There was a time when the NBA game was too fast for Ben Simmons.
“The first game I played, against the Wizards, that’s when I was definitely (feeling) the game was quicker,” Simmons said Sunday night. “And then preseason, it was a lot quicker before we actually got in the season. For now, I know I can control the pace of the game. I’m somebody who likes to run and I know a lot of guys aren’t trying to sprint down the court every single time. So attacking them when they’re backpedaling, it’s tough to guard.”
So, for 48 glorious regular season minutes, the league had Simmons flummoxed. He’s kind of figured things out during the subsequent 768, and might have an edge for the next 38,000 or so.
After missing what would have been his rookie season last year with a foot injury, Simmons, the first pick overall in the 2016 Draft, is flourishing in Philadelphia, the very place where Joel Embiid seemed to redefine what was possible for a big man a season ago. In doing so, Simmons is, in his first tour around the league, making his own mark at point guard.
No man who handles the rock every night has stood as tall at the 6-foot-10 Simmons – Hall of Famer Magic Johnson was 6-foot-9. And in an era where everyone must shoot 3-pointers or be branded as wanting by many in the advanced stats community, Simmons simply refuses to shoot them -- ever -- unless they’re end-of-quarter or half-court heaves.
Simmons leads all rookies in scoring (18.5 points per game), rebounds (9.1), assists (7.7) and steals (2.1), contributing across all lines and at the defensive end, providing two-way play that’s as good as any rookie since David Robinson (24.3 points, 12 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game for San Antonio in 1989-90, leading a 35-win improvement over the previous season for the Spurs) or Wilt Chamberlain (a cartoonish 37.6 points and 27 rebounds per game in 1959-60 for the Philadelphia Warriors).
Oscar Robertson’s rookie line in Cincinnati in 1960-61 -- 30.5 points, 10 rebounds, 9.7 assists per game -- remains the all-time standard for a first-year point guard. Simmons will not come close to “The Big O” in terms of scoring average, but he doesn’t have to and he’s not being asked to do it. He just takes what’s available -- and then, a lot of what doesn’t seem to be.
“I didn’t think it would come this quickly for me to get this comfortable and to improve every game, but it did,” Simmons said. “Overall I’ve felt like every game I’ve been able to score, or get to the rim, or get shots when I want, and feel comfortable.”
Simmons has injected even more turbo fuel into “The Process”, the prize for a 10-win season two years ago. With Simmons and Embiid on the floor -- and without the injured Markelle Fultz, taken first overall by the Sixers in the 2017 Draft -- Philly has 11 wins already in the first quarter of the season.
Interest locally is as high as it’s been since the Iverson days. The Sixers have skyrocketed from 28th in home attendance two years ago to 18th last year to second this year, averaging 20,667 through eight home dates. Only the Chicago Bulls (21,363) are doing better.
“We kind of got a taste of it last year,” Embiid said Friday. “And then this year, getting Markelle as the No. 1 pick, Ben coming back and then the excitement of last year, it’s pretty great, and I love it. The fans are passionate, and I love it. I know they have my back and they have our back. I think you just kind of expect it because we have so much talent.
“Our goal is to win the championship for as long as we can keep everybody together. That’s our goal, to win it all. "
“The future looks bright. It’s a good thing that the fans are coming in and showing their support, because I know they want to do that. And they’re passionate about it. They want us to win games. They want us to be in the playoffs.”
Simmons wants more.
“Our goal is to win the championship for as long as we can keep everybody together,” Simmons said Sunday. “That’s our goal, to win it all. Everybody loves being here. Everybody loves the coaches here, Bryan (Colangelo, the general manager), all the guys up top, they’re all good people. I think it just takes time, and that’s our goal. Philly fans are the best. They show a lot of love wherever I am, whether I’m at dinner, walking down the street, coming out of my apartment, they show a lot of love.”
The hard-core fans were always there, but now the casuals are back, enough to pack Wells Fargo Center on a cold Wednesday night before Thanksgiving (yes, a lot of kids and families may be in town for turkey the next day, but still) to see the Sixers play the Trail Blazers -- all due respect to Portland, currently not a league powerhouse.
And Simmons, as he’s displayed throughout his rookie season, controls the game. He is only 8 of 20 this night, but still nets a +18 on the evening, just falling short of a triple-double with 16 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. His team doesn’t play great -- a “C-minus” on offense, Sixers coach Brett Brown says -- but it’s a sign of how far things have come in the Illadelph that the 76ers can be mediocre on one side of the ball and still win a game comfortably.
