Rarely do third-string centers feel so important to a rotation, but the Sixers offer a unique team context.
For most NBA teams, their third-string center is rarely priced into the outlook of a season or rotational patterns. But the Philadelphia 76ers are not most teams. Their franchise superstar, Joel Embiid, is a center who’s never played more than 78 percent of games through five regular seasons. Whether it’s proactive maintenance or an injury that sidelines him, it’s justifiable to expect he’ll miss 12-15 games.
This is not a knock on Embiid. It’s simply reality drawn from the words of his own head coach, Doc Rivers, who, last week during training camp, said “Joel’s not gonna play every night.” In an aim to maximize him for the playoffs, Embiid will miss some games.
This is where second-year big man Paul Reed enters the frame. On the days Embiid is donning street clothes instead of Sixers red, white and blue, Andre Drummond will slot into the starting unit, which means someone else has to fill his reserve role.
If Ben Simmons were around, he could stand to gobble up some of those minutes, a tactic The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor reported was entertained and supported by Rivers ahead of this year. Last season, prior to the trade deadline, Tony Bradley was a reliable third center who even started some games without Embiid.
Now, neither is a possibility. Rivers offered hesitancy about going small with the available personnel because, “defensively, you put yourself in a pretty tough spot.” The undercurrent there might be that expecting Tobias Harris or Georges Niang to man the backup center position on Embiid-less evenings is a risky proposition. And it is, which leaves Reed as the candidate to earn some minutes in specific opportunities.
“He’s gonna be valuable,” Rivers said. “We’re gonna play someone at the 5. I want someday for him to be a 4, but right now in his career, he’s probably a small 5. He can rebound the heck out of the ball, has great speed and he’s learning the game.”
That final statement, learning the game, is one Rivers repeatedly discussed in analyzing Reed’s path to minutes this season. Communicate defensively. Understand schemes. Grow into the nuances of being an NBA center. All of them are among Rivers’ checklist for Reed — not that the former DePaul standout is without laudatory traits.
“What I do like about him is he just has a nose for the ball. He finds the ball,” Rivers said. “If there’s a loose ball, if there’s an offensive rebound to get, Paul Reed’s gonna try to get. The biggest thing I love about him is he’s not scared of anybody. He’s gonna compete. He doesn’t care who you are, he’s gonna go after you.”
Reed said he’s been spending time at both the 4 and 5 during training camp, and those positions demand different responsibilities. As a 5, the focus is oriented toward screening and rolling. At the 4, floor-spacing along the wings is the priority. In the fashion of any young guy seeking to crack the rotation, he said he’ll play “wherever they need me.” Perhaps, it stems in part from the notion that regardless of position, the superlatives of his game must remain prevalent.
“Georges (Niang) just pointed out something great to me recently, saying, ‘just focus on what you’re elite at,’ ” Reed said. “For me, that’s offensive rebounding. It kinda opened my eyes to what I need to focus on more.”
At Media Day, Reed said a goal of his for the upcoming season is to shoot 45 percent beyond the arc. While he’s 0 of 6 from deep in his NBA career, he drilled 44.4 percent of his 54 threes across 26 G League games in 2021-22. Given Embiid’s preference for this team to shoot more long balls and Drummond’s inability to effectively stretch the floor, Reed could offer a welcomed skill at the backup 5 when afforded playing time. This isn’t to say doing so would see him usurp Drummond in the rotation. Instead, it could supplement what Drummond brings on days Embiid is out of the lineup.
Translating more of his defensive playmaking into consistency would also help potentially clarify a pathway to minutes for Reed. Although he’s piled up 57 combined steals and blocks in the G League, he’s prone to chasing such plays and compromising positioning or becoming spacey as an off-ball defender. There’s value in steals and blocks, but discretion is a hallmark of NBA players who both amass gaudy numbers in those departments and field high-level defensive impact.
Adjusting to a narrowed offensive role will also help accelerate any expansion of NBA minutes. Despite touting the framework of a stretch big, he’s typically wired to drive off the catch on pick-and-pops rather than letting it fly. As a complementary player, he’ll need to embrace those reps more commonly and find a blend of attacking closeouts and launching from deep.
After he served as the focal point of the Delaware Blue Coats’ offense last season and assumed a significant usage in Summer League, that assimilation expectedly takes time. By no means does acknowledging these areas for improvement imply he cannot actualize them, even if they’re paramount.
He’s already a tremendous offensive rebounder with active, equitable hands in pick-and-roll coverage. The next step, if he’s going to capably replace Drummond on certain nights, is streamlining his defensive discipline and translating the long-range success of the G League to a fixed NBA role.
Aside from shooting 45 percent from three, Reed said another goal of his is qualifying for the Rising Stars Challenge this season. And if that comes to fruition, the Sixers will probably be just fine at their distinctly important position of third-string center.