By Dan Gelston
AP Sports Writer
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Without playing a game, the 76ers will still spend this summer in the cellar.
No, not because of their offseason.
No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons has created a stir in Philly that has the Sixers stealing lazy summer headlines for the first time in years. Dario Saric’s arrival from a Turkish league after two years overseas was greeted with cameras and fans mobbing him at the airport. And Joel Embiid? Well, the oft-injured big man appears finally healthy after sitting out the last two years with foot injuries.
For the first time in years, the Sixers seem poised to move up and ahead in the standings instead of shedding talent and salary with the sole intention of landing at the bottom.
The only kind of tanking this summer will come in the form of the stainless steel fermentation tanks needed by Chaddsford Winery to produce a dry red in honor of the 1982-83 Sixers as part of its championship banner series. The image of the championship banner that hangs in the Wells Fargo Center is on the label and the wine launched Tuesday has notes of raspberry, black cherry, black pepper and oak.
The Sixers hope they’ve found the right blend on the roster.
Landing Saric was a start.
The Sixers signed the 6-foot-10, 243-pound power forward last week more than two years after they acquired his rights on a draft-night deal. Saric was originally drafted by the Orlando Magic with the 12th overall pick of the 2014 NBA draft and he was quickly traded to the Sixers for Elfrid Payton.
Because of overseas contractual obligations, Saric played the last two seasons with the Turkish team Anadolu Efes. He was MVP of the 2016 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. He averaged 14 points, 10 rebounds and two assists for his native Croatia.
After years of fans following Saric on video highlights and coach Brett Brown limited to smartphone conversations with his prized prospect, Saric officially turned from man of mystery to man of the hour when his plane landed in Philly.
“I didn’t know that we had people who would say welcome to me like that, in that way. I’m very happy because of that,” he said. “I’m happy, because the city’s happy, because I’m here.”
Saric and Embiid, a fellow 2014 draft pick, have yet to play for the Sixers. Embiid should make his debut after missing the past two seasons with foot injuries. They join a roster that includes fellow lottery picks Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and, of course, Simmons.
Okafor, the No. 3 pick of the 2015 draft, has been cleared to play following right knee surgery that sidelined for the final month of the season. The Sixers said on Monday that Okafor, who had been cleared to resume on-court basketball activity, will limit his participation with the USA Men’s Select Team to non-contact activity and drills while training with the USA Basketball Men’s National Team this week in Las Vegas.
“Jahlil has been in the gym working hard and has made great strides in his recovery and return to action, but he’s simply not in the kind of basketball condition required to compete at this level of competition,” Sixers President Bryan Colangelo said. “Our sports science and medical team feels that holding him out of scrimmage situations is in everyone’s best interest at this point of the summer.”
Sit and wait.
It’s become a bit of a theme in Philly the last few seasons, ending with last season’s 10-72 mark that earned them the No. 1 pick. Noel missed a year. Embiid and Saric, two. Okafor’s promising rookie season was limited to 53 games.
Once they’re back, it’s up to Colangelo and Brown to decide how to make them fit. Colangelo has said he’s not comfortable with trying to fit centers Okafor, Noel and Embiid on the roster. One of them — surely Okafor or Noel — will have to go, before this season or next.
Simmons could fill in at point guard where the Sixers have a glaring need. Simmons showed off the versatility in the NBA Summer League that made him the No. 1 pick. The freshman from LSU played in four games for the Philadelphia 76ers in Las Vegas, averaging 12.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists.
The 22-year-old Saric seemed open to any position.
“If you have five players who can run, feel each other on the court, I think it doesn’t matter which position we play,” he said. “How we play, how we help each other during a game, I think we’ll make good things, not just me and Ben, but the whole team.”
Much like the wine, the Sixers can only hope their players get better with age — and maybe eventually cause them to sip the good stuff for the team’s first championship parade in nearly 35 years.