This was the 76ers’ plan all along, that Ben Simmons would become a point guard at 6-10, a real point guard, defending the position and everything, not a point power forward in some positional word play. Not right away, when the transition from LSU freshman to NBA rookie would be enough of a cram session, but eventually.
And then came last Thursday, when the timeline changed, the Sixers as must-see TV with a terrible record changed, coach Brett Brown publicly changed, and the candidates for Rookie of the Year may have changed.
Simmons will be a point guard when he returns from a fractured right foot, Brown announced. Right away.
Brown in an interview with NBA.com in July, before the foot injury: “Everyone gets all twisted on what their version of a point guard is. When I say point guard I mean point guard. You’ve got the ball. You could call him Isiah Thomas, the old Isiah Thomas of my generation. You could call him Chris Paul. I mean point guard point guard. There are times I think that he can be a point guard. Not Draymond Green. Not LeBron. Not Lamar Odom. That's a point forward. I walk both lines at different moments. To start him off, we’ll play him as a point forward.”
Brown to Philadelphia reporters last week: “I felt like initially to just say, ‘Welcome to the NBA, 19 year old who’s never played a point guard in your life, and here’s the gym, here’s the ball’ was borderline cruel, was not very responsible. I think as time has unfolded, talking more with him, seeing the team we have, studying more and more and more what he actually brings to the table, I want to try it.”
The new timing of the old plan probably won't impact Simmons’ ranking among first-year players – he would have had the ball in his hands a lot anyway as the point forward, leading the ball with great vision and the ability to pass on the run or from half-court. With what has been an underwhelming class through the first quarter of 2016-17, he could have made a quick climb up the Rookie Ladder at any position, even with the January debut the 76ers project. And no one is catching teammate Joel Embiid if Embiid stays healthy and maintains anything close to the current pace.
Simmons as a true point guard as a rookie will be a fascinating watch, though, especially if he really does defend the position. Will his drive-and-kick create many more opportunities for Embiid? Will Simmons be able to hit shots from the perimeter? Will checking opposing guards take him away from the basket so often that his projected strength of being able to grab the defensive rebound, turn and run the break himself be neutralized?
Just when it seemed Simmons’ delayed debut couldn’t get more interesting, it just did, and that does impact the rest of the rookie class. Among those playing now:
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
So much for the plan to limit him to 24 minutes until about Christmas. Embiid was cleared last Wednesday, weeks ahead of schedule, for as many as 28 minutes per night, although playing both ends of back-to-backs is still off the table. The restriction has cost him two of the last four games. That plus the game against the Kings postponed by moisture on the court means the clear front runner for Rookie of the Year will likely have had just two appearances between Nov. 28 and Thursday, Dec. 8, at New Orleans.
2. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers
While his rebounding has been inconsistent, the 12 boards in just 27 minutes Saturday against the Celtics marked the third time Saric has collected a dozen. Willy Hernangomez is the only other rookie to reach that number, and the Knicks center has done it once. (Embiid’s best is 11.) Saric followed that with eight rebounds in 25 minutes Monday against the Nuggets and seven in 25 minutes Tuesday at Memphis, part of keeping a firm hold on second place in the class, behind Embiid.
3. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
Brogdon’s edge in defensive rating keeps him ahead of Jamal Murray while they split or are very close in other categories in the tight race for third place. Brogdon also just had a nice run of three consecutive games with double-digit scoring while shooting 13 of 22 shots overall and seven of nine three-pointers, before cooling off the last two outings. His efficiency as a distributor remains a key selling point, in a tie for fourth among rookies in assists with an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.52-1 that is first in the class among rookies playing more than 20 minutes. That positions him to move into the top 20 of the league at some point.
4. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Being named Western Conference Rookie of the Month (including the small part of October) came as life as a streak shooter continued – terrible start, nice recovery that lasted about two weeks, another slump. The latest was 22 points while making eight of 12 attempts Monday at Philadelphia, putting Murray back in a good direction as he heads into a string of potential rookie backcourt matchups with Isaiah Whitehead and Yogi Ferrell on Wednesday in Brooklyn, Tomas Satoransky on Thursday in Washington and Jonathan Gibson on Monday in Dallas.
5. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
Ingram has already led the Lakers in minutes six different games, tied with Julius Randle for the most on the team, especially noteworthy since a lot of those came during the winning start. There is little reason to wonder if he will get more minutes if L.A.’s current slide takes them well below .500 – Ingram is already at 26.5 per game, second among rookies, behind only Andrew Harrison of the Grizzlies. Over his last five games, Ingram is averaging 33.8 minutes while shooting 34.8 percent.
6. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
He is into the top five in the class in rebounding, blocks and shooting, along with the top 10 or challenging for the top 10 in minutes, steals, points and defensive rating. In the most telling sign of all, his play has been earning extra minutes while starting for a 14-7 team – Siakam is averaging 19.6 minutes overall, but 22.2 per game over his last five outings. The five includes stints of 23, 24 and 27 minutes, albeit each in blowouts.
7. Andrew Harrison, Memphis Grizzlies
What an instant contribution under pressure. His first two games as the starting point guard after Mike Conley’s back injury resulted in 21 points on seven-for-12 shooting, including four of five behind the arc, at Toronto and 11 points on four-for-eight shooting against the Magic. Even returning to his usual problems from the field – six of 29 the next three games – couldn’t diminish how Harrison responded while first in the class in assists, minutes and steals, second in assist-to-turnover ratio and ninth in scoring and blocks.
8. Malcolm Delaney, Atlanta Hawks
That makes two weeks in a row with a drop, partly because others have made moves (Murray and Ingram before, Siakam and Harrison now) and partly because Delaney’s impact continues to decrease after being ranked fourth as recently as Nov. 23. He is down to being in the top 10 in only two prominent categories, third in assists and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio. Those are obviously important places for a point guard, but for the first time Delaney is at risk of falling out of the rankings.
9. Domantas Sabonis, Oklahoma City Thunder
Making 42.9 percent of his attempts behind the arc the last five games and 50 percent overall, even if it was while only getting about five attempts per, earns Sabonis another week on The Ladder. It helps, a lot, to be one of the few rookies who can shoot. He is fourth overall from the field and second on 3s while also eighth in minutes as a starter for a 14-8 team. Among the upcoming games: Tuesday at Portland, his first trip as a pro to his birthplace, home while father Arvydas played for the Trail Blazers.
10. Rodney McGruder, Miami Heat
McGruder is faced with his first real shooting slump since the opening week, at 32.4 percent the last five games, including five-for-20 the past two against the Trail Blazers and Knicks. Even with that, he is fifth among rookies in field-goal percentage and first among guards, while also tenth in scoring, ninth in steals and fourth in minutes. The latter is while riding the wave of 36, 39 and 35 minutes since last Thursday.
Dropped out: None
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