PHILADELPHIA — After seven seasons in the NBA, Sixers center Kyle O’Quinn knows who he is and, more importantly, knows who he isn’t.
On this team, for instance, he isn’t Joel Embiid. He isn’t Al Horford, who figures to take a lot of the minutes at center when Embiid is not on the court. O’Quinn, a former standout at Norfolk State, can play some power forward as well, but it is too early to tell where he might fall in the pecking order at that position with Mike Scott and Jonah Bolden.
There are scenarios in which Kyle O’Quinn could become an afterthought on this very talented team. But that’s not the way he sees it.
“I think you can pencil me in a little bit,” O’Quinn said after a training camp practice this week. “You can’t put me on any team where I don’t fit in. A guy like me takes it a day at a time and stays ready. Being on the second unit is something I’ve been a part of my whole career. I don’t run from it. I embrace that role and wear it on my chest.”
O’Quinn did find a team last season where the fit wasn’t very good. He went to Indiana as a free agent expecting to be a big part of the Pacers rotation. O’Quinn was coming off a season with the Knicks in which he had played 1,387 minutes, the most in his career. For the Pacers, he played just 371 minutes and often didn’t get off the bench.
“I feel good. I put zero miles on my body last year thanks to Indiana,” O’Quinn said.
That experience made O’Quinn careful when he chose his next free agent destination and, despite what appears to be serious competition for minutes, he signed with the Sixers.
“Last year was tough on myself, and on my family. They ran out of words trying to encourage me,” O’Quinn said. “The decision to come here made itself. I see their style. I know I can fit in, and I’m at the point in my career where winning means everything.”
The biggest win of Kyle O’Quinn’s career wasn’t even in the NBA. He was sort of on the scouting radar when Norfolk State won the MEAC to advance to the 2012 NCAA Tournament as a 15th seed. But the radar began to beep a lot louder when Norfolk State upset No. 2 seed Missouri in the opening game, with O’Quinn finishing with 26 points, on 10 of 16 shooting, and 14 rebounds.
He was drafted in the second round by the Orlando Magic, and while his NBA career has been played in the margins of the league, it has lasted longer than those of Kim English and Phil Pressey, the stars of that highly touted Missouri team. (Pressey played 14 games for the 2015-16 Sixers before being waived. It isn’t easy to get cut from a team on its way to a 10-72 season.)
What has eluded O’Quinn, as he indicated, is winning. Orlando won 20, 23 and 25 games in his three seasons there. In his time with New York, the Knicks won 32, 31 and 29 games. Indiana was his first team with a winning record, and a playoff appearance, but O’Quinn didn’t have much to do with that. He is determined that, with the Sixers, the team will do well and he will be a part of it.
“Everybody is trying to create their own niche. I think I’ve chipped away and created my niche. I consider myself one of the better backups in the league,” O’Quinn said. “This team has high expectations, but it’s also a new team. There will be minutes here that have to be filled, and I think that’s why I got the call, and why I called back.”
The plan is that Embiid will not be allowed to play excessive minutes during the regular season, and might be placed on a schedule that calls for enforced rest on some nights. The idea is to get him to the finish line as healthy as possible for the playoffs. Little else matters as much to the Sixers this season.
If that is the case, O’Quinn might have read the situation correctly, and there will be plenty of playing time to go around among the big men. If so, all he has to do is play well. He has been a good defensive force and rim protector, and is adept at setting screens on offense to open up his teammates. Beyond that, O’Quinn is an energy guy who tries to make that quality infectious for the whole second unit.
“You need that every night. I think guys respect me for doing it,” O’Quinn said. “Everybody wants to be that superstar guy, but my job is to make their jobs easier. We have the responsibility to hold things down for the first unit.”
O’Quinn knows who he is, even if it isn’t certain yet who he will be for the Sixers. Pencil him in, the man says. He’ll find his way to the court.
Kyle O’Quinn laughs as he says it, and you want it to be true for him this time, with a role that means something, on a team that means business.