How Shake Milton became the straw that stirs the 76ers’ drink

PHILADELPHIA — When the Clippers visited the 76ers in mid-February 2020, second-year guard Shake Milton played just 42 seconds. He contributed zero counting statistics towards the home team’s seven-point victory.

Milton, then, was no priority on the Clippers’ scouting report 20 days later for the Sixers’ visit to Los Angeles. “If he was, we didn’t talk about him much,” recalled Doc Rivers, Los Angeles’ head coach at the time. “And then we couldn’t stop him.”

He had snuck into the starting lineup by replacing an injured Ben Simmons. Joel Embiid’s absence that Sunday afternoon also left a scoring void, and Milton opened the nationally televised contest by connecting on five straight baskets. “He just went off,” Embiid told Yahoo Sports. Milton slithered around Al Horford’s ball screens. He sank mid-range heaves over Ivica Zubac’s menacing crane of an arm. He used his lanky wingspan to poke one pass and tomahawked on top of Patrick Beverley’s head. And then Milton drove left to slip around the mighty Kawhi Leonard for a gliding off-hand layup. He scorched the Clippers for 26 points in the first half, en route to a career-high 39.

“I just remember, ‘This f***ing guy Shake Milton is killing us,'” Rivers said. “And you feel like, ‘Who the f*** is this guy? Really?’”

Throughout five years with Philadelphia, Milton and the Sixers have been trying to figure exactly that. When that 2019-20 season resumed in the Orlando bubble, Philly coaches inserted Milton into their starting lineup, sliding Simmons over to forward, as Brett Brown’s final attempt to maximize the Sixers’ leading pair of All-Stars. At times, Milton has thrived off the bench — like scoring 14 critical points in a Game 2 victory against Atlanta in the 2021 East semifinals — but he has often disappeared from Philadelphia’s equation altogether.

That is the inherent challenge of finding success as an NBA role player — functioning as a variable to amplify a franchise’s constants, while there is no such thing as a constant in this modern world of team building. Where you can be tasked with supplementing Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick one season, and then navigate the wonky fit of Horford and Embiid the very next. When your next contract and your next minutes are never guaranteed, but every opportunity can serve as a life raft to stability.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ Shake Milton, left, goes up for a shot against the Charlotte Hornets’ Nick Richards during the second half of an NBA game on Dec. 11, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

“I remember early in my career there used to be highs and lows. You never really know what it feels like until you’re in it,” Milton told Yahoo Sports. “You gotta fight internally every day to make sure you’re in a good spot, make sure you’re putting yourself in the best place to succeed. It definitely took me my years to kind of go through that, to know how to move and how to stay with it.”

This season, Milton has found his greatest groove yet. It is there in his eyes. A greater conviction laces his soft-spoken words, all in the final year of his minimum-salary deal, as he is back scoring in double digits, shooting 50.5% from the floor and posting a career-best 3.5 assists per game. “Where he’s taking the big step this year is that he’s scoring, but now he’s making plays,” said Rivers, who’s now coached Milton in Philadelphia for three seasons. “He’s learning by making those plays, scoring is easier. I think it’s been a big light-on year for him.”

His elevated performance throughout November — posting 14.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists while James Harden and Tyrese Maxey were both sidelined with foot injuries — helped keep the Sixers afloat in this tightly contested Eastern Conference. He has become so dangerous in the mid-range. His floater feels more weaponized. Yes, it was against the floundering Hornets’ defense, but he absolutely fooled Charlotte with to cutters and roll men alike. Under a chorus of boos during Simmons’ return to Philadelphia, Milton’s steady conducting of the Sixers’ offense outpaced the Nets’ explosive lineup.

Perhaps the greatest sign is Milton’s continued production since Harden’s return. Any team so candidly vying to contend for a title, it knows championship runs typically include moments in which a supporting cast takes center stage and steers the show from tragedy to triumph. The Sixers will need Milton’s craftiness off the bench come playoffs. You try scoring when Embiid is in foul trouble, Harden needs a breather, and your opponent has truly studied your tendencies. When they’re already sending two defenders before you even move to your second set. “You have to be able to take the ball and f***ing break [the defense] down,” Rivers said. “And I think his best skill is breaking them down.”

