Shake Milton Is Embracing Whatever The Sixers Throw At Him

PORTLAND — The Philadelphia 76ers were reeling late in the third quarter of a recent road win over the Portland Trail Blazers. After the Sixers mounted a 26-point lead minutes earlier, Portland had rattled off 14 straight points and trimmed its deficit to 12 with more than a quarter remaining.

As the entire starting group rested, including stars Joel Embiid and James Harden, Philadelphia needed someone to hush the swelling clamor of Blazers fans and relent their tide. Shake Milton promptly assumed responsibility. The lanky guard wiggled into a stepback jumper and then slalomed his way around multiple defenders for a lefty layup to snap the Sixers’ 4.5-minute scoreless drought.

Milton’s dependability is a hallmark of his fifth season in the league, which might be his finest yet. All year, despite entering 2022-23 outside the rotation, he’s adapted his role to meet the evolving wishes of the team. Through the first three games, he was glued to the bench. Ten different players were ahead of him in the rotation. He didn’t even log double-digit minutes until Nov. 2. His first double-digit scoring performance came Nov. 12.

When Harden suffered an injury in early November, the Sixers’ rotation required more ball-handling. Milton stepped up. Two weeks later, when Tyrese Maxey fractured his left foot, the Sixers’ needed a new starting point guard. Milton filled in and averaged 21.3 points, six assists, and 5.3 rebounds on 65.7 percent true shooting (.547/.455/.964 split) during eight starts. When Harden returned, he scaled down to reserve minutes and took another backseat after Maxey’s revival as well.

He’s a metronome on a team whose foundational players have shuffled in and out of the lineup because of various injuries. Milton brings steadiness, an approach he partially attributes to playing against older opponents on AAU circuits throughout his formative years.

“His temperament doesn’t go up or down for whatever role he’s playing, and I think that probably helps him in the long run,” says Sixers head coach Doc Rivers in the sort of nonchalant tone that reflects his guard’s even-keeled persona.

Through 43 games, Milton is averaging 10.2 points (59.2 percent true shooting), 3.3, assists, and three rebounds a night. He’s shooting 38.3 percent beyond the arc and a career-high 55 percent on two-pointers. The primary reason he’s experienced an uptick in interior profits is a redesigned shot profile.

According to Cleaning The Glass, a career-high 41 percent (90th percentile among combo guards) of his shots are occurring at the rim and he’s converting 66 percent of them (64th percentile). His previous best was 32 percent during his breakout 2019-20 campaign. His 20.3 percent transition frequency (1.241 points per possession, 72nd percentile) is also a career-high, per Synergy.

He loves to float down the floor for outlet passes and seems emboldened by Harden’s open-court playmaking wizardry. But Harden’s talents alone are not fueling this. There’s a team-wide emphasis to attack before the defense is organized. Milton is one of Philadelphia’s foremost practitioners in this regard.

“I’m just trying to put a lot of pressure on the defense,” Milton says. “Any time you’re aggressive, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the shot. But it means you’re drawing two and doing something for the team.”

There’s a deceptive, methodical nature to Milton’s downhill forays. He’s not a burner like Maxey, who is capable of going from one end of the floor to the other in the blink of an eye. Instead, he is patient and composed, surveying his surroundings as he operates and locating the preferred angles. By the time he confronts defenders, his 6’5 frame and 7-foot wingspan are primed to overwhelm them and help him wrap in finishes with either hand.

When Milton entered the league, he was an accomplished long-range gunner, drilling 42.7 percent of his 445 career triples during his collegiate days at SMU. During his first two seasons, more than 49 percent of his field goals came beyond the arc. The jumper set up driving opportunities. Now, the inverse relationship exists. Milton is a slasher. That’s the bedrock of his scoring arsenal. A career-low 28 percent of his shots are threes this season.

As this shift transpired the past few years, he’d sometimes struggle to balance decision-making off the catch and relinquish advantages created by others. This year, Milton seems to have achieved the ideal balance and is more comfortable than ever launching against timely closeouts when necessary.

He’s netting 39.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes, his best mark since 2019-20. His 38.8 percent clip from deep is also only exceeded by the 43 percent mark of 2019-20. In trimming down most of his pull-up three volume (4.8 percent rate, lowest since his rookie year, when he attempted 87 total shots), he’s bolstered his effectiveness considerably. When he’s tasked with complementary scoring in the half-court — usually alongside Embiid and/or Harden — he’s equipped to seamlessly merge shooting and attacking.

“I feel like I’m pretty good against closeouts and have a tendency to make the right reads,” Milton says. “Getting closed out, getting by my initial defender, draw two and kick to somebody else. It gets pretty simple at that point.”

Boogying on the break and puncturing closeouts can’t explain the entirety of Milton’s success this year, though. He’s started nine times, including a smattering of games where at least two of Embiid, Harden, and Maxey were sidelined. In those nine instances, he’s averaging 20.9 points (65.2 percent true shooting), 6.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds. According to PBPStats, over 60 percent of his shots are classified as self-created and he’s generating an effective field goal percentage of 50.7 on them — league average is 49.4 percent this year.

His knack for creation inside the paint as an ancillary option illuminates the multiplicity of this lethal Sixers unit, which is 11-3 with the second-ranked offense since Maxey rejoined the lineup 14 games ago. He’ll burrow through, around, or over defenders to rock out below the free-throw line. When creation responsibilities fall on his shoulders, most commonly while spearheading all-bench squads next to Maxey, Philadelphia’s fourth rotation guard can produce sequences like these.

As Milton conducted a postgame interview following the Sixers’ 105-95 win over Portland last week, Maxey interjected to imitate the Owasso, Oklahoma native.

“Yeah, I get buckets, yeah I go left, stepback, yeah, we know,” the 22-year-old recited playfully a few feet away.

Minutes earlier, Maxey’s tone wasn’t quite as fun-loving. Instead, he decided to take a moment to praise his teammate.

When Maxey was a rookie fighting for scraps of playing time, Milton offered words of encouragement, drawing upon his own first-year trials. Now a pillar of Philadelphia’s present and future, Maxey understands the challenges a lack of minutes presents. He commends Milton’s patience and mental toughness navigating choppy waters the past few seasons.

“It’s hard not to play, it’s extremely hard not to play,” Maxey says. “He’s been in different roles, starting, not playing, coming off the bench, playing, having to score in big moments and just gotta really appreciate a guy like that. He’s doing his thing right now.”