LAS VEGAS – This time of year in Las Vegas, youth is all the rage when it comes to the NBA.
Thousands of fans, turning out in increasingly record numbers with each passing summer, flood the campus of the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, all in hopes of getting glimpses of the next wave of talent set to hit the league.
For the 76ers, however, the focus on prospects and player development took a brief pause Saturday, as the team officially welcomed two veteran additions considered to be crucial to helping the organization accelerate its growth.
Representing arguably the franchise’s highest-profile day of free agent signings since luring Elton Brand to Philadelphia in 2008, the Sixers announced Saturday they had agreed to terms on deals with lights-out marksman JJ Redick, and gritty, hard-working forward Amir Johnson.
Both players put pen to paper on their respective pacts at the Sixers’ hotel in Las Vegas, and were formally introduced by Bryan Colangelo at a press conference held inside a banquet room at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.
“We wanted to add toughness, we wanted to add leadership, we wanted to add professionalism,” said Colangelo, now in his second year as the Sixers’ President of Basketball Operations, “and that’s effectively what we’ve done with JJ Redick and Amir Johnson.”
Redick and Johnson each have logged close to 800 games over the course of their careers, and join the Sixers on the heels of stints with teams that, in recent years, have made habits of winning at elite, sustained level. Redick, of course, spent the last four seasons with the LA Clippers, putting his dangerous perimeter talents to use alongside the power trio of All-Stars Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. Johnson, meanwhile, is coming off a two-year tenure as a valued frontcourt starter for the Boston Celtics, which reached the Eastern Conference Finals this spring.
For Redick, the Sixers were long on his mind.
“Truthfully,” he said Saturday, “for the eight weeks between the [end of the] season and free agency, as we got closer and closer to free agency, I wanted to be in Philadelphia. That was the place I wanted to be. I thought it was the best fit.”
Feelings that were only reinforced, he added, after A). the Sixers swung a swap with Boston for the top pick in this year’s draft, and B). he met with Colangelo and Brett Brown. Colangelo deemed the match ideal, too.
“When you talk about what this team needed more than anything, [it] was a shooter,” said Colangelo, noting that the Sixers’ youthful core of Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, and Ben Simmons is packed with possible playmaking facilitators. “We [now] arguably have the best shooter in the league.”
In respect to Johnson, the saying that’s become a de facto slogan for the Sixers seemed to resonate strongly, as did a long-standing relationship.
“I just love the process the Sixers are headed towards, building up,” said Johnson, whose big NBA break came thanks, in part, to Colangelo targeting the big man via a 2009 trade when Colangelo was running the Toronto Raptors. “Love the theme, ‘Trust the Process.’ For me to come here, and be with BC [Colangelo] again, and be a part of the process of this team, I was stoked, I was very excited. I am happy to be part of the family.”
“It’s been a lot of time, as Amir mentioned, for us,” Colangelo said. “I’ve seen him grow as a young man, and develop as a player, to see how far he’s come.”
There’s little doubt that the acquisitions of Redick and Johnson will infuse the Sixers’ roster with more talent. Redick, the 11th overall selection in the 2006 draft, ranks ninth in the NBA in 3-pointers made (1,271) since breaking into the league. The last three seasons, he’s nailed 200-plus triples, while converting at least 42.9 percent of his perimeter attempts. During the 2015-2016 campaign, the Duke product topped the league in 3-point shooting efficiency, at 47.5 percent.
The chance to orbit around the Sixers’ crop of up-and-comers, particularly Simmons, was appealing.
“I love how he plays – he’s unselfish,” Redick said of Simmons. “Him and I have texted over the last couple months. He says he wants to dime me up. I’m hoping that as he develops into a great ball handler and passer and playmaker in this league, I’m the beneficiary of that.”
As for Embiid, Redick said that in limited action last season, the Rookie of the Year finalist was “outstanding, as good as any center in this league.”
“Joel has incredible talent, and he’s another big reason why I wanted to come here and play with him,” Redick told reporters. “Coach Brown the other night compared him to Tim Duncan. That’s high praise, and that’s somebody who won in this league.
“Joel can be the anchor of a championship-winning team.”
Johnson, Colangelo said, will be expected to bring a rugged, vocal defensive presence.
“It just makes the defense a lot easier when you’re yelling, talking,” said Johnson, who’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.7 rebounds in 22.3 minutes per game for his career. “At the same time, I want to bring an offensive force. I definitely slimmed down this summer just to keep up with the younger guys.”
To that end, Johnson celebrated his 30th birthday on May 1st. Redick just turned 33 on June 24th. In addition to trying to accelerate winning for the Sixers, the free agent pair was in lockstep regarding another goal as well – they’re aiming to provide guidance to a team that, according to RealGM, has averaged the youngest average roster age in the NBA – 24.4 years old – since Brown was named head coach prior to the 2013-2014 season.