“He brings something to the table,” Embiid said. “I always expect a perfect pocket pass when we run a pick-and-roll, me and him. We haven’t had a lot of great ball handlers and great passers out of the pick-and-roll since I’ve been here. We didn’t have anyone like that before James. Shake was the best we had on the team at that time. He’s really good at it. Shake is up there as far as reading the defense and making those types of plays.”

Milton always seems to be surveying. It’s as if he’s back in his Oklahoma driveway, wearing those classic dribbling goggles he was assigned by his father, the frames blocking the downward sightline of your handle and the rock. And here he is now, walking into Embiid’s screens before prancing into the paint, changing gears at whatever tempo is required.

Myrion Milton, whom the combo guard still refers to as “Pops,” was known as the “Milkman.” A late growth spurt had neighboring kids saying he must have consumed quite a bit of calcium. The nickname followed him, all the way through his playing days at Texas A&M. And when his wife, Lisa, was pregnant with their first child, a friend palmed her baby bump to ask, “How is little Shake doing?” Lisa was confused. “You know… a little Milk Shake!”

The Milkman committed to the bit for life. When the couple entered the younger Milton into elementary school, dad made sure the school’s official roll call listed his boy as Shake. Teachers called him Shake. Coaches called him Shake. Everybody called him Shake.

He bonded with his son by more than ball and moniker. To this day, Shake streams Al Green, The Four Tops and Sade while he heads into the arena, all soundtracks from family road trips to Houston and Arkansas to visit cousins ​​and grandparents. Lisa would oversee the backseat with Milton’s two younger siblings, while Myrion drove, Shake rode shotgun and they jammed to Bill Withers. “Just screaming, ‘A lovely day!’ at the top of our lungs,” Shake said. His father showed him how to fill their world of plains and flatlands with imagination and creativity. He showed him how to believe.

Myrion envisioned this future for Shake but never saw it. In 2012, he passed away at 43, having hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, in which the heart has difficulty pumping blood effectively. The rest of that night is blurred from memory, but Shake can still picture his 15-year-old eyes first opening and his sister, Terryn, standing overhead. She had found their father lying in his bed “knocked out,” Shake recalled, while Lisa was away at her own mother’s house. They huddled up with their young brother, MJ, and dialed 911. “It doesn’t ever really get easier,” Milton told Yahoo Sports. “Just somehow, you kind of make space for it in your heart. You make room for it. So it will always exist, but you’ll be able to carry on and keep going.”

His face conceals any lingering impact. Milton has the same steadiness during gameplay as he does away from the court. “He just doesn’t show a lot of emotion, but he’ll fight you,” said Tim Jankovich, who coached Milton at SMU. “Beneath the quiet, nice guy is a little bit of a killer. A quiet killer.”

The Sixers’ very first game in the bubble, Milton flashed that fire at the end of the first quarter. After a miscue with Embiid on a pick-and-pop connection, the All-Star center said something particularly cutting, Embiid can’t exactly recall, in criticism of the ball-handler whose passes he’d come to love. “I thought he didn’t do his job. I got mad. Next thing you know, he’s coming up to me, and I’m telling him that I’m gonna slap the sh** out of him,” Embiid told Yahoo Sports. “That’s just who he is. He’s competitive. He doesn’t back down from anybody.”

Milton has worked to channel that energy at his command. That is the beauty of microwaves, not just their instant impact but the ability to be particularly programmed. He finds moments to monitor his breath on the sidelines, sometimes even closing his eyes and drifting into meditation. He has traded hours at home on Netflix to wander down YouTube rabbit holes on mindfulness. “I definitely think that paid dividends in the way I feel, my approach,” Milton said. “My mind space — not to be up and down and reacting to everything. And just kinda having a sort of equanimity, it’s been cool.”

Now it is about maintaining this consistency. Not just when a starting spot materializes, but on any given night in any given number of minutes. “The average players that become good players learn that their great games have to be every game, not a flash,” Rivers said. Especially after unfolding from a seat on the sideline, when two superstars, an internet rockstar of a team president, and an aggressive ownership group need your contribution towards the championship their resumes all lack.

“It doesn’t mean that he’s not a great basketball player. He is. But when you have James Harden, who’s won MVPs, scoring titles, and gotten to the conference finals, so close to going to the Finals, and when you have someone like Tyrese Maxey, there’s not going to be a lot of minutes available,” Embiid said. “Which is unfortunate because I think Shake is a guy that deserves to start. I really do believe that he deserves to be a starter in this league. And we need him to win.”

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