill development coach Jason Love as the clock crossed 5 p.m.
Such is life for the 76ers’ 2021-22 rookies, who have spent hours upon hours getting their individual training in before and after teammates. Springer and Bassey spent the bulk of this season developing with the G League’s Delaware Blue Coats, with brief stints sprinkled in with the NBA club. Yet both players have rejoined the Sixers for this playoff run, and are relishing that as the capper to their first professional seasons.
“Of course, every time I step on an NBA court, it’s a great feeling,” Springer told The Inquirer last week. “This is what I worked for. This is what I dedicated my whole life to. So every time I step out there, I really appreciate every chance I get.”
A byproduct of the Sixers’ horrendous 120-85 loss to the Heat Tuesday was that Springer and Bassey were on the floor for the final six-plus minutes. Springer, a guard who was the 28th overall pick in last summer’s draft, also got in for the Sixers’ series-clinching Game 6 at Toronto. Bassey, the team’s second-round selection who recently recovered from a shoulder injury, received late minutes earlier in this series while All-Star center Joel Embiid was recovering from an orbital fracture and concussion.
But they have primarily relied on observation in team settings with the Sixers, a tactic the 19-year-old Springer said he has gotten more comfortable with this season. That’s also an approach coach Doc Rivers has found valuable since he coached the Boston Celtics, when a young Al Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins “were wowed by the physicality and just how every play seemed like a big deal” during the playoffs, Rivers said.
Bassey said he immediately noticed how “locked in” teammates were on personnel as their first-round series against the Raptors began. Springer’s “welcome to the playoffs” moment arrived while absorbing the loud boos in Toronto during Game 3 of that series. Springer added that he regularly tosses questions to more experienced players such as Tyrese Maxey, who went through his first playoffs as a lesser-used rookie last season and now passes tips along to Springer “all the time,” Maxey said.
“Even the little things are the big things — especially in this league,” Springer said of what he has learned from teammates. “They might just tell me, ‘Oh, pay attention. See what this guy does here, how he uses his off arm? Make sure, when you get your chance to go in, you do this. You get to the help side.’
“Just little stuff. All that stuff adds up, so every day I’m just listening to those guys and taking their word.”
The vast majority of both players’ game action this season has occurred with a Blue Coats team that made the G League final and had a slew of NBA call-ups during another COVID-impacted season.
The 21-year-old Bassey — who was an All-G League second-team selection and a member of the league’s All-Defensive team — said the short-notice trips to and from Wilmington have taught him how to be adaptable and “a pro,” an emphasis in approach for Blue Coats coach Coby Karl. Springer said he improved on reading defenses and making decisions on the fly, which helped his confidence grow “a lot.” That Springer and Bassey went through similar paths together this season gave each player somebody to talk to — and with whom to immediately establish chemistry on lobs off the pick and roll.
Bassey played in 23 regular-season games with the Sixers, logging double-digit minutes in five of those. His best performance came in a November win at Denver when Embiid was in COVID-19 health and safety protocols, finishing with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, seven rebounds and three blocks while playing against back-to-back Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic.
Springer, meanwhile, played less than six total minutes over two regular-season games with the Sixers, but was not disappointed with the limited NBA action.
“Whatever they tell me to do, I’m going to go out there and embrace it,” he said. “I’m just taking everything in. This is my first year.”
An important summer looms for both players. Springer wants to keep sharpening his ballhandling and shooting. And Bassey, who did not play in Summer League last year because of elongated contract negotiations, said he will work on his jumper and his consistency in all aspects of being a big man.
“What I did [well] this year, make sure I do that better next year,” Bassey said. “I know I’m hungry, and I know I’m going to improve this summer.”
Both players are getting a head start with the Sixers’ skill development coaches. About 25 minutes before Game 2′s tipoff in Miami last week, they matched up against each other as the last players from either team remaining on the court. Following shootaround for Friday’s Game 3, Springer remained on the Sixers’ practice floor long after his teammates. He launched three-pointers from both corners, focusing on catching the pass and shooting with a smooth, connected motion.
“Sticking to my fundamentals,” Springer said. “That’s the main thing I’m working on. You’ve got to build up a good base. … Once you have that, you can start branching out.”
During a second-quarter timeout in Tuesday’s Game 5, Springer stood over Rivers to listen in on his instructions. With less than eight minutes to play and the Sixers in an insurmountable hole, assistant Sam Cassell pointed to Springer on the end of the bench to check into the game. He then chased around Miami sharpshooter Duncan Robinson on the defensive end of the floor, and executed a sequence when he grabbed a rebound, took it the opposite way and rattled in a 12-foot jumper. He went 1-of-3 from the floor and added two rebounds and one assist. Bassey entered the game about 30 seconds after Springer, finishing with two rebounds and one botched one-handed dunk.
Yet even in those minutes that did not ultimately matter on the scoreboard, Springer and Bassey had upgraded. The rookies no longer needed to share the court — and a playlist — with the dance team. And they can add Tuesday’s game action to the lessons from their first playoff experience.
“Learn as much as I can and take advantage of every opportunity I get,” Springer said. “I’m always going to remember this feeling, so that’s what I’m going to take with me.”