On the Beat | Amidst College Action, Brown Keeping Eye on March

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN – The second weekend of the NCAA Tournament was underway, and the 76ers were in Chicago, which, over the years, has become the host city for the annual NBA Combine, the league’s largest annual amateur scouting showcase.

The setting was such that it was difficult to not start thinking about the next wave of college talent set to hit the pros.

As it turns out, the matter was and increasingly has been on the mind of Brett Brown, too.

“Always,” said the Sixers head coach Friday morning, when asked whether, amidst all of his other day-to-day obligations, he checks in on college basketball’s signature event.

And how could he not, given the promising possibilities that could once again be in store for the Sixers in respect to this year’s draft?

Depending on how the league’s final standings shake out, the Sixers could find themselves – in a perfect (but maybe not realistic) world – holding as many as three first-round selections in June, between their own pick, the Los Angeles Lakers’ choice (protected 1-3), and the Dallas Mavericks’ selection (protected 1-18).

Should Dallas end up occupying one of the draft’s top 18 spots, the Sixers will then get the Mavs’ second-round pick this year (as well as Dallas’ second-rounder in 2020), increasing their own number of 2017 second-round picks to at least three. The Sixers are also in possession of Atlanta’s second-rounder for 2017, via the February 22nd trade involving Ersan Ilyasova.

On top of all that, the Sixers, for a second straight year, retain the right to swap first-round spots with the Sacramento Kings.

The available options are indeed promising.

In the drafts preceding each of the four seasons in which Brown has led the Sixers, the organization has acquired at least one lottery pick. To review, back in 2013, two months ahead of Brown being hired, the club took Michael Carter-Williams, the eventual 2014 Rookie of the Year, at eleven, and snagged Nerlens Noel, the sixth pick, through a deal with New Orleans.

The following June, the Sixers used the third slot in the draft on Joel Embiid, before arranging an exchange with Orlando that fetched Dario Saric. The two hauls from that night represent the frontrunners for this spring’s Rookie of the Year race.

In 2015, again picking third, the Sixers went with Jahlil Okafor, a All-Rookie First-Team honoree. This past year, of course, drafting first for the third time in franchise history, the Sixers grabbed Ben Simmons, the reigning National Freshman of the Year.

Prior to joining the Sixers, Brown didn’t dabble much in keeping tabs on prospects pegged for the lottery segment of the draft, mostly because he didn’t have to. His former employer, the San Antonio Spurs, was in the thick of becoming a dynastic force. The Sixers are currently operating with aspirations to ultimately achieve a similar degree of sustained, championship success.

“We never, in my Spurs life, paid much attention to the top of the draft – we weren’t going to be in that position,” Brown explained. “Now, you’ve learned over the years how to study it, pay attention a little bit better. You’re curious following predicted draft boards on where they think people will fall.

Brown acknowledged Friday that only so many judgments can be made about a prospect by checking out a college game on television. He doesn’t pretend to be an NCAA expert, and feels that when it comes to important factors like competitiveness, personality, court vision, defense, and footwork, all you can really do by watching from afar is make instinctive guesses.

All that being said, there is one particular area that tends to catch Brown’s eye.

“I’m always paying attention to shooters,” he said. “It really does, on so many levels, make the world go round, and it especially does with the group that we’re constructing.

“I’m very opinionated when it comes to shooting. I feel like if I see somebody shoot three or four times and just watch their form, their footwork, their preparation, you form a pretty quick opinion. It takes you about a second to look at their stats, and it helps you validate what you think, or contradict what you think. But shooters really are what’s most on my mind.”

Brown is also a believer that the high-stakes stage of March provides an additional glimpse into the make-up, the DNA of a pro prospect.

“The rules change in the NCAA playoffs, just like they do in the NBA playoffs,” he said. “That stage, that limelight, that one-and-done sort of death-wish, how it’s set up, there’s pressure on a lot of 19, 18 year old kids’ shoulders. For that reason, as much as anything, you for sure pay attention.”

Two of Brown’s players were fixated on Thursday’s NCAA Championship Sweet 16 action. Nik Stauskas’ Michigan Wolverines were in Kansas City, where they dropped a dramatic back-and-forth 69-68 decision to Oregon. The Arizona Wildcats, which T.J. McConnell helped push to the Elite 8 in 2014 and 2015, were upset by Xavier, 73-71, in San Jose.

“Oh man,” said Stauskas. “I thought we had the game. It’s just unfortunate it ended that way, especially with the run we had the last couple weeks, but I’m proud of the team. They had a hell of a run to finish off the season. If you would ask anyone six weeks ago if Michigan would even be in the Tournament, they would have said, ‘No way.’ The fact they were able to come that far in such a short time was impressive.”

“I’m always supporting Arizona, whatever game they’re playing, cheering them on,” McConnell said. “Xavier just got hot.

“In the NCAA Tournament you need a little bit of luck, and you need to play well, so credit to them. I thought we were the better team going into it, but the better team doesn’t always win.”

Close friends, Stauskas and McConnell chose to watch Thursday’s games separately, in the solitude of their hotel rooms. The two sent condolence texts to one another afterwards.

Whether out of vested curiosity, or to support a former team, the college game seems to have the interests of a few Sixers’ piqued during a compelling juncture of the year.

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