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Shake Milton with starters, Georges Niang flashes versatility in Sixers scrimmage

The loosely played fan event welcomed the Sixers back to the home of their G League affiliate.

Joel Embiid points to crowd as he was introduced to the fans before the Sixers' scrimmage at Chase Field House in Wilmington, Del., on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021.
Joel Embiid points to crowd as he was introduced to the fans before the Sixers' scrimmage at Chase Field House in Wilmington, Del., on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

WILMINGTON, Del. — Doc Rivers joked that one should not read too much into Saturday’s 76ers scrimmage at Chase Fieldhouse.

The team held a more traditional practice earlier in the morning, where it went through clean-up and conditioning drills coming off its first two preseason games during the week.

Then, the fans filed into the home of the G League-affiliate Delaware Blue Coats for a “new-generation” scrimmage. The coach said that portion featured the competitiveness of an all-star game, which is now customary across the NBA for such public preseason events. No stats were kept during the loosely played live action, though the Blue team, primarily made up of the second unit, won, 65-45.

Still, the afternoon was worth celebrating, given such an event would not have been possible a season ago, when the pandemic continued to rage and the NBA season began without fans in attendance.

Rivers took a microphone to greet the fans with, “We missed you last year” and led them in synchronized clapping. MVP contender Joel Embiid entertained the crowd by attempting to make a backward, over-the-head halfcourt shot during a brief halftime. The rookies introduced their teammates in a performance Seth Curry later deadpanned was being “horrible.”

“A lot of these fans that come to these things, they don’t have a chance half the time to go to games,” Rivers said. “And then some go to games, but they never have a chance to be this close to Joel Embiid and say, ‘Wow, he’s really big.’”

Still, there were a couple of items to glean from the on-court action, and where the Sixers stand about halfway through the preseason.

Point guard update

Shake Milton, again, got the nod with the first unit over Tyrese Maxey, continuing the starting point guard competition. Maxey started the first preseason game at Toronto, but Rivers flipped that pecking order for Thursday’s home rematch against the Raptors.

Rivers reiterated Saturday that Milton currently spaces the floor better with his shooting, and that Maxey brings more speed as a ballhandler. Both players are still learning how to run a team as an offense-initiator and playmaker. The coach added that Milton is “definitely ahead of Maxey defensively right now,” but that he is pleased with how both players are pressuring the ball.

“I knew Maxey could do it,” Rivers said. “I didn’t know Shake could do it, and he’s done it almost more. So that’s been something that we didn’t know Shake could do, honestly, and he’s doing it.”

Niang’s versatility

Tobias Harris participated in the Sixers’ practice, the team said, but was held out of the public scrimmage, sliding newcomer Georges Niang into the starting group with Milton, Curry, Embiid, and Danny Green.

Rivers continues to call Niang a “sneaky” addition for the Sixers because of his versatility. He started at power forward alongside Andre Drummond on Monday in Toronto when Embiid and Harris both sat, then scored a team-high 16 points on Thursday in his more-expected role as the backup 4. Rivers likes the way Niang spaces the floor with his shooting — he made 42.5% of his three-point shots last season with Utah — and is driving when defenders close out hard.

During camp, Rivers has hinted that Niang could also get some minutes throughout the season with Embiid and Harris. The coach even acknowledged Saturday that part of the reason he was bullish on signing Niang in free agency was because he envisioned a combination with Ben Simmons at center, Niang at power forward, and Harris at small forward. The Sixers, Rivers said, are still “doing it anyway [with Simmons holding out], but with one of the other guards. Those are the lineups we want to have.”

“That’s kind of been my role my whole life is kind of be the Swiss Army knife,” Niang said earlier this week. “Play multiple roles, have multiple hats, things that I can do and play different positions. That’s what makes me unique and I feel like what makes me valuable. …

“I like my day job, so if I didn’t adapt, I wouldn’t have one. So I think that it’s just finding a way to continue to get out on the court and continue to help my team win.”

Blue Coats preview?

Rookie guard Jaden Springer, on Saturday, got the longest run that the media has been able to observe in a practice setting so far this preseason.

The 2021 first-round draft pick was on the wrong end of arguably the day’s biggest highlight, when he attempted to cross over Curry, which led to Curry corralling the ball on the fastbreak and throwing it off the backboard for an Embiid slam. But shortly after that, Springer responded by finding Furkan Korkmaz for a three-pointer and, near the end of the scrimmage, got into the paint for a nice one-handed lob to Drummond for the alley-oop connection.

With little room in the current Sixers’ rotation, Rivers said playing in this building with the Blue Coats “will be big” for the initial development of Springer and two-way players Aaron Henry and Grant Riller (who tore his meniscus during Monday’s preseason opener).

“This has to be one of the better G League communities in the NBA,” Rivers said. “I haven’t visited all the facilities, so I wouldn’t know that, but I’m just gonna make a guess. The ones that I have visited, this is the best one I’ve seen. And [being] close to Philly, being here in Delaware, I just think it’s a good fit for us. And you can feel it. I think [Blue Jackets head coach Coby Karl] is gonna be a great fit for Jaden and our other young guys, as well.”

Big man Paul Reed, who while running with the second unit Saturday flashed his athleticism on a wide array of dunks and alley-oop finishes, is an example of the value of G League experience. He was the MVP and rookie of the year of the 2021 G League bubble season, and parlayed that into a terrific performance at summer league in Las Vegas.

“[I] tell them just take advantage of the opportunity,” Reed said. “Don’t take it for granted. It’s a great opportunity to go down there, get better, get your reps that you need. Just take advantage of it every day.”