Analyzing Sixers' options behind Joel Embiid, including P.J. Tucker and Paul Reed

·7 min read

Do Sixers have right in-house answers for eternal backup center question? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

As long as Joel Embiid is a Sixer, the question won’t disappear.

Can the team hold its own when the All-Star big man is off the floor?

The three main figures in the team’s current backup center picture are Paul Reed, P.J. Tucker and Charles Bassey. The video above reviews their games, and we’ve got more to consider with that trio below:

Tucker isn’t all effort 

Following the Sixers’ Game 1 loss to the Heat last postseason, James Harden was asked about the effective defense Tucker played on him.

“P.J. is P.J.,” Harden said of his former teammate. “He plays hard. But that’s not something I’m worried about.”

Of course, Harden knows dogged effort isn’t Tucker’s only useful trait. In Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey’s final season with the Rockets, Tucker headlined Houston’s “Microball” philosophy following a February trade that sent Clint Capela to Atlanta. There might not be a 6-foot-5 player who’s better equipped to defend big men than Tucker.

“Since you were a little kid, you played against grown men,” Tucker said in 2020, per NBA.com’s Shaun Powell. “Just something you do. It’s basketball, man. It’s being smart, using your size as an advantage. I can get into people. I can get into your stomach, so you can’t back me down. I can stay in front of you, I can move my feet, I can be aggressive. People don’t understand that it can be a disadvantage being tall, too.”

Though Tucker has been highly durable — he played 80.7 games per season between the 2012-13 and ’18-19 campaigns — the Sixers won’t demand any iron man streaks from a 37-year-old they’ve signed to a three-year contract. Tucker shouldn’t play every game, receive every backup center minute, or be required to do anything that could jeopardize his playoff availability.

The gist of Tucker’s approach since he last shared the floor with Harden is the same. He’s still very comfortable firing three-pointers from the corners. While Tucker’s volume has decreased since the Harden-aided three-season stretch where he led the league in made corner threes, 172 of his 193 long-distance tries with Miami were corner attempts. Overall, he made a career-best 41.5 percent of his threes. Savviness, strength, versatility and pervasive toughness all remain intact for Tucker defensively.

It’s not a stretch to say Tucker has evolved, too. Much of his offensive expansion last year was related to opportunity. With Bam Adebayo sidelined by mid-season thumb surgery, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra trusted Tucker to assume a greater playmaking load — serving as the offense’s hub on Miami’s split actions; making solid reads out of the short roll; initiating dribble handoffs and helping the team avoid excessively stagnant possessions.

In a phone interview last month on Tyrese Maxey’s growth, Sixers skill development coach Spencer Rivers envisioned the 21-year-old enjoying his first experience alongside Tucker.

“I think P.J.’s going to have the biggest effect on Tyrese (of the new Sixers),” Rivers said, “just because you saw last year what he did with (Tyler) Herro — just his DHOs. A lot of times P.J.’s in the corner and when there are drive-and-kicks, I think that’ll open up opportunities for Tyrese to be able to kick it to the corner.

“And not only that; if somebody else is driving and they kick it to the corner and P.J. doesn’t have a shot, oftentimes he just dribbles hard up and whoever that guard is, he’s going to throw it to them and set a hard screen downhill, which is really hard to guard after a reversal. I think P.J. and Tyrese are really going to have a good connection next year.”

Tucker ended the year with a career-best 0.93 assist-to-usage ratio, according to Cleaning the Glass, and he committed over three turnovers in a game just once. He also turned to his push shot far more than ever and employed it efficiently, converting 50.4 percent of his short mid-range attempts. 

Tucker is ultimately a low-usage offensive player who will do plenty of standing in the corners, but it’s nice for the Sixers’ double team-drawing stars that he’s perfectly fine having the ball in his hands.

Just how strong are Reed’s strengths? 

With DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap no longer in Philadelphia, the 23-year-old Reed is the Sixers’ primary incumbent at backup center.

He was ambitious at his exit interview in May, saying he aimed to gain muscle and add “10, 15 inches” to his vertical leap through offseason training in Atlanta. The latter goal is quite lofty, but it makes sense that Reed felt physicality was key after his first meaningful playoff reps.

As a rookie, Reed won G League MVP because he’s a uniquely chaotic player. At training camp ahead of his second professional season, new teammate Georges Niang told him to focus on what he was elite at — offensive rebounding. The message resonated.

“I think I lived up to it pretty good,” Reed said in May. “He told me also to make sure that I kick it out to the shooters, because that’s what (head coach Doc Rivers) wants from me. I tried to focus on that this season, and I think that helped me get those minutes in the playoffs. That’s what helped me earn Doc’s trust, and I think that was big — that was real big. I’m glad he emphasized that to me.”

In truth, offensive rebounding doesn’t appear to be Reed’s sole elite skill. Per Cleaning the Glass, his 4.4 steal percentage last season was comfortably No. 1 among NBA bigs. The sample size is small and Reed chased too many positive plays on defense, often biting on pump fakes even when he had good positioning. Reed eliminated some of his fundamental early-season mistakes like not being in the right spot on called actions or gambling wildly on defense, but he’ll still need to show he can maintain his focus and execute the basics.

It’s rare for a bench player to have multiple standout NBA qualities. If Reed takes on a regular role and continues to be an exceptionally voracious, productive offensive rebounder and disruptive defender, the Sixers would be thrilled. Year 3 should be telling.

Next steps for Bassey 

Bassey is the Sixers’ most conventional center behind Embiid.

In a world where everything clicks and ample minutes are unexpectedly available for the 21-year-old, perhaps he’d be somewhat similar to Capela as an athletic, lob-finishing, rim-protecting, rebound-gobbling partner to Harden.

“I’m a defender — block shots, rebound, run the floor,” Bassey said in March. “Just bringing energy to the team when I’m in there and helping the team win. That’s all I do.”

Bassey and Harden have worked together this summer at Rico Hines’ runs in Los Angeles. The Sixers will certainly be curious to see Bassey’s progress following a rookie year in which he earned a place on the All-NBA G League Second Team.

“Charles, I love that kid,” Doc Rivers said at his end-of-season press conference. “I don’t know if he’s ready yet. I would say staff-wise, he needs to get stronger — gets pushed around pretty easy. Offensively, he’s raw, but not as raw as as you think.

“I think of the guys, he’s got the chance to have a huge summer. And as far as development, we need him to. And we’re going to push him. Got to get him stronger. That’s the No. 1 thing.”

The Sixers shouldn’t be counting on a massive Bassey leap, although they know well that more dependable big men behind their franchise cornerstone is never a negative.