“We understand we haven’t done anything yet,” Brown tells you afterward. “We really haven’t. It’s not a throwaway line. We completely understand that. Our goal is to make the playoffs. Everything that we do and talk about and drill, we do it with that spirit. When it doesn’t reach that standard, it’s easy for me to remind them that I lived a privileged life in San Antonio, and that is not of a playoff standard. We want actions and not just coined phrases and words.”
Anyone with a functioning heart is happy for Brown, who wore every one of those 253 losses on his ledger the first four years of “The Process” as he continued to try and develop the seemingly endless parade of players that came through Philly. There were successes amidst all the losing, with Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell both becoming reliable rotation players. But no one saw more bottom to get here than Brown did.
And if Simmons continues to perform as he’s done his first month, Philly’s dreams of a dominant future can be as big as they want. Who would sport a more lethal young duo than Simmons and Embiid?
“I was actually pretty surprised,” Embiid said of Simmons’ fast start. “I watched him play against the guys this past summer, and he was kind of hesitant. That was the way that we were guarding him. He would always take the running hook or the floater. It wasn’t going well for him. And then, we just started, I guess the games are different. He’s making a lot of those. And he’s going to get anywhere he wants to go -- he’s so big, he’s so fast, he’s so athletic.”
Simmons’s father, Dave, is only slightly shorter (6-foot-8) than his son. Dave Simmons grew up in New York City and played for Abe Lemons at Oklahoma City University, but played a dozen years for five teams in Australia from 1989-2001 before going into coaching. But Simmons perewas a bruiser, a physical post player who attacked the paint when he got the ball.
Ben has hops and all that, but he doesn’t attack as much as he flows. He obviously has different sight lines than almost any point who’s ever lived, so there’s no open man he’s going to miss. But the son’s game is diametrically different from the father’s. That is not an accident, or happenstance.
As both Ben and his sister, Olivia, came to the game, Dave Simmons didn’t let their respective heights determine their destiny; he encouraged both to handle the ball and face the basket. “Kids need to be allowed to experiment and be creative,” Dave Simmons told Sports Illustrated last year, and that is evident in Ben.
“From a young age, he wanted me to be able to do everything he couldn’t do,” Ben Simmons says. “I think that’s where it comes from, him telling me to dribble the ball, take whatever shots I want, be creative on the court. That allowed me to be who I am today. I still, in practice, I’ll do crazy (things), because that’s how you learn. You have to make mistakes to learn. Even if the coach does get mad in practice … I’m confident in my abilities so I’m not worried about messing up. I know I’m going to have bad games, I’m going to have good games. You just have to play hard. So that comes with it.”
Brown coached Dave Simmons in Australia for four years and knows both Dave Simmons and his wife, Julie -- who was a cheerleader for the Melbourne Tigers team that employed them all at the time.
“I’m not surprised that his dad, who is a hell of a player and actually a hell of a coach, designed and groomed his son to have ball skills and not just assume that he’s big, and, yep, it’s fine if these junior coaches make you a four man or a center,” Brown said.
“I have an evolving son who’s 13, and I’m a son of a coach, so you see people get positioned based on their height when they’re young,” Brown said. “And he (Dave) never permitted that. And so, he’s smart. From that perspective, it doesn’t surprise me. He gave Ben the skill package to be a modern-day NBA player.”
Defenses have taken note of the fact that Simmons has not attempted a single conventional 3-pointer so far in his NBA career -- not a surprise, considering he only shot three in 33 games at LSU. Defenders go under on Sixers’ pick and rolls involving Simmons almost by rote, trying to make Simmons pull up and shoot from distance. Yet he doesn’t take the bait, doesn’t stay stuck in that open space.
“I just know physically I can power against anybody,” he says. “Guys go so far back it’s like, might as well go to the rim every time. Nobody’s going to take a charge in there. And a hook shot, that’s like the basics for me. I make most of them. If they keep doing that I’m going to just keep doing what I do, and go to the rim.”
So many young point guards would be goaded into using that room to either show off their (non-existent) shooting skills or pat the ball within an inch of its life, looking to break some defender’s ankles to get on Top Plays. But Simmons does neither of those look at me things.
According to NBA.com/Stats, his average of 3.36 dribbles per touch ranks just 43rd in the league among players who are averaging 25 minutes or more per game -- significantly fewer than league leader John Wall (5.98, and that’s not a criticism of Wall; just a comparison of how point guards can be effective in different ways).
