Wednesday November 12th, 2008

The few fans who remained to the end of Philadelphia's 93-80 loss to Utah on Tuesday night extended a harsh greeting to Elton Brand. They booed him and his teammates off their home floor.

The disappointment in the 76ers' 2-5 start is premature, as were many of the preseason predictions that Brand would instantly lead his new team to contention. Brand looks like he's still recovering from the Achilles surgery that sidelined him for 74 games last year with the Clippers. The 14.7 points and 1.4 blocks he has averaged through seven games are shaping up as career lows, in contrast with his impressive 10.9 rebounds.

"I was 100 percent, but you still need to test it 100 percent,'' Brand told me last week when I asked about his training camp with the Sixers. "Mentally, it was kind of tough.''

Apart from regaining his confidence physically, Brand and his new teammates are still getting to know one another. After leading the Sixers in scoring with 19.9 points last year, Andre Iguodala is fourth on the team with 11.6 points while shooting 38.9 percent. The 76ers rank 22nd in scoring and last overall with 18.1 turnovers. Their group uncertainty was exploited Tuesday by the Jazz, who benefited from Deron Williams' return from a preseason ankle sprain while Carlos Boozer (19 points and 16 rebounds) outplayed Brand (13 and five with six blocks) down low.

After a decade spent mainly with rudderless teams, Brand came to Philadelphia with the goal of playing well past April each year.

"I saw the roster and they were a running-and-gunning-type thing,'' he said. "No disrespect to the players here, but I felt like I could help them if they needed to slow it down. If they needed a bucket in the post or a mid-range shot or rebounding, I could fill that.''

The young Sixers, however, lack shooting and they're trying to learn how to play around a post scorer like Brand.

"Right now, we're not at that [elite] level,'' he admitted. "Absolutely, we're just not. We haven't had the battles together. But I think we have the talent to do that, and the guys who want to do that.''

After seven years with the Clippers, Brand doesn't mind the occasional booings from Philadelphia fans.

"They know sports, they know plays and players, and I love it,'' he said. "They want us to win and you've got to step up to that challenge. You get a lot of attention, and the onus is on you.

"I remember [in 2005-06] when I was having a great season, the Clippers were having a great season and everything was about us -- and then Kobe Bryant turns around and scores 81 points. And the next day it's like, What are those guys' names again? But here it's about us, so I like that pressure.''

Brand is a two-time All-Star with career averages of 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. Yet his teams have reached the playoffs once in nine years. What makes him confident that he can eventually lead the 76ers toward June?

"I just believe it because I've worked so hard for it, and that's what I'm working toward,'' he said. "We have the right group of guys that wants to win. Andre Iguodala is one of the most unselfish ballplayers I've ever played with. Andre Miller, we already know how he can pass the ball. In playing with guys like that, you want to win for each other.

"It's the toughest thing to do, but it's a team effort. You look at Boston last year: Did Paul Pierce lead them or was it KG's [Kevin Garnett's] passion? The Pistons, when they were there, was it Chauncey [Billups], Rip [Hamilton], or was it Rasheed Wallace's heart and passion? It doesn't have to be one vocal player like in the [Michael] Jordan era. But I definitely can be one of those players who is the focal point to get to a championship.''

Brand, 29, understands that he must hasten the development of Iguodala, second-year forward Thaddeus Young and others while also finding his own way in the 76ers' offense.

"We have to have a sense of urgency around here,'' he said. "I'm not 30 yet, so we've got to do it now.

"At 33, 34, 35, you see guys going around to other teams to try to win a ring. I don't want to do that. I want to help this team to grow.''

One month before the draft, no mention was being made of Jason Thompson as a potential All-Rookie forward. Now the Kings' surprise No. 12 pick ranks among the top five in his class in points, rebounds and shooting percentage. He can outrun most of the big men in the league in the open floor, and he is an exceptional frontcourt passer.

"He has a chance to be a hell of a player,'' Kings coach Reggie Theus said of Thompson, who averaged 20.4 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks as a senior at Rider last season. "He's got quickness, he's not afraid, he puts his body in there, and he does something that's pretty much a lost art in this business -- offensive rebound.''

Thompson was a 6-6 junior at Lenape High School in New Jersey when he was recruited by local Rider of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference as the larger programs ignored him. He grew five inches while maintaining his ball skills, and after his junior year of college, he knew the NBA was paying attention.

"I went from not being drafted to [possibly going in] the second round, and then as my [senior] year got better, they were saying late first round,'' Thompson said. "In the draft workouts, I started doing well, and then I went against guys who were projected higher than me and I did well, and that's when my name started getting mixed up with the Kings and the Warriors [who had the 14th pick].

"You don't see guys from my area and the school I went to being projected as high as I was. But that's good. All of my life I've been under the radar, and it hasn't been bad. It makes me work harder to not have a high projection and then prove everybody wrong and be a late bloomer.''

Last week, close to 100 fans from New Jersey visited Philadelphia to watch Thompson go for 17 points, six rebounds and five assists in a loss to the 76ers. They were cheering every time he had the ball, and singing out his name afterward.

"Playing in the NBA was goal I always wanted as a little kid,'' he said. "My dad said people asked him who's his favorite player in the NBA. And he had a little tear when he said, 'It's my son.' For that to happen, it feels good.''

Thompson and second-year center Spencer Hawes could turn into the starters at the big positions for the Kings over the next decade. But Theus warns that Thompson needs to stop growing in one area.

"He was blessed and he grew a couple of inches,'' Theus said of Thompson's years at Rider. "Unfortunately, his feet grew too. Because he wears like a size 20 or something like that. He's still getting used to them.''

Amid the ongoing congestion of eight games in 12 days -- the worst stretch coach Doc Rivers says he can remember -- the Celtics' bench has become more important than ever. Which means that Tony Allen, the leading candidate to replace sixth man James Posey, has grown crucial. After playing limited minutes last season while recovering from knee surgery, Allen declared his full return by providing 23 points in Boston's win against the Pistons last Sunday that ruined Allen Iverson's debut in Detroit.

Allen is among those rare wing players who doesn't dwell on the three-point line. Like Richard Hamilton and Luol Deng, he is far more effective as a penetrator and mid-range shooter.

"We tell him every day, We don't care about your three-point range," Rivers said. "I use [Dwyane] Wade as my poster child for a lot of things in basketball, and the year Miami won [the championship], Wade made [13] threes for the season; he won MVP for the Finals by making only [three] threes, and one was at the buzzer. So you don't have to be a three-point shooter to be a good player, but you have to be aggressive in what you do -- and Tony is a special penetrator.''

Expect Allen to improve over the course of the season as his confidence rises to the level of two years ago, when he was an explosive scorer and assertive perimeter defender before the injury.

"If it's an open shot, I'll take it,'' said Allen, who is 0-for-8 from the three-point line. "If I miss it, I'm doing other things to help the team: I'm rebounding, trying to get steals, stops, assists. As long as I'm doing what my part of the puzzle is, I feel good.''

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.