Shake Milton and De’Anthony Melton: Sixers backup backcourt getting more responsibility


This marks the fifth year that Joel Embiid has played with Shake Milton. Embiid laughs back at the time, during a heated argument in the Orlando bubble, he told Milton that he was going to slap him.

Embiid did not slap Milton and the two are on better terms now. And with Milton out of the Sixers rotation to begin the season, Embiid did his best to keep his longtime teammate engaged.

“I always tell him that I wish he could play more because he’s one of the few guys that know how to throw pocket passes,” Embiid said after a win over Milwaukee on Friday. “He’s so good playing out of the pick-and-roll and (has) showed it, just controlling every single play and making the right passes on time.”

Embiid has not played nearly as much basketball with De’Anthony Melton but he knew his game well. After games in the Sixers locker room, Embiid is normally on his phone watching another NBA game. That means he had watched Melton plenty over the past few seasons on the Memphis Grizzlies.

“When we got him, I asked him, ‘What was your best game as a Grizzly?’ He didn’t even know. I knew that better than him,” Embiid said. “It was actually against Milwaukee, that’s how much basketball I watch.”

With James Harden and Tyrese Maxey both out of the lineup, the Sixers already had the unenviable task of replacing 45 points and 14 assists. But for the last two games, Embiid has also not been on the court to serve as the hub of the offense. That leaves Doc Rivers and his players trying to piece together a game plan and rotation competitive enough to tread water until the reinforcements arrive.

One of the major subplots has been that Milton and Melton, the new starting backcourt, are required to test the limits of their games. And we saw the positives and downsides of that arrangement over the last two nights, including a 107-101 loss in Charlotte on the second half of the back-to-back.

Take Milton, who is proving to be the ultimate rhythm player. Through the team’s first 12 games of the season, Milton did not play over 20 minutes in any contest. He was either completely out of the rotation or on the fringe, called in solely for cameo appearances. Milton generally looked out of sorts when called to perform in small doses. That has changed drastically over the last few weeks as his minutes have ramped up dramatically.

Milton’s per-36 numbers have improved by leaps and bounds over the last few weeks. The more consistently he has played, the better he has played.

Shake Milton 2022-23 Stats

Pre-November 10 Post-November 10

Games played



Minutes per game



Points per-36



Assists to turnovers per-36

3.5 to 4.3

5.5 to 3.1

True shooting



“This is the reason why you put in so much work and you’re always locked in to what’s going on defensively scheme-wise, offensively what we’re looking for,” Milton said. “That way, the transition can be as smooth as possible.”

Milton’s feel for the game and craft in one-on-one situations comprise his NBA skill, but he also possesses one physical attribute that immediately stands out: He has pterodactyl arms, a 7-foot wingspan on a 6-foot-5 body. A major reason that Milton is a skilled pick-and-roll operator, capable of throwing pocket passes that impress a tough grader like Embiid, is that the simple act of unfurling his arms creates passing angles out of nowhere.

Milton can use his long arms as a scorer and rebounder as well. On this play from Wednesday’s loss, he snatches a 50/50 rebound away from a player a few inches taller before casually throwing a left-handed dart to Tobias Harris for a dunk.

Unlike Milton, Melton has been in the rotation the entire season. As an agent of chaos on the defensive end, he has been as advertised throughout the first quarter of the season. The team’s normal sixth man, Melton posts elite steal, block and rebounding numbers for a guard.

“De’Anthony is kind of a Swiss Army knife and he’s somebody that can play multiple positions and can do multiple things on the court, so it makes it easy,” Milton said of his backcourt-mate. “He’s a fun guard to play with.”

But this stretch without the team’s star players has tested Melton’s limits as a playmaker. When asked the last time he was afforded the opportunity to run this many pick-and-rolls, Melton laughed and said, “Man, in a minute.” He played with Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and Tyus Jones the past few seasons in Memphis and now he has Harden and Maxey on his team. Normally, he’s more of a secondary ballhandler.

Melton is shooting 39 percent on 6.6 attempts per game, and over the past few games, he has gotten more aggressive in hunting for them. With limited scoring options elsewhere, that is by necessity.

As expected, it hasn’t always been pretty. Milton is not a true point guard and his lack of foot speed makes him susceptible to full-court ball pressure. Charlotte’s cameras weren’t even ready for Theo Maledon to pick Milton’s pocket directly out of a Sixers timeout late in Wednesday’s game. The Sixers will continue to see that, even from teams that don’t pressure the ball.

Melton’s issue is that he lacks craft around the basket and is a poor finisher for such an athletic player. He’s shooting just 44 percent around the rim in the early going and it’s easy to see why. The play below is similar to the critical late possession against Minnesota on Saturday. Melton’s timing in stripping the ballhandler is extraordinary, but he badly misses the layup in transition.

Ultimately, the Sixers should be happy with what they’re getting from Melton and Milton in the short term. They have been competitive in all four games since Maxey joined Harden on the injury list, winning two of them. They are creating offense with a limited set of players around them. The key is translating these positive contributions to when Maxey and Harden return and less is expected of them.

“Those are guys that we’re going to need,” Embiid said. “And they’re going to show up.”

(Photo of Shake Milton: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)


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