Simmons usually just takes a big step with his long legs, which leaves him at the foul line or in the paint without having given up his dribble -- “every piece they give you, just run it down their throat,” Brown said after Wednesday’s game. From there, it’s usually a jump hook -- usually with the right hand, though Simmons can use either at the rim -- or a quick step to get a shoulder in front, and he’s at the basket. This happens almost every time he has the ball. It is incredible. It makes Simmons’ unwillingness (or inability) to shoot from the perimeter irrelevant. And it makes him, already, almost unguardable.
He plays with a poise. And can go from 20 miles an hour up to 90, back to 60, down to 10 -- in his speed and in his mind. And there’s a poise he navigates courts with that caught me way off guard."
Again, the hook is not something that young guys tend to have in their bag when they come to the pros -- and certainly not young point guards. But Simmons does. He’s taken 71.5 percent of his shots so far from less than 10 feet from the basket. (The only problem on the horizon: Simmons shoots just 56.6 percent from the foul line.)
“I’ve always kind of had it,” he says. “That’s just like a simple shot for me. And you can get it whenever you want. It’s just natural. Watching games, and feeling comfortable taking that shot, and realizing that guys can’t really guard that shot.”
Said Brown: “he plays with a poise. And can go from 20 miles an hour up to 90, back to 60, down to 10 -- in his speed and in his mind. And there’s a poise he navigates courts with that caught me way off guard. That is a sign, or a quality, of someone who’s older. So this gap, these massive gaps -- some people might also treat it like it’s an insult. Like that Hack-a-Shaq.
“You can tell with some people when they shoot free throws -- they want nothing to do with the line. He’s fine with (getting space). You can go under as much as you want -- I’m not taking it personally. I’m going to find a way to queue up space and get to the rim.”
Simmons still has work to do, on the subtle aspects of the game -- “Jo hasn’t had a touch in six trips; you feel that. There’s no play call needed; a team feels that,” Brown said to reporters Wednesday -- but he’s so far down the road already in his development.
And defensively, Simmons has been versatile and much more engaged than he appeared to be in college.
The Sixers are ninth overall in Defensive Rating (102.2) and Simmons has been very solid at that end, too; playing ones through fours depending on the opponent, he’s defending without fouling. His individual Defensive Rating of 100.7 is 31st overall among players who play 25 minutes or more and sixth-best among point guards, trailing only Boston’s Marcus Smart and Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry.
Simmons says he watched a ton of film during his year off on players around the league, learning tendencies, and that it’s helped him defensively.
“It gets tough, but I’m enjoying it,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun guarding guys like Kyrie and John Wall, and then Steph, and then switching up to a bigger guy like KD or whoever it is. I think overall, I’ve been doing pretty well.”
There was no debate in the Philly war room about taking Simmons first overall in 2016. But there were “lively discussions” about Simmons’ ability to play the point effectively in the pros, said one person who was in the room. Would the 76ers be at their best with Simmons on the ball? Would he be elite at the position? Could he lead players? And would his lack of shooting clog up what the Sixers hoped would be a free flowing, high octane offense?
At LSU, “he didn't show that he could rally a group, or bring the best out of others, the electric personality,” the person in the room said. “So the Magic Johnson comparisons weren't on point. Some felt that (he was) maybe more of a Lamar Odom, talented, but would have to be a key piece, not the main guy.”
Famously, LSU didn’t make the tournament in Simmons’ one year there. But he says he had no doubt that his game would still show through to pro scouts.
“People who know the game know the game,” he said. “They know from watching good players if you’re good or not. Anybody can go to Kentucky or Duke if you’re a top player, obviously. Any good player can go to schools like that. It also takes a certain person to not to go to a school like that. I love to compete, and I want to play against the Dukes and Kentuckys and teams like that. And I enjoyed that.”
But he had to wait another year after breaking the fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot during the Sixers’ final camp scrimmage last year. He had surgery to fix the bone, but when X-rays didn’t show the foot had fully healed last February, the 76ers shut him down for the rest of the season.
But an important thing transpired nonetheless last season. Brown decided that Simmons would be his point guard of the future.
“Even before I got hurt, he wanted me to run the point some times,” Simmons recalled. “And after my foot, he said you’re going to be the point guard. He kept asking me, actually, if I wanted to be the point guard. Every other day it was ‘you want to be the point guard? You want to be the point guard?’ The first few times I was like, ‘I don’t mind bringing the ball up sometimes,’ and he was like, ‘no -- do you want to be the point guard?’ For me, I was kind of like, damn, it means I have to run the offense and set everybody up and be like the head of the snake. But I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve learned a lot. And I love playing the point.”
On the outside, things seemed further clouded after Philly traded up with Boston to get the No. 1 overall pick this year, to take Fultz. Would Fultz, a point guard in his one season at the University of Washington, wind up on the ball, or Simmons? Would they split time there? Who would be running the show? Fultz’s shoulder injury has tabled that dilemma for now, but it’s going to be hard to see Philly taking Simmons off the ball now, after his first three weeks.
