Making the roster of one of the four major sports in this country is as tough as winning the lottery. Trying to land a spot as a low draft pick or a free agent is even more difficult. Of the four sports, the NBA has to be the toughest ladder to climb.
There are fewer roster spots, just five players compete at one time, and stars in the NBA make obscene amounts of money, so when a franchise commits to a massive contract, it wants that player to play and so do the fans.
All these elements make a story like that of Sixers point guard Shake Milton all the more remarkable.
Filling in for the injured Ben Simmons, Milton has raised his level of play and made it impossible for head coach Brett Brown to keep him out of the starting lineup.
In fact, the 76ers may have discovered a bonafide star from deep on its roster.
Against the New York Knicks, Milton played over 31 minutes, scored 19 points, going 6-of-7 from the floor. The 23-year-old hit all five 3-pointers he shot, dished out four assists, blocked two shots and came up with a steal. The 76ers won 115-106.
The night before, Milton was the lone bright spot in an embarrassing 108-94 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, scoring 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the floor, including 4-of-6 from the three-point line. He also recorded four assists and a blocked shot.
Milton had a breakout game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, when he scored 39 points on 14-of-20 shooting from the floor, including 7-of-9 from beyond the arc. Milton also dished out five assists and a steal in the 136-130 road loss.
After the game against the Knicks, Brown was asked what level his trust has reached with Milton.
“What a fantastic story of late,” Brown said. “It’s getting to the stage where the unique performances, performances that catch your eye, have become more and more frequent. To knock out a back-to-back is even more impressive. He’s just becoming consistently reliable on a bunch of things. The statistics we’re all going to see, but defensively, watch him sit in a stance and watch him follow a game plan. He’s deceptively long, and I think he’s improved tremendously defensively. The statistics, making shots and being our point guard. At this stage, if everybody is looking for a tournament, he’s winning it. He’s the starting point guard. The rest of it falls into place with some other ball-handlers that are more than capable. Shake has been a needed surprise late.”
His teammates have noticed. Forward Tobias Harris was asked to talk about what’s impressed him the most about Milton’s contributions.
“Just his fearlessness on the floor,” said Harris, who scored 34 points against the Knicks. “Shake is a really good player, but he has the confidence in himself and in his game to go out night after night and play. He goes out there, he plays, he makes shots. He’s improved his three-point shot, so anytime that we see him open we try to give him the ball. He’s been shooting it really well. He puts in a lot of work and he works really hard. I’m happy for him and every time he gets an opportunity, he takes advantage of it. Tonight, he was huge for us.”
Joel Embiid is out with a strained shoulder. He should return soon. But Simmons could be out for a while with his back injury. Until then, Milton, who was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round in the 2018 NBA draft, then traded to the 76ers, was asked if Brown talked to him about coming in and starting.
“When somebody goes down, especially somebody who plays your position,” Milton said. “You kind of have an idea that your number might be called.”
Milton was asked what he does to stay ready.
“It’s definitely tough, but just making sure that you’re staying in shape,” Milton said. “We do a good job of playing the low-minute guys and we are playing pickup and making sure that we are staying ready. We are just making sure that we are super locked into what the team is doing defensively and offensively so that when your number is called, you’re ready to step in and make an impact.”
Milton said he appreciates the attention he is getting from Brown and his teammates.
“It feels good. It’s definitely just a process,” he said. “I’m still learning a lot, so every game I feel like I’m able to take away something new and learn from it. I put that on my board as something to get better at. Tomorrow, we will watch film and see the mistakes that I made and see how I’m able to change those and put out an even better effort next time.“
The Sixers are struggling on the road and with keeping their best players on the floor. The team needs a spark to make a run to improve its seeding in the upcoming playoffs. Sixers fans hope it’s Milton who will “shake” things up. ••
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii