Last season Shake Milton emerged as a reliable rotation piece for the Sixers, and he figures to play a large role off the bench (and eventually in the starting lineup) this season.
There seems to be debate, however, as to what exactly our expectations should be for the third year player. The natural, and somewhat cookie-cutter way of assessing Shake would be to assume his shooting will/might see a regression from last year—he can’t possibly continue to shoot at such a high-clip, surely it’s a flash in the pan, right?
I understand that inclination—60 games and just 179 career attempts from three is a small sample size—but it’s not like this skillset was unforeseen. Leaving college Milton projected favorably as a knockdown three-point shooter, even from pro-range. He shot over 42% from three at SMU in all three seasons (190/445, 42.7% on his career) and was even more efficient in catch-and-shoot situations. His 1.34 PPP on spot-up C&S plays ranked in the 98th percentile in college.
Again, I understand the safe, stock analysis of, “we can’t bank on him replicating those numbers,” but a look at his case with a little more nuance and it’s clear his shot is entirely bankable. The numbers are consistently excellent—he didn’t have a single dip in shooting for any stretch of last season—his mechanics are buttoned up, and he has the length and athleticism to shoot over defenders.
When Daryl Morey says things like, “I think the league hasn’t caught up to how good Shake can be — it was one of the first things Doc and I spoke about after I joined — we are excited to see what he can do this year,” and Doc boasts of his potential, saying, “Shake is going to be a heck of a basketball player. He really is..,” those aren’t just empty compliments. Buzz around Shake isn’t hard to find, and maybe that’s reason enough to fade our lofty projection for him, but I think in this instance it’s the right call.
The Sixers newfound spacing obviously benefits the entire roster, and that includes Milton. Last season the lineups around Shake ranked all the way down in the 28th percentile in terms of spacing, with just 17% of his attempts considered “open” (37th percentile), and an overall “openness rating” in the 30th percentile—a metric that estimates how open a player’s 3PT attempts are on average.
Frankly, if you’re looking for an area of Shake’s game to fade it’s his pull-up game. On a very small sample size he connected at an unsustainable rate of 52.6% from three, and we can safely expect that number to drop. With that said, pull-up jumpers count for a small fraction of his actual attempts, so any drop from last season would have a negligible impact on his overall efficiency.
Shake’s catch-and-shoot numbers—43.7% from three (89th percentile)—are more important, relevant, and for the reasons outlined above (strong track record, improved lineup spacing) they’re more sustainable. 1.23 points per possession in spot up situations last season (91st percentile) only reinforces this. If it’s not clear by now, the only direction for him to go in this regard is up, not down.
Shooting aside, what intrigues me the most about Milton is how the rest of his game develops. While Doc downplays the idea of traditional point guards, someone needs to be in charge of lead guard responsibilities (however you want to define those) when Ben is off the floor, and it looks like that someone will be Shake (at least to start the season).
There are reasons to doubt Milton’s ability to meaningfully impact the game by getting others involved on offense. His playmaking numbers are a mixed bag, and are clearly somewhat of a product of last season’s poor circumstance on offense.
These numbers suggest a few things. First, that Shake actively seeks out “high value” assist opportunities—passes that end in a three, a FG at the rim, or free throws. That’s made clear through a high “passing aggressiveness” value and a rate of 3.7 HV assists per 75 possessions (73rd percentile). On the flip side, low efficiency and versatility numbers also suggest he’s not particularly successful at finding “high value” assists compared to his turnover rate, and that he creates in a limited variety of ways.
Put simply: Shake was an aggressive, yet uncreative passer last season. One obvious explanation for the playmaking chart you see above is the offensive circumstance he was in. He was more or less asked to step into a point guard role, at first with the second unit and then to replace an injured Ben Simmons. On a team with poor spacing and limited creators it’s not hard to understand a) why the top four data points are all in the 60th percentile or higher (volume), b) why he tended to be aggressive (necessity), and c) why he was a limited passer with bad turnovers.
Suffice to say, this is an area of Milton’s game where there just isn’t enough data available to draw any meaningful conclusions on his ability. I don’t think any of the above numbers or rationalizations are particularly surprising to anyone who watched Sixers basketball last season, but I’m not entirely sure it’s a fair representation of what Shake’s playmaking skillset could look like in this season and beyond.
One major positive in regard to Shake’s potential to develop as a creator is his potential ability to attract the attention of and collapse a defense. We already know about his shot, but it’s his already apparent ability to get to and finish around the rim that should get more attention this season.
The numbers above suggest he can get to the rim at an above-average rate while being able to finish at a high level—68.2 adjusted FG% at the rim is nothing to scoff at. He can stand to improve through contact, but that should come naturally with his more bulked up body and more reps. Milton’s efficiency at the rim is underscored by his 1.78 PPP as a cutter (94th percentile), though not on a particularly large sample size.
While the jury is still out on his playmaking, the combination of a strong jumper and an ability to finish at the rim is encouraging for his potential to create both wing and rim gravity on offense. This would obviously put him in a strong position to create for others, and I’ll be surprised if he’s not able to take advantage of this skillset to do exactly that as he learns to see the floor better.
In terms of defensive ability Shake is raw and was unspectacular for much of last season—though the above numbers aren’t terrible at a glance, when adjusted to include only perimeter defenders they’re not so pretty; and his overall impact metrics on this end of the floor all rank at the bottom of the league. (*compared with Danny Green as a baseline)
With that said the tools are clearly there for him to develop into a league average, if not above average perimeter defender. He’s 6’5”, long wingspan, and looks to have honestly added the 14 lbs of muscle he claimed to over the offseason. He’s in no way limited laterally, and as soon as his IQ catches up to him he should be a passable defender before we know it.
The Sixers enter the 2021 season with high expectations for a number of players, but perhaps none more so than Shake Milton. His red-hot performance pre-Covid break, his continued strong play in the bubble, Doc and Daryl’s persistent praise, and his strong showing in last night’s preseason opener have all fed into the hype around the former second round pick. While some pundits are understandably treating that hype with caution, I’m buying all the Shake Milton stock I can while it’s still cheap.
Don’t forget to check out the latest episode of “The Pulse of the City Pod”