The city of Philadelphia has beef with the Process. And why shouldn’t it? Its two potential stars, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, will don more street clothes than Sixers jerseys this season. Embiid’s breakout year finally arrived, but another injury shortened that into three months. Simmons, who Philly selected no. 1 overall in last year’s draft, was out before the competition even began. Injuries make owning the fifth-worst record more explainable and slightly less painful. The purest Philadelphian torment is saved for the calamities that could have been controlled, like the decision to trade Nerlens Noel away instead of Jahlil Okafor. After looking like the better fit for the team and Embiid, Noel was dealt in an exchange that will forever be remembered as the 76ers sending away the wrong guy. Despite all this — the injuries, failures, and questionable trades — Philadelphia will end the season with a tourniquet for the pain by pulling a Bill Belichick: drafting and crafting another player who is a (healthy, non-injured) testament to the Process.
Much like how Dario Saric’s Rookie of the Year campaign wouldn’t be viable were Embiid still healthy, the Noel trade made room for other Sixers to shine. Richaun Holmes — do you have a pen? Write that name down; he played an impressive 28 minutes against the Golden State Warriors less than a month after the trade deadline and in a game where the words “this guy would never get playing time without Nerlens gone” were said multiple times at my residence. And six games after that, he scored a career-high 24 against the Clippers.
On Monday, Holmes helped cap off a loss against the Magic — that sounds bad; stick with me — while his hype train (or is that SEPTA train?) kept barreling on. Filling the 6-foot-11 void left in Philly’s collective heart since Nerlens was traded away, this second-year player and D-League regular is, in the words of Justin Anderson, “really good.”
Style-wise, Holmes is neither Noel nor Okafor, which is a relief. Holmes can lock down defensively even if his man creeps to the perimeter, and he has the ability to stretch on offense as well. His dunking is likely what made his teammate Anderson call him a “beast,” and he’s also a 3-point threat. Since last season, he jumped 19 percent in 3-point shooting, bumping this year’s effective field goal percentage to 59.8 percent. If that sounds familiar — can guard multiple positions and throw down from both the outside and the paint — it’s because it’s the most desirable trait to everyone in the league not named Stan Van Gundy right now. Brett Brown called Holmes a “modern-day player,” and watching him stretch against the Magic proved it.
Against Orlando, which sits just one spot below the Sixers in the Sad! Rankings, Okafor was out again with knee soreness. Brown felt comfortable shifting Holmes into the starting spot because when Holmes started against the Mavericks earlier in the week, he finished 8-of-11 from the field, perfect in his first seven attempts. He racked up 17 points, seven rebounds, and two assists in under 20 minutes to help the 76ers win by 42, while also hanging on Dirk Nowitzki for a night, playing a mobile and athletic game Okafor isn’t built for.
So, for the second time in three games, Holmes got the start. Sure, the Sixers lost 112–109 in a grimy, bottom-of-the–Eastern Conference–barrel contest that went to overtime (which featured eight possessions and nearly two minutes without a score by either team). In the final minutes, with Dario Saric and Aaron Gordon both fouled out, Nikola Vucevic tried to maneuver past Holmes, who stayed tight, but mobile. Vucevic eventually settled for a bad shot, and the Sixers rebounded the miss, giving them a chance to tie. T.J. McConnell raced the ball down to the other end of the floor and passed it back to Holmes, who hit a 3 to make it even.
Holmes fouled out, but not before scoring 24 points and grabbing a career-high 14 rebounds, plus four assists, a steal, and a block.
Those two possessions, a defensive stop, and a clutch 3 sum up the threat that Philly’s new diamond from the D-League poses. When Okafor remained a Sixer after the trade deadline, morale and hope for a legitimate Embiid complement faded. Am I glorifying the discovery of next season’s benchman? Maybe. But if nothing else, he’s a reason for Philadelphians to maybe, just maybe, begin to trust the Process again.