Smile, Tony Wroten. You've earned it. (Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports)
When word came down shortly before tipoff of the Philadelphia 76ers' Wednesday night matchup with the Houston Rockets that Michael Carter-Williams, the Sixers' rookie starting point guard, would miss the game due to a bruised arch in his left foot, it seemed to some like MCW's absence might be a real problem for first-year head coach Brett Brown's surprising squad, who would be forced to start backup Tony Wroten against Dwight Howard, Jeremy Lin and company. But if there's one thing that I know about Wroten and the 2013-14 76ers, it's that they handle their problems.
So yes, I figured the second-year guard would be OK. I did not, however, know that he was going to go beyond "OK" and straight into to "history-making."
Run the tape:
In his first NBA start, Wroten tied his career-high in points and set new personal bests for rebounds and assists, putting up 18, 10 and 11 in 41-plus minutes. Not only did that mark the first triple-double of the 20-year-old's 44-game career, but it also made NBA history:
Via @eliassports Tony Wroten: 1st player since starts were 1st tracked in 1970 to have triple-double in 1st start
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) November 14, 2013
Of course that bit of arcane NBA miscellania would belong to Wroten, whom the Sixers picked up from the Memphis Grizzlies for a future second-round draft choice this summer. The electric live-wire lefty's athleticism, skill set and panache have never been questioned, but his ability to combine them all into a coherent whole has been, and fairly often at that, even tracing back to his days at the University of Washington; when he does, as we saw Wednesday, he can impact the game all over the court.
And of course it would belong to these 76ers, this pace-pushing collection of misfit parts and also-rans, this gaggle of not-really-NBA-players who came out of the gate with a flash, toppling giants and defying low expectations, much to the chagrin of certain pockets of their fan base. And of course it would come against a nearly-as-chaotic Rockets team playing without its hobbled backcourt star, in a frequently frenetic game whose fourth-quarter finish was about as frantic as the regular-season NBA gets:
Of course it was shooting guard James Anderson — waived by the Rockets before the season, lest we forget, and scooped up by former Houston assistant general manager turned 76ers boss Sam Hinkie — who added to his own career night with the game-tying triple off a lofted heave of a Wroten dime to force overtime, where teammates Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes (13 points) combined to outscore Lin and Howard (11 points) and push the Sixers to a 123-117 overtime win.
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Wroten's triple-double and Anderson's 36 points on 12 for 16 shooting (including a 6-for-8 mark from 3-point range) spoiled Lin's own historic night — the Rockets guard hit a franchise-record-tying nine 3-pointers en route to a 34-point, 12-assist, eight-turnover, five-rebound, 49-minute night. (Surely, this Linsanity-evoking line coming the night before the Rockets hit MSG is purely coincidence.) And while there's still plenty to clean up — Wroten missed 11 of his 18 shots, went 4 for 7 from the charity stripe and mixed in four turnovers with some expectedly wild play — there was just so much to feel good about after the game ... and Wroten, clearly, was feeling himself a little bit. From Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com:
"We aren't looking down the line, we're looking one game at a time. But we feel like as a team, if we keep playing together, we can make the playoffs." [...]
"We have no give-up in us," Wroten said. "We have a great bond off the court, so coming into the game, no matter what — if we're down 20, down 1, down 30 — we're going to play like it's the Finals."
While Wroten's post-game playoff-push proclamation might have seemed to come out of nowhere, his all-court performance didn't. Here's Brown talking with Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News about Wroten in a story published Tuesday, a day before his surprise start and star turn:
"That's part of the whole process of trying to find guys and put them where they should be," Brown said. "Tony has been really good at being the backup one, too, and coming out and running the team. Tony's energy, being able to [play strong defense] and then run the team and maybe able to make some shots, all of that is a bonus, but it stemmed, I think, from him having the ball.
"He plays with reckless abandon. He is an attack-first guard. His challenge is going to be if he can take that fantastic mentality and can you polish it up where there's a level of intellectual poise? He's young, he's really young. That's the challenge of coaching Tony Wroten. He plays with his heart on his sleeve and he's emotional. He could throw the greatest pass you'll ever see in your life or he could hit somebody in their shoe. That's the challenge of coaching Tony."
And on night where he skews more toward the former than the latter, the pleasure of coaching him.
Here's more from the big night for the Sixers' unheralded Anderson-and-Wroten backcourt:
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