Game Preview | Common Path, Qualities Lead Young Bigs to Valuable Opportunities

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Sizing Up the Sixers (27-45):
In times when players go missing in action for the 76ers, Brett Brown tends to feel an “inverted” sense of excitement, as he describes it, eager to see how the next men up in the rotation respond to increased opportunities.

The dynamic has not been an infrequent one this season, given the team’s health, and was again on display Friday in Chicago. There was no Jahlil Okafor (right knee soreness), so that meant five-man minutes would be redistributed between Richaun Holmes, and Shawn Long.

The duo responded. Holmes posted eight points and three rebounds as the Sixers’ starting center. It was Long, however, who stole the spotlight, cranking out a career-high 18 points, and adding a career-high tying seven rebounds.

From multiple angles, the case could be made that Holmes, in his second year out of Bowling Green, and Long, recently promoted to the Sixers from the NBA Development League, are cut from similar cloths.

Running through some of their shared qualities in no particular order, there’s the matter of stature. Holmes, at 6-10, 245 pounds, and Long, at 6-9, 255 pounds, certainly boast size, but neither are likely to be the biggest men in the gym on a given night. They depend upon a common on-court demeanor to compensate.

Based on facial expressions and body language, Holmes and Long alike make clear they mean business. Each brings his own brand of physical basketball to the court, and rarely shows signs of back-down. In the face of their relative inexperience, intimidation never appears to be an issue.

Along these lines, Holmes and Long compete like they’ve got something to prove. Despite exhibiting signs of promise throughout their respective four-year college careers, Holmes was a second-round selection in 2015, while Long, who racked up 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds at Louisiana-Lafayette, went undrafted. There is little doubt about the chips on their shoulders.

In terms of skill set, parallels can be found between Holmes and Long, too. As much damage as they can do around the basket (on both ends of the court), they’ve also demonstrated modest floor-stretching potential from mid and long-range shooting distances.

Brown believes that more than anything, Holmes and Long possess the same “youthful bounce.”

“There’s a naivete that you almost cheer for because they’re getting opportunities that they never had,” the coach said last week. “I think the similarity between the two is just the enthusiasm, a youthful enthusiasm – grabbing an opportunity to play and really taking advantage of it.”

Specific to each person on an individual level, Brown considers Holmes’ improvement in his second pro campaign to be undeniable.

“It’s evident,” said Brown. “[He] sort of resurfaced after the All-Star break, and [is] sort of reconfirming what we saw in glimpses really, really early on in the season.”

As far as Long is concerned, Brown views him as an example worthy of being upheld.

“I’m especially proud of him, and pleased to offer him this opportunity because he’s come from our own infrastructure,” Brown said, while pointing out that Long was on the Sixers’ summer league and pre-season teams before going on to put up breakout numbers with the Delaware 87ers. “Now, he’s earning more money than he’s ever earned in his life playing basketball and he’s doing it with us. I love that. I think it’s a real-time story to point to people as we start forming summer league teams to show paths, like you can show clear, real paths of how people have a chance, and we do pay attention to what’s beneath us.”

Talk to the players themselves, and it’s obvious a mutual appreciation and friendship have taken root. They first got to know each other last summer as teammates in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, and then linked up again during the preseason, and even in Delaware.

“Shawn’s my guy,” said Holmes, who’s averaged 12.9 points and 6.3 rebounds since the All-Star break. “I’ve seen him work, and seen him get better. We definitely enjoy being around each other.”

“He’s probably one of the stronger relationships I have on the team,” Long said, when asked about Holmes. “Real good guy, works hard. I’ve just been trying to pick on things he does. He’s real open. You can talk to him.”

As for a few of the traits the big men see mirrored in one another, Holmes and Long cited a willingness to play hard, and a knack for competing with toughness. These characteristics are ones that the Sixers’ starting point guard appreciates.

“I just see them playing as hard as they can, and that as a point guard is motivating,” said T.J. McConnell. “When you see your bigs working like that, you want to reward them, and it’s fun playing with them.”

A coincidence that both Holmes and Long have adopted this type of mindset? Probably not, given the extent to which they’ve worked to get noticed, and earn their breaks.

“I think he’s been overlooked as well for a while,” said Holmes, referring to Long. “I think he’s getting a shot, and I know he’s going to prove he’s a capable NBA player, and that he’s going to be around for a while.”

“He’s definitely an inspiration,” Long said of Holmes. “He comes from a smaller school just like me. To be where he is now, it’s a credit to hard work you put in. I just look to do the same for myself.”

Sizing Up the Pacers (36-36):
For the better part of the past four weeks, Indiana had been alternating wins and losses, doing so for a string of 15 consecutive games. Then came Friday’s one-sided 125-117 home defeat to Denver, which marked the Pacers’ second straight loss.

Sporting a .500 record for the first time since late January, Indiana remains very much in contention for a playoff berth. As of Sunday, the Pacers were ranked seventh in the Eastern Conference. They trailed Atlanta and Milwaukee, tied for fifth-place, by just one game, while sitting only a game in front of eighth-place Miami.

Swingman Paul George remains a force for Indiana. The four-time All-Star accounts for 22.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.5 steals per game this season. He’s also shooting 38.9 percent from behind the 3-point arc.

Series History:
A couple of common threads have emerged in this season’s series between the Sixers and Indiana. Both prior meetings, played within the span of three days during the second week of November, have gone to overtime, with the home team prevailing in each one.

The Sixers and Pacers will link up for their fourth and final pairing of the year next week at The Center.

Follow Along:
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