The Starting Five
Joel Embiid: A
Embiid is coming off a franchise-record, seventy-point performance against the San Antonio Spurs. How could he receive anything other than an A? Embiid has somehow improved upon his MVP season and should be the frontrunner for the award this year. Many players do not improve at this stage of their career, but Embiid has made significant jumps in his ability as a passer, he is scoring more on higher efficiency and looks reinvigorated on the defensive end of the court. Doing all of these things amongst the roster turnover while losing one of the better passers in the NBA as a teammate, James Harden is no small feat. Harden did take a lot of pressure off Embiid last year and gave him easy scoring opportunities, but that has not mattered for Embiid this year as he continues to prove himself as a generational scorer. All that Embiid needs to do now is prove himself in the playoffs.
Tyrese Maxey: A
There was a lot of pressure on Tyrese Maxey to take a significant leap for the Sixers to have any semblance of a future. Despite the pressure, Maxey has also exceeded all expectations and become a lights-out shooter, while also making strides as a passer and defender. He is in the conversation for an all-star starter. Most players do not make the leap from not being an all-star to potentially starting in the game. He is a dynamic weapon from anywhere on the court and the improved defense will prove to be essential in the playoffs. Though not a natural playmaker, Maxey has taken it upon himself to improve there. Playmaking tends to be a very innate skill, you either have it or you don’t. Maxey has defied the odds and taken the necessary steps to be the point guard of this team.
Tobias Harris: C
Unfortunately, Tobias Harris is what he is at this point. He started incredibly hot, then disappeared for a long stretch, and is now somewhere in between. The expectations for Harris were not high, but he is shooting even fewer threes and at a lower percentage than he has in previous years. His unwillingness to shoot from deep has always been detrimental to the team. Without James Harden, Harris does appear to be more comfortable, and the scoring has improved, but he is just not a very useful player. The Sixers are arguably better off playing Oubre, Morris, or Covington in his place due to their natural fit as role-players. Harris does deserve recognition for his improvement in getting to the free-throw line, however.
De’Anthony Melton: B-
Even with the B- grade, De’Anthony Melton is an incredibly useful player, he just has not improved at all. His stats would indicate that he has regressed, but last year was a bit of an outlier season for Melton. This is more so the player that he is. Without Harden, Melton has been asked to do things that he is not qualified to do like run an offense. His failures as an initiator of offense are not his fault, the team is just lacking in that area, and he is doing his best. Melton started the season ice-cold, so the numbers may go up as the season progresses (assuming he comes back from injury soon). The only minor gripe is that Melton looks a step slower on the defensive side of the ball. Given his reputation on that end, it would be nice to see that go back to normal.
Nicolas Batum: A
It does not matter that he is only averaging six points, Batum is deserving of an A grade. He is such a useful role-player, and his impact is not demonstrated in the box score. He does everything correctly. Batum may have the highest basketball IQ of anyone to have ever suited up for the Sixers. He is that good. Coming over through the Harden trade, the expectations were low. Some thought he may retire, but Batum has arguably been more useful to this team than James Harden ever was. The picks are still the headliner from that trade, but Batum has proven himself to be much more than a salary filler. The team still has its playmaking woes, but Batum is the best entry passer on the team and has turned back the clock with some of the other passes he has made, setting teammates up for wide-open looks or making a quick decision on the relay pass. Batum is shooting unsustainably well from three (47%) and continues to knock down much-needed threes towards the end of the shot clock or off of a bad pass. He has a quick release and can hit shots while not even being set. This is the perfect role-player.