Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz began sitting next to each other on the 76ers’ charter plane about 15 games into this season. Their conversation topics can toggle from music, to real estate, to taking playful jabs at teammates, such as Matisse Thybulle.
But they have also confided in each other over the shared experience of a trying 2021-22 season, when their minutes have fluctuated while dipping in and out of the rotation for health, performance, and James Harden trade reasons. With one week to play in the regular season, both players must now make their final arguments that they deserve playing time when it counts — and know they have the other’s support in that quest.
“You just recognize you’re not alone,” Milton told The Inquirer earlier this week. “It stops you from feeling sorry for yourself. [You are instead] looking ahead [to] try to make the next play or do the next thing that can put you in a better position minutes-wise or playing-wise or in a better headspace.”
Milton or Korkmaz establishing a rhythm down the stretch would be a boon for a Sixers bench unit that, before Saturday’s 49-point outburst in a blowout 144-114 win over the Charlotte Hornets, ranked last in the NBA in scoring (23.2 points per game) since the All-Star break. Not coincidentally, Milton (41.6% from the floor, 29.8% from three-point range) and Korkmaz (39.4% from floor, 29.6% from three) are having their worst shooting seasons since they were rookies.
They have been teammates for parts of four seasons, initially bonding when they gravitated toward each other during individual workouts whenever their player-development coaches were in meetings, Korkmaz said. These days, Milton adds, “If we see something in the games, we don’t even really have to talk. We just make eye contact and know what’s going on.”
That on-court rapport is why coach Doc Rivers rolled out a lineup with Milton and Korkmaz alongside starters Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris in the Sixers’ win at the Los Angeles Lakers on March 23. But that experiment only lasted two games.
Recently, Milton has been a catch-all guard whose role depends on with whom he is sharing the court, including totaling 10 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds during Saturday’s win. Korkmaz, meanwhile, has played meaningful minutes in only five of the Sixers’ past 14 games, contributing 4 points on 1-of-5 shooting Saturday when the result was already in hand. The inconsistent bench rotation since Harden’s debut reminds Milton a bit of last season, when the Sixers acquired backup guard George Hill at the trade deadline.
Korkmaz has been candid about his shooting struggles, telling The Inquirer last week in Los Angeles, “I cannot say, ‘Oh, I was rolling’” when he fell out of the rotation. He has tried to snap out of the slump by putting up extra shots at the practice facility, and then decompressing when he goes home.
“When you start to think about it too much, you get even more lost,” Korkmaz said. " … It’s hard. I’m not a rookie anymore. This is not my first two or three years. It’s been five years, and then I get used to playing now. …
“I’ve been struggling, and then [the] coaching staff made a decision. I respect it.”
Milton’s season, meanwhile, has primarily been derailed by a menagerie of health issues.
Rivers recently reflected on Milton’s training camp, when he “had an unbelievable four or five days” while challenging for the starting point guard job before stepping on Andre Drummond’s foot and spraining his ankle. Later, just after a stint in COVID-19 health and safety protocols during the omicron surge, Milton missed more than a month with a back injury. He spent weeks trying to prevent stiffness by moving around in a hot tub and through treatment from team physical therapist Kim Casapare.
“He’s just had one of those years,” Rivers said of Milton. “But, as we told him, the year hasn’t started yet. The real stuff is just beginning, and you have a chance to have a terrific ending. That’s what’s going to be big for him.”
Since returning in mid-February, Milton has shifted between being a secondary ballhandler and distributor, and looking for spot-up and driving opportunities while playing off the ball. He went 35% from the floor in his first 13 games back and then did not take a shot in three consecutive outings, before exploding for 20 points on 9-of-18 shooting from the floor and 6 assists in a surprising March 21 home win against Miami that the Sixers played without stars Harden and Joel Embiid.
Korkmaz also excelled in that game against Heat, with 18 points on 4-of-7 from three-point range and adding 6 rebounds. While sitting side-by-side at a table at their postgame news conference, Korkmaz revealed that he and Milton have leaned on each other throughout the season’s challenges.
“We shared things, because we’ve been going through the same things,” Korkmaz said. “Also, we’ve been teammates for a long time. But most of the time, when we are not on the court, we don’t want to talk about basketball every time. … When the time comes, we talk, we share.”
Rivers has defended his reserves’ lack of scoring in recent weeks, noting that it is partially because of the way he is staggering the starters’ minutes. The coach praised how those who have had sporadic or little playing time have accepted those coaching decisions. And he stressed that competition among teammates “can be very healthy, as long as guys handle it.”
How Milton felt when he slipped out of the rotation during last season’s playoffs has remained a driving force of motivation. Entering the Sixers’ final five regular-season games, Korkmaz appears to have more work to do to contend for minutes when the playoffs arrive.
But they were back on the floor together in the closing minutes against Charlotte. Korkmaz dished to Milton for a three-pointer that put the Sixers up, 130-100. On the next possession, Milton found Korkmaz for a cutting layup.
After the game, they embarked on the Sixers’ final road trip of the regular season, which begins Sunday at Cleveland. That will bring plenty of opportunities for those in-flight conversations.
“Me and Furky are close,” Milton said. “We’re going to push each other, regardless. Whether it’s a battle for minutes or not, he’s someone I’m always going back and forth with. … We’re both going to try to do whatever is best to help the team win.”
Added Korkmaz: “We are more like family than friends.”