Redick and Johnson each told stories Saturday about how mentors had positive influences on their own paths.
“For me, I spent four years at Duke, and I was 22 my rookie year,” Redick said. “For a lot of guys, I was old as a rookie, but nothing could prepare me for the NBA, both on the court and off the court. I was very fortunate to have some great veterans that set the tone for me, even guys that were similar in age to me, like [former Saint Joseph’s guard] Jameer Nelson, who is still one of my closest friends.”
Johnson was originally chosen 56th overall by the Detroit Pistons in 2006. At the time, the Pistons were still very much an Eastern Conference contender, with Rasheed Wallace on the front line.
“Everybody on that team was probably 30 and up,” said Johnson. “It taught me a lot…just be a man and go to the gym to work hard constantly. They always preached in my ear, ‘The work never stops.’ I basically had to grow up quick.”
Redick said a book he’s reading now – Falling Upward, by Richard Holmes – has been timely, and given perspective.
“One of the things [Holmes] talks about in the book is the importance of elders in your life, and in a group setting,” said Redick. “To really be an effective elder, you have to be in the second phase of your life, and – to speak for Amir as well – we are in the second phase of our career. We’ve been through enough now, and have enough wisdom, that we can be an effective elder.”
As Redick also pointed out, the Sixers didn’t bring in him and Johnson “just to be a leader.”
“They’re paying me because I can play, and the same thing with Amir,” Redick said.
Colangelo certainly believes that the two veterans can each offer complete packages. That players of Redick’s and Johnson’s level of experience, success, and overall ilk would elect to join a promising, yet unproven, group was, in Colangelo’s eyes, a telling sign.
“It speaks to the temperature in the market right now,” he said. “People are looking at us as an up-and-coming team – a wealth of young talent that is on the cusp of something special.
“I said last year we didn’t really have the story set yet. I think we’re in the middle of building that story. Even more so today, the act of signing these two types of players enforces what we are doing. Now, we have to speak on the court, and that will come in the form of winning.
“We certainly don’t want to race out to the middle, but do the right things to continue to build this the right way. Making decisions like this is going to help us make those strides in terms of the growth and development of that core group of players we keep talking about.”
Saturday was, in many ways, another day in Vegas. Games were played, and plenty of prospects exhibited potential. But, for the Sixers, it was a slightly different day, too, marked by the latest noteworthy step for a franchise that hopes to be on the rise.
Extra Quotes of Note:
Sometimes, when trying to sort out the details and recap a lengthy, wide-ranging press conference, it’s tough to cram into an article every pertinent quote. There were a few good ones we weren’t able to fit into the story you (maybe, hopefully) just read, so here are some leftovers we thought were worth highlighting…
• JJ Redick couldn’t have been any clearer Saturday – Brett Brown, set for his fifth season coaching the Sixers, was a decisive factor in the sharpshooter’s choice to sign with the club.
“There’s something about his disposition, the way he has coached this basketball team, the way he has embraced the process. The spirit of the Sixers has never been broken. That speaks volumes to Coach Brown. To be honest, he was probably the biggest factor in this decision. He is someone I have watched and I’ve wanted to play for. I’m thrilled to be playing for him next year. For me personally, that was the biggest thing. Just the fit of playing in his system and of course the young talent this team has and where I fit and sort of compliment their talents, I think it’s a great match.“
• If memory serves the author correct, it was Amir Johnson who the Boston Celtics were quickly forced to assign to Joel Embiid in the first pre-season game for both teams last year. Johnson and Embiid would again face off several times in the months that followed.
“Very impressive. When I guarded him, I remember guarding him, and I didn’t think he would be as strong as he was, and he hit me with the elbow, it was a pretty hard one, and I kind of braced myself for that one. Definitely impressed how he played 22 minutes a game and he just put up incredible numbers. He’s a great guy, off the court I see him all over social media, seems like a funny guy, and seems like a hard worker, I can’t wait to work with him.”
• Both Johnson and Redick were asked Saturday about their impressions of their new home city.
Jefferson said, “Great cheesesteaks. Philadelphia is an unbelievable place, great restaurants, great food and great atmosphere. Definitely always had love for Philly, and I am happy to finally live here, and I’ll definitely get to see more.”
From Redick, “Somebody dug up an old tweet on Twitter when I said I was roaming the streets of Philadelphia and that it was one of my favorite cities, and it was an underrated city. Six years later I still feel the same way, it’s definitely one of my favorite cities in the U.S. and it has an unbelievable food scene. As a U.S. History major, there is something very cool about being in cities, and walking the streets of Philadelphia or Boston or New York and seeing historical sites. I’ve always had a great appreciation for the city, and the other thing right now is, and Brett texted me this the other night, that there is a buzz in the city now and there is a buzz about the Sixers.”