Improvement is relative.
No one on the 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers will be in the running for Most Improved Player of the Year. No veterans on the roster—the chosen few that weren’t traded or exiled because of injury—made the leap from contributor to All-Star. But that doesn't mean progress wasn't achieved, despite all the ugly losses.
This year’s 76ers are the real-life version of the misfits in the movie Major League. A crew of cast-offs and never-will-bes were thrown together intentionally by general manager Sam Hinkie in the hopes of bottoming out so the 76ers would be in a position to emerge from basketball purgatory and build a legitimate contender from scratch.
That's the silver lining for Philadelphia fans—this idea of hope. The hope that the ping-pong balls, which they will have plenty of, will bounce in their favor and deliver the franchise’s first No. 1 draft pick since 1996. The hope that one of these talented college prospects in the most anticipated draft in years will join future franchise cornerstones Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel and start the next phase of building a contender.
That hope is what enables a fanbase to look past losing 26 straight games.
Aside from Noel and Carter-Williams, the roster for next season is very much up in the air. Hinkie will continue to tinker and move pieces, acquiring assets and shipping out veterans much like he did this season. According to HoopsHype.com, the 76ers only have $26 million in salary committed to next season.
This season has been a revolving door of guys scratching and clawing, trying to hold a spot on an NBA roster.
Plenty of the guys won’t be here next season. A few remaining veterans (remember Jason Richardson?) will be prime buyout candidates or jettisoned via trade as an expiring contract asset.
There are a chosen few, however, that have improved as the season’s progressed to varying degrees. Some elevated their game from mediocre rotation player to solid NBA veteran, while others went from having their careers on the verge of extinction to proving there is a place for them at this level. Some guys benefited from the increased minutes, playing at the league’s highest pace and having zero expectations.
Within one season, Thaddeus Young went from versatile tweener to veteran presence and locker room leader. With the team trading Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes, he is now the only player remaining from their 2012 playoff run.
Perhaps more impressive than his game is that he managed to remain focused amid a blitz of trade rumors during the first half of the season. While his veteran teammates were being shipped to other teams for 10 cents on the dollar, essentially throwing an anvil on a drowning Young when he was screaming for a life raft, he stayed professional and turned his game up a notch.
76ers head coach Brett Brown reiterated that sentiment to 94WIP in Philadelphia earlier this year during the apex of the trade rumors.
He’s been through so many different coaches, asked to do so many different things in regards to a role. He’s been with the Philadelphia 76ers since he came into the league, so there is a pride end of it where he views himself as some level of stability given the rebuild that we’re going through. He wanted to prove that his heart is still in the right place and that his effort is moving forward, and then all the sudden you see a skill package that collides with that pride and he’s produced just some massive games.
Young reinserted the three-point shot into his repertoire this season. His 258 three-point attempts are a career high. He had a combined 34 attempts in the last three seasons. He's been far more aggressive on the offensive side of the ball, already attempting 200 more field goals this season than he did all of last year.
Even with his usage numbers up higher than ever before, he’s still managed to keep his true shooting percentage at .519, hovering around his career average of .541.
All of this lends itself to more scoring opportunities, obviously. Young is averaging a career high of 18.1 points per game—up from his career average of 13.7.
If Carter-Williams is the future of the team, Young is the glue. He leads the team in points, rebounds and steals per game. He ranks third in field-goal percentage, assists and blocks per game as well.
He’s getting paid $9 million next year either from the 76ers or from someone else. Young will likely be shopped on draft night, and if that’s the route Sam Hinkie chooses to go, Young will attract some suitors. He played the best basketball of his career this season and matured in all aspects in the process.
It's an understatement to say the low-risk, high-reward trade the 76ers made in the 2013 draft for Tony Wroten flew under the radar. For the price of a future second-round pick and a trade exception, the 76ers landed the second-year guard from Memphis, the team that selected him with the 25th pick in the 2012 draft.
Wroten’s rookie season in Memphis was one to forget. He had stints in the D-League with the Reno Bighorns and was never able to crack through the logjam in the Grizzlies’ backcourt. The organization deemed him expendable after just one season, and he found new life in Philadelphia.
He’s wildly erratic at times, often reminding me of J.R. Smith, both in terms of head-scratching moments and dynamic talent. Wroten's numbers are eerily similar to Smith's even though he's playing eight fewer minutes per game and Smith makes nearly $5 million more than Wroten does.
Like Smith, he's drawn the ire of his coach at times this season. Brett Brown was incensed at Wroten's lack of effort in a game against the Orlando Magic back in February.
"I told Tony Wroten today, 'You've been AAU, and that's not a good thing'," Brown said, per Christopher Vito of the Delaware County Daily Times. “I don’t see him having that foundation, and it’s up to me to create that,” he continued. “I feel a great responsibility to do my job and give him that. He’s only 20 years old."
He can be instant offense and excitement off the bench. He’s athletic and adept at running the floor. He’s a streaky shooter that still needs to improve plenty of parts of his game—particularly his three-point shot —but this season he proved he should get an extended look from the 76ers.
Even with his inconsistencies as a shooter, his shooting percentage improved from 38 to 42 percent compared to last season, albeit in a minute sample size. His points per game jumped from 2.6 to 13.2, which is solid contribution from your first guard off the bench.
Obviously, his usage numbers don’t even compare to his one season in Memphis. Wroten played just 272 minutes in 35 games last season, compared to his 1,581 minutes in 64 games in Philadelphia.
Perhaps most importantly, much like his young backcourt running mate Michael Carter-Williams, Wroten has become a jack of all trades. He averages nearly three assists per game (second on the team behind Carter-Williams), three rebounds and one steal. His per-36 minute numbers have him at a 19-point, four-rebound and four-assist average.
His playmaking is evident in this selection of highlights from Philadelphia’s March 29 game against Detroit, which snapped their infamous losing streak. Wroten finished the game with nine assists. He managed to find his teammates in tight windows against set defenses and on the fast break, often in spectacular fashion.
Wroten is a perfect example of a player improving because he was given an opportunity.
The former Big-12 Player of the Year became an afterthought just two years into his NBA career. A former first-round pick of the San Antonio Spurs in 2010, Anderson saw limited action his rookie season by playing in only 26 games. Over the next two seasons, splitting time between San Antonio and Houston (and the Austin Toros), Anderson played just 90 games.
Sam Hinkie, familiar with him from their time in Houston last season, claimed him off of waivers in July. He started 54 games at shooting guard and scored a career-high 36 points against the Rockets in November. Being covered by Jeremy Lin most of that game, he scored at will from all ends of the court. He beat him off the dribble, finished strong in traffic and was electric from three-point range.
This season also reunited Anderson with Brett Brown, who was an assistant in San Antonio when he was drafted.
He's now playing 29 minutes and scoring 10.4 points per game, both enormous jumps from his time in San Antonio and Houston. He's shooting a career-best 44 percent from the field.
Much like Wroten, he was a player left for dead by the team who drafted him. From a numbers standpoint, he’s improved in every statistical category thanks in large part to his increased opportunities.
Anderson will be a free agent after this season. He should have no problem finding a job as a rotation guard off the bench.
For the players, their silver lining is that this season was a showcase they otherwise would not have received. It provided them the platform to audition for their next team or their next contract. In the face of the nonstop misery that came with losing, some players took advantage of their opportunity.