Game Day | As Preseason Begins, Simmons, Fultz Create Connected Pair
CAMDEN, NJ - Two top tier prospects, selected a year apart at the same draft slot, and presented with an opportunity to form a potentially franchise-changing backcourt tandem.
Such are the circumstances bonding together Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 picks from the 2016 and 2017 drafts, respectively, as they get set to start their professional basketball journeys in earnest Wednesday, when the 76ers open up exhibition play at home against the Memphis Grizzlies (7:00 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia+, 97.5 FM The Fanatic).
At this stage, it would be hard not to view the blue chippers through anything other than a somewhat interconnected lens.
In no way, shape, or form do five days of preseason practices - plus one intrasquad scrimmage - hard, fast conclusions make. Nonetheless, given the prominence of Simmons and Fultz, their importance to the Sixers’ future (short term and long), and the fact that games are on the immediate horizon, a check-in on the state of affairs surrounding the duo seemed timely.
With one week of work in the books, it feels safe to make at least one judgement. In a very short period of time, despite mutually limited experience, Simmons and Fultz have flashed considerable promise.
Let’s begin with Simmons. The Australian turned in a standout performance in Sunday’s Blue x White Scrimmage, one that further underscored rumblings coming from Camden over the summer that the 21-year old had been dominating the gym.
Simmons, with his combination of speed, strength, vision, and touch, appears to very much boast the transformative skill set he exhibited throughout his youth, and as a freshman at LSU in 2015-2016.
“It’s not that complicated,” said Brett Brown. “His breakaway speed, his ability to get to the rim with his size, or find others, is elite. It’s only going to get more advanced, more comfortable playing in the system and with his teammates.”
Simmons believes that having spent the previous season on the sideline has made him that much of an improved player.
“I think I grew,” Simmons said last week, as training camp was winding down. “I was given the job to run point for most of the time, so I think I got better every day, and adjusted and learned every day. I adjusted and learned everybody’s game a lot better.”
Assuming lead ball handling responsibilities on offense has been an assignment long in the crafting for Simmons, who will likely be asked to guard multiple positions defensively (perhaps opposing 3 and 4 men most of the time). For as many tutoring sessions as Simmons and Brown shared together over the course of the past year, the former college All-American has also gotten plenty of help from his teammates.
As a result, Simmons said recently, “I’m a lot more confident with my play.”
It’s shown. His influence has already had positive trickle down effects.
“Ben's’ a great player,” said Fultz. “You see what he does - he can pass, he can rebound, he can push, he can make a midrange, he can do almost everything. He can play the ‘one’ through ‘five.’ Playing with him makes it easier for me.”
Fultz, meanwhile, has been holding his own, too. His offensive prowess is natural and dangerous - Brown, prior to the start of training camp, called the 19-year old’s capabilities at that end of the floor “incredible.”
Simmons, for his own part, has enjoyed working alongside the Washington, D.C. native.
“It’s fun,” Simmons said of Fultz’s game. “Once he has the ball I try to create space and cut for him, get open, but he can do it himself. He can really get to the rim, score, and can find his teammates.”
Fultz’s point production in his lone campaign at Washington was certainly prodigious, as he ranked sixth in the country among all players with an average of 23.2 points per game. He also nailed 52 3-pointers while converting 41.3 percent of his perimeter attempts.
As talented as Fultz has shown himself to be, Brown sees someone willing to absorb feedback and put it into action.
“He wants to learn, he lets us coach him, good people," Brown said last week. "He’s got a foundation that he doesn’t want to let people down.”
For all the tangible, visual cause for excitement - internally and externally - that Simmons, Fultz, and their impending partnership has stirred, Brown sounded Tuesday like he wants people to hear one particular message louder and more clearly than the rest - prepare for gradual growth.
Regardless of all the encouraging signs that Simmons and Fultz have displayed, the reality remains that neither has yet competed in an NBA game of consequence. The two will soon be entering a whole new world.
“If I’ve learned anything over my time here in Philadelphia, it’s the reality and the need to be patient,” Brown said Tuesday. “We have to understand the learning curve for these young guys is massive.”
In respect to Simmons, Brown thinks one the LSU product’s earliest tests will be figuring out how opponents decide to defend someone featuring an arsenal as diverse as his. After all, few players can do what Simmons can at his size.
Will traditionally-built wingmen the likes of Gordon Hayward or Kawhi Leonard be asked to guard Simmons? Or, maybe the task falls to smaller, more mobile power forwards, such as Draymond Green. Perhaps opponents will give larger guards - think John Wall and Russell Westbrook - a crack at covering the 6-foot-10, 240-pounder.
Simmons is eager to see these situations play out.
“I’ve been speaking to Coach about it,” Simmons said Tuesday. “I have no idea. I have no idea who they’re going to put on me, how they’re going to guard it, but we’ll see. I think I’m going to learn a lot from the first few games.”
The physical demands of the NBA is precisely the factor that Brown anticipates Fultz, at roughly 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, having to adjust the most, especially since the teenager will likely be asked to mark opposing point guards. At that position across the league, Brown considers the level of athleticism to be “relentless,” “ruthless,” and “unforgiving.”
“He’s got a great basketball body, look how long he is,” Brown said of Fultz. “He’s got those high hips, all that, but he’s 19. I think there’s a physical side of it that no matter how good his head and his heart is, you get back to reality, so trying to help him navigate that first year from a physical standpoint is a real challenge.”
To no surprise, Brown intends to stay on Fultz about his defense. Navigating middle pick-and-roll scenarios has been a specific point of emphasis during the first week of the preseason.
“That’s one of the toughest spots to guard,” said Fultz, noting how open the middle quadrant of the court can get. “Just being able to fight through that, get over, use my length to get around and make it hard for the offensive player to score. I think I’m doing a pretty good job.”
In the time they spent together in the off-season, and since the Sixers regrouped for training camp, Simmons and Fultz have pushed each other, and rooted for each other. Sunday’s Blue x White Scrimmage captured a perfect glimpse of both dynamics at work.
At the outset of the event, Simmons and Fultz were lined up on opposite sides, clearly relishing the chance to square off. In the final period of regulation, though, Fultz joined Simmons’ team, and the two had the chance to play off one another.
“In the scrimmage, we just went at each other just to show the crowd we’re having fun, and that we’re going to compete every time we’re going out,” said Fultz. “Not only that, we’re going to make each other better. That’s what the team needs from both of us, just pushing the ball. We got to be competitive in order for us to get better. I had fun doing that, I’m pretty sure he did too.”
“I think he’s been great, on and off the court,” Simmons said of Fultz. “He’s come in here, No.1 pick, that’s not easy, a lot of expectations, but he’s got a good group of guys around him to help him with that. He’s just been working hard every day. That’s what you want from somebody.”
For the head coach entrusted with making the pair click, he’s already digging what he’s seeing.
“They understand that there’s been talk, ‘Can they do this?,’” Brown said at the Palestra, following Sunday’s scrimmage. “Most importantly, they get it. They [will] understand more about the structure as time unfolds, but I think the notion of how is this going to play out I think is comfortable with both of them.
“They sure can co-exist, and I know that they really want to make it work.”