There seems to be no dilemma as far as Brown is concerned, even as he knew that “most of the basketball world thought we had lost our minds” when the 76ers gave Simmons the ball.
“There’s always healthy (pre-Draft) debate,” Brown said. “And it should be. It’s a significant decision. Significant. And I think, albeit early days, it’s changed us, for sure. And I think it’s changed him. I think that’s who he is. It’s all that -- it’s his personality, the skill package, and it’s his mentality. And you combine all of those things, and you just had a gut feel. When I kept seeing him at LSU, he always wanted the ball. He and the point guard would collide. And then you just get to the stage where you say, okay, go ahead.”
Those of us who write and yak about the league have tried to come up with the apt comparison for Simmons and Embiid. Magic and Kareem? If so, the personalities have been reversed, Freaky Friday style -- in this modern-day case, the point guard is the stoic one, while the big guy has the outsided personality.
Embiid is the one who Tweets incessantly, talks smack, eggs on the home crowd, calls himself “the Process,” and on and on. (Simmons says he’s fine doing media, but “I just don’t like bad questions.”) Embiid said that while he doesn’t always think it should be his job to be the team’s emotional leader (“because it might get me in trouble in terms of getting technical fouls, and getting ejected from the game,” he said) he thinks that he sometimes needs to do it because no one else will. And, indeed, that is not something Simmons is going to do.
“It’s definitely two different personalities,” Embiid said of himself and Simmons. “I’m just being myself.”
Together, the two of them can be the vanguard of something new. There just has never been a point guard and center with the combo of size and wild athletic ability of Simmons and Embiid. And with Dario Saric at the four and Robert Covington at the three, Philly is ridiculously long.
I think he was the best post scorer ever. My post moves are not equal to his. But I think they’re getting up there as I’m getting better.”
Perhaps we should stop comparing them to the past, and let Simmons and Embiid forge their own future path.
“It’s definitely a different era,” Embiid said. “I see a lot of people compare me to Hakeem [Olajuwon]. A lot of people compare me to, I don’t know, when I do the running hook, Kareem. But it’s so different. I feel like you can’t compare to one of those guys. I’m sure they could have stepped out and shoot the three, but back then it wasn’t popular. I do a little bit of everything -- I can playmake, shoot the three, post up. I think I’m pretty good in the post, off the dribble. Sometimes it’s not a fair comparison.
“Because sometimes I also want to be the first Joel Embiid. I don’t want to be Hakeem Olajuwon. I know that I shoot threes and he didn’t shoot threes. I think he was the best post scorer ever. My post moves are not equal to his. But I think they’re getting up there as I’m getting better.”
Simmons has had to feed big guys since he was 15 and played at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), his home country’s national feeder program for elite, Olympic-level athletes. (Simmons has pledged to play for Australia in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.) He only stayed at AIS briefly, though, before coming to the States to play high school basketball -- his best path, he thought, to the NBA. He’s quickly developed a chemistry with Embiid.
“I’ve learned how to play with certain people,” Simmons said. “And I had to learn his game and what he’s good at, put him in the right positions and get him the ball where he needs it, to do his thing. I know he’s a great player. For me, to help benefit the team, I’ve got to put him in the right position and also do the right thing by myself and my teammates, and put them in the right positions. He gives me a lot of space on the floor, because it’s tough to guard him. Guys are so concerned about him sometimes I’m able to get a quick 10 points or whatever it is.”
There is still the question of Fultz, whose shoulder is starting to respond to treatment and therapy, and who will be back at some point in the next few weeks.
“When he comes back I know he wants to be the point guard, so that’s something we have to figure out, who’s the main ball handler,” Embiid says. It is not an insignificant issue. Redick has been nails at the two guard, both as a spacer and at the defensive end, and the Sixers just gave Covington a $62 million extension because of his two-way excellence.
But that is a question for later. Only one question remains for now, to the 21-year-old who handles everything thrown his way: if Ben Simmons had access to a working time machine, would he want to go back and play with his father and the Melbourne Tigers, or play against his father?
“Play with him,” Simmons says. “That would be awesome. I would know his game and I’d be the point guard, so I could put him in the right position, make sure he’s getting buckets.”
But, as Coach Brown said above, sometimes you have to get the ball to the guy who hasn’t touched it in a while. Could you shake off Pops if someone else needed the rock?
“I could do that easily,” Ben Simmons says, “because I know I’m going to score. So he’d just have to accept it.”
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