Game Preview | Simmons Set for First Match-Up vs James, Cavs
CAMDEN, NJ - Finally, the kid gets a chance to take on the King.
After Ben Simmons was unable to play last season against LeBron James, the four-time MVP and two-time champion to whom the Aussie has drawn plenty of comps, the two friends will square off for the first time in a professional setting Monday at The Center (7:00 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia+, 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network), with their respective squads among the hottest in the NBA.
While the 76ers will be looking to win a fourth consecutive game, the Cleveland Cavaliers will be going for their eighth straight victory. The streaks are currently the two longest in the Eastern Conference.
All eyes, however, figure to be fixed on the intriguing match-up of the rookie and his mentor, despite it being just one regular season game out of many.
As the reported stories have gone, Simmons began to pique the interest of James early in his high school career, with the two eventually connecting through a series of Nike youth development events. From there, the seeds of an important relationship were sowed, and the two continued to stay in touch.
In the immediate run-up to the 2016 draft, the bond grew that much tighter. James went as far as to help Simmons prepare and train, while vouching publicly for the LSU product’s talent and character.
Even after Simmons formally joined the NBA ranks, the Sixers selecting him No. 1 overall 13 years after Cleveland did the same with James, the ties have remained strong. There have been the like-worthy summer social posts surrounding workouts the two have done together, such as this one from 2016...
...and this one, from Las Vegas this past July.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) July 13, 2017
James has also gone out of his way to give shout outs to a few of Simmons’ milestones, like as his 21st birthday, and first triple-double.
Following the 21-point, 12-rebound, 10 assist effort against the Detroit Pistons October 23rd that drew James’ praise, Simmons had the following to say about James popping up in his comments section.
“It just means a lot coming from him, and knowing what he’s done on the court for the game,” Simmons said a few days later. “He’s like a big brother to me. I try to learn from him. He’s always looking out for me.”
James, too, has spoken about Simmons in the sibling sense, calling the Sixers’ dynamo a “little brother” last November in advance of a road game in South Philadelphia.
“I’ve been knowing the kid for quite a while now, ever since his sophomore year in high school,” James said at the time. “He has a great family, grew up well-rounded, and that’s a big part of the reason why he became the No. 1 pick, other than his ability to play the game.”
Monday, prior to Cleveland’s shootaround at The Center, James said Simmons, the rookie class leader in points (18.5 ppg), rebounds (9.1 rpg), assists (7.7 apg), and steals (2.1 spg), is off to a great start. The 15-year vet noted that while there might be some stylistic similarities between the two, there’s also individuality.
“I think Ben has his own make up of speed, power, quickness, ability to pass the ball, feel for the game,” said James. “Ben is Ben, and I am who I am.”
The soon-to-be 33-year old James was quick to make another important point as well.
“It’s not about me versus Ben, it’s about Cavs versus 76ers,” James said. “We want to continue to play good ball, they’ve been playing good ball, especially at home.”
Simmons is on track to become the first rookie since James - and fourth overall ever - to average at least 18 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.5 steals per games, a feat James accomplished during the 2003-2004 campaign.
It should probably come as no surprise that amidst the Cleveland Cavaliers’ (12-7) current seven-game surge, LeBron James has played a lot, and played well. In the Cavs’ latest outing, Friday’s 100-99 win at Charlotte, the 13-time All-Star registered his second triple-double of the campaign, with 27 points, 16 rebounds, and 13 assists.
As the Sixers have done against other opponents that boast an elite scorer, the plan Monday will be to deploy a by-committee approach in guarding James.
“You got to mix it up,” said Robert Covington, who ranks first among all small forwards with an ESPN.com real defensive plus-minus rating of 1.84. “Different teams guard him different ways, because he’s so versatile. He’s the head of the snake. You’ve got to cut him off, it makes it that much harder for them.”
JJ Redick believes James’ greatest weapon can be found in the space between his ears.
“He’s one of, if not the smartest, player to ever play in the NBA,” Redick said Monday after shootaround. “The way he understands the game, sees the game, it’s all because of how smart he is. He sort of is the definition of a basketball genius.”
Redick later called James the “greatest player to ever play.”
Heading into Monday’s outing at The Center, James was third in the league in scoring (28.5 ppg), and fourth in assists (8.6 apg), one spot ahead of Ben Simmons.
• Video: NBC Sports Philadelphia / NBC Sports app
• Audio: 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network