Philadelphia 76ers: Where does Shake Milton fit in 2021-22?

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

Did any player have more of an up-and-down season with the Philadelphia 76ers than Shake Milton?

After earning some serious hype right out of the gate as a legitimate challenger for the Sixth Man of the Year crown, Milton’s season was derailed by the potent combination of injury and on-court inefficiency and was relegated to a mid-bench role by the time the playoffs rolled around.

Then again, when the Sixers had their backs against the wall and needed someone, anyone to step up and make a difference against the Atlanta Hawks down 0-1 on their home court, Milton put up 14 points in 14 minutes and delivered onto Philly fans their only home court win of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.

But, heading into his fourth professional season and the penultimate year of his rookie-scale contract, where does Milton fit in 2021-22? Is he going to be pushing Tyrese Maxey for playing time behind Ben Simmons – or whomever – at the one, or is there a more creative way to deploy the pride of SMU?

Shake Milton could be a unique off-ball weapon for the Philadelphia 76ers.

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At SMU, Shake Milton played point guard out of necessity.

One of only three players from the 2015-18 Mustangs to get drafted into the NBA – the other two? Semi Ojeleye and Sterling Brown – Milton served as the team’s primary offensive facilitator because they frankly didn’t have a better option. Sure, there were players like Nic Moore and Jahmal McMurray, a pair of AAC standouts who each averaged double-digit points alongside the future member of the Philadelphia 76ers, but that duo had an average height of 5-foot-10.5 and simply didn’t look the part of being NBA bound.

Milton, by contrast, is a legit 6-foot-5 combo guard with a nice shot and a complete offensive game. For a head coach like Tim Jankovich, who was replacing all-timer Larry Brown midway through Milton’s freshman season, the choice to put the ball in Milton’s hands as often as possible surely made sense and led to a pair of trips to the NCAA Tournament; the team’s first appearances in March Madness since all the way back in 1993.

With that being said, Milton was never going to be an NBA point guard, as he’s just not a good enough facilitator or ball-handler to play the position at the game’s highest level. No, for Milton to fully come into his own and build upon his best season as a pro, the Sixers would be wise to fully transition him off-ball as a 1b behind Seth Curry.

Sidebar: Have you ever seen a high school basketball team where they play a 6-foot-4 guy with legit college talent at center because they don’t have another dude taller than 6-foot-2? That’s sort of how Milton looked at SMU.

On paper, Milton and Curry have a lot in common. Neither were highly-touted recruits coming out of high school, neither were one-and-doners during their collegiate career, and neither played many minutes in the NBA as a rookie, with the duo instead having to spend a good bit of time in the G-League to hone their skills.

While Milton has technically found more success in the NBA right out of the gate, as he became a stead contributor in his second season and averaged more points during his third season than any of the seven under Curry’s belt, his inefficiency as a scorer, when coupled with his severe inconsistency from game to game has left some wondering if there’s still spot in Doc Rivers’ rotation for the soon-to-be-25-year-old.

For my money, the answer is simple: Milton needs to play shooting guard full-time and produce more by doing less.

In 2020-21, Milton ranked second on the Sixers in usage rate at 24.9, trailing only Joel Embiid. While usage rating doesn’t necessarily tell a complete story of how often a player is touching the ball in any given game, it does signify that Rivers called a play for Milton in roughly one out of every four drives when he’s on the court. Milton also ranked fourth on the team in touches per game at 49.5. While that doesn’t seem like a lot, when you contextualize each player’s average touches per game versus the number of minutes they are on the court in any given game, Milton ranks in at third with 2.13 touches per minute, just behind Ben Simmons’ 2.53 and Tyrese Maxey’s 2.27.

Curry, by contrast, only touches the ball an average of 1.45 times per minute and has a usage rating of 17.1, which ranks 14th out of a possible 23 players.

And yet, efficiency-wise, Curry was one of the better shooters in the NBA, ranking sixth league-wide in 3 point shooting percentage and ninth league-wide in 3 point shooting percentage on catch-and-shoot attempts with a 48.6 completion percentage on 3.3 attempts per game.

Milton too, was at his most efficient when attempting 3s in catch-and-shoot opportunities, draining just under 40 percent of his 2.1 attempts per game, but once he started to dribble the ball even one time, his efficiency numbers dropped significantly; hitting 20 percent of his 3s on one dribble, 23.5 percent of his 3s on two dribbles, and 28 percent of his 3 point attempts on 3-6 dribbles.

Now mind you, just because Milton is a far better shooter when he’s being dished to doesn’t mean he can’t still be a viable secondary ball-handler playing off of a player like Simmons, Maxey, or… someone else. Much like how Rivers unlocked Curry’s offensive potential as a do-it-all offensive weapon off of Embiid, Simmons, and Tobias Harris, so too could the threat of Milton driving to the hoop produce more advantageous looks for the Sixers’ offense.

In a more defined offensive role, Milton might just become one of the Sixers’ top offensive bench options, even if his game would need to be matured significantly to truly reach his potential.

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Between you and me, I’ve always been a huge fan of Shake Milton. I liked Elton Brand’s decision to draft him in 2018, loved the three-year, $4.9 million deal he signed the following year, and thoroughly enjoyed his breakout run at the end of the 2019-20 NBA season. While a team could conceivably demand back Milton in a massive trade for an established superstar, that would be the only reason I think Doc Rivers should keep Milton off the court for the Philadelphia 76ers this fall, as he’s just too good offensively when all of the pistons are firing to waste away on the bench. Defensively, however, is a completely different story. That aspect of Milton’s game may be beyond repair.