The Sixers have weathered a maelstrom of unfavorable injury news to advance to 10-9 on the season. James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Joel Embiid have all missed significant time now. In their absence, one player has stepped up above all else: Shake Milton.
He has been Philly’s best player for the last week or so. After starting the season on the rotational fringe, Milton suddenly looks like a cornerstone piece in the absence of the team’s actual foundation. While Milton won’t maintain his current workload once everyone’s healthy, he does deserve immense credit for his performance of late.
In four games since joining the starting five in Maxey’s place, the 26-year-old from SMU is averaging 22.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 6.5 assists on .569/.526/.929 shooting splits. He’s back — The Prince That Was Promised.
Shake Milton is finally delivering on his long-lost hype for the Sixers
After a strong start to his career in Philadelphia, many fans pegged Milton as a future Sixth Man of the Year candidate — the kind of brawny scorer and secondary playmaker who can change the calculus of games off the bench. The fanbase’s hopes were virtually eradicated in 2020-21, when Milton — to state it plainly — did not fair well in that role.
Last season provided something of a redemptive arc for Milton. His minutes and scoring numbers didn’t quite return to form, but he emerged as a reliable bench cog and, more importantly, he showed up in the playoffs when few of his fellow reserves did.
Now we’re getting the version of Shake Milton that, not long ago, felt impossible. Like a hazy dream lost to time. His scoring is back: the 3s are falling and he’s absolutely working defenses from the mid-range. He’s also playmaking at the highest level of his career, operating as lead ball-handler and shot generator for an offense missing its three best players.
It’s best to take Milton’s recent numbers with a grain of salt — his efficiency will inevitably taper off — but this is by far the most comfortable and compelling Shake has looked… ever. And he’s only 26 years old, theoretically at the very front end of his NBA prime. He has a lot left in the tank from the looks of it. And he’s in the last year of his exceedingly cheap contract, no doubt in search of a much heftier payday next summer.
It will be fascinating to see how Milton’s role shifts once Maxey and Harden rejoin the team. He has unquestionably earned a more prominent role in the second unit moving forward. But, Milton has always been at the best in these situations — when the Sixers need someone to create from scratch and helm the offense. He has never attained this level of potency playing off of other elite playmakers. Milton might be more of a point guard than we’re willing to admit. He’s more in the Lou Williams mold than the Jordan Clarkson mold: his offensive output revolves around being able to square up, size up, and create wacky-angled shots off the dribble.
At 6-foot-6, Milton is unique in part because of his size and defensive versatility. He can share the floor with other guards and is probably at his best defending wings, not point guards. Thus it’s not hard to make room for him next to Maxey, Harden, and Melton in the guard rotation. But will he continue to play like this when those guys return? Or more importantly, can he continue to play like this when those guys return? It will ultimately fall on Milton to strike the appropriate balance between aggressively looking to create and operating as floor-spacer/spot-up shooter. He can’t defer completely, but he also can’t be the lead ball-handler when James Harden is on the floor.
While such concerns are valid, it’s hard to feel anything but optimism after Milton’s recent stretch of games. And, if he can’t quite figure out how to do this full-time in Philadelphia, he could make his next team very happy. Odds are, the Sixers can’t afford the version of Shake we’re currently seeing.