He's no LeBron James but Ben Simmons is still poised for greatness

Ben Simmons is special.

You’ll know as much by reading every second article about him, when inevitably there will be a mention of how he is statistically better than every other rookie. Far better.

That, though, isn’t what witnessing is about. The Aussie carries more intrigue than his shot, which hasn’t yet been displayed beyond a converted mid-range floater. He plays a unique style, carries himself as any surfing vet would and just by observing him, is freakishly skillful.

Simmons has played in 22 professional games and has already staked a claim for the worst ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ sequence since O’Neal. He has taken so quickly to the NBA that we’ve forgotten he hated college and had a team of filmmakers follow him around the farce-in-time that was LSU. We don’t even acknowledge that he missed his rookie season because of injury; at that point he was just another injured cog in a process that’s never been less of a process.

But let’s not get sidetracked. We are here to talk about Ben Simmons, the basketball player we finally know something about.

Golden State Warriors v Philadelphia 76ers

It’s always nice to preface a lot of words with an eye-opening statement. Kind of like Simmons’ season so far.

How about this?

Philadelphia have had the toughest strength of schedule in the NBA to date, facing opponents averaging a .548 winning percentage. Ten of their first 14 games were on the road.

With that in mind, for the first time in five years, the Sixers entered December with a winning record.

Plenty has gone into that. Sixers fans have been put through the mill in recent times and the only real constant (other than injuries, blind loyalty and patience) has been Brett Brown. The culture has been built, bought into and sustained even on this flashy new team. Joel Embiid is a transcendent talent and is so far this season (taps nearest wood) healthy.

But I don’t think any of it would be ascending to fruition without the already appointed ‘Rookie of the Year’.


Patience pays off

That is itself one of the things that needs work, the notion that Simmons is a rookie at all. He had a year to learn Brown’s system, a huge advantage over guys coming out of college. Other things that need work improving are his shot, which is poor, and he’s already a victim of intentional fouling. We will get into all of that.

But we start today with a game in which Simmons recorded career highs in points and rebounds - 31 and 18 - against Washington at home in late November. Most focused afterward on the fact that he was made to shoot 24 free throws in the fourth quarter, a franchise record.

I’ll steer clear.

It’s his game within the game that’s worth chewing over and for all that star power, how about a note on his boringly solid fundamentals.

During a shot attempt from the other team, Simmons’ eyes divert to the rim. If he doesn’t snag the rebound, he immediately jumps to one side of the court and shouts “here we go!”, clapping his hands to receive the ball. If you listen carefully, you can hear it several times during a game. He does this for several reasons.

One, he’s very good at the pass ahead, which eases the Sixers into open threes and quick scoring opportunities while the defence tries to recover from cross-switches.

Second, he hates to be static on offence. Third and most devastating, Simmons is exceptional at attacking his defender while both his teammates and the defence are retreating to their spots.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers

For example, in the first quarter of the Wizards game, Bradley Beal picked him up above the three-point line and Simmons - smart player that he is - waited for Markieff Morris to pass behind Beal and guard Dario Saric on the wing. The moment Morris was clipping Beal’s outside foot, Simmons dived to his left and with Beal a step behind, he used his favourite move to switch direction; the spin.

This maneuver is so effective for Simmons because as he faces forward again, he’s already elevating and placing the ball so high in the air that the help defender - in this case Morris - slaps at thin air as the close-ranger goes up.

Watching Simmons palm the ball with his arm fully extended is one thing, but the control he maintains on his wrist to score is something we rarely see in the league. When he gets whacked by opposing bruisers during this very move, he absorbs the contact and somehow keeps the ball glued to his hand. He achieved an and-1 in this game when Morris almost took him out.

Ironically, defenders know what’s coming. Déjà vu literally means ‘already seen’ and that’s how Simmons’ defender gets beaten on plays; sag, dribble, drive, score.

Shooting woes

Number 25 refuses to shoot and if he’s still being allowed to dribble below the free throw line will pull up and release a leaning one-handed floater, almost nervous to show the world his jump shot. The window of access opens a little for us when he steps to the line and you see his elbows stick out abnormally and his head dip forward slightly, but it’s not form that rids a coach of moulding a 40 per cent shooter. In his current construction, Simmons is happy to take the floater and immediately chase after the offensive rebound, which he gets in bundles.

Imagine being rewarded for a lack of faith in your own jump shot. It’s good work if you can get it.

Simmons does compensate with an array of ways to get to the basket, even with that obligatory ‘draining threes in an empty high school gym with no defenders before training camp’ Instagram video in the rearview mirror.

The fact he refuses to shoot from literally anywhere is expanding his creative juices.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers

He has an uncanny ability to keep his dribble alive and it jumps off the League Pass screen. A sort of high dribble that looks to be concluding on every single touch of the ball, the motion removes defenders from his path to the basket and the best of the bunch took place in the second half of the Wizards game.

Entering the pick and roll outside the arc with Amir Johnson, the Sixers were able to get Ian Mahinmi switched onto Simmons. The 21-year-old didn’t rush to take advantage of this (like a normal rookie might) but instead continued that slow, high dribble that at any point can be unleashed into go-mode or a two-handed cushion pass.

He first had to deal with help from Chris McCullough, who Simmons shook off by looking toward Robert Covington on the wing and bringing the ball up as if he was going to pass. As Simmons remained in control while teasing a steal opportunity, McCullough retreated and Simmons turned to attack Mahinmi, delaying his next dribble but not cupping the ball to result in a carry. As he faked to go up for a shot, he watched his opponent lift his toes, went under the arm and back up for a two-handed slam.

It was classic Simmons, banging the drum at his own pace.


Adaptability across the court

There was some debate about which position Simmons would play when he entered the league. Some thought he was a wing player, others an unconventionally-sized point guard. It seems he is more of the latter but positionless all the same. As long as he’s in the middle of creating, the Sixers are happy and they prioritise running the ball through him and Embiid.

Whether it was to get the latter involved - or any other teammate - Simmons displayed some of his best passing abilities against Washington. He recovered a steal at half-court, took one dribble and from a crouch rocketed a chest pass to the opposite corner of the court for Covington to knock down an open three. Impressively, the ball landed right in his shooting pocket.

Also in the repertoire is a windmill pass that is a mirror of his fancy lay-up, but instead ends in an assist. When Simmons runs action with Embiid, he waits for him to roll to the basket, watches for the second defender to scramble to the Center and turn away from the point guard, then serves the ball to the bucket side for his favourite teammate to corral and score easily.

A lot of this action looks from an opponent point of view like ‘we’re not doing anything’ plays. That’s the power they have with Simmons on board.

Golden State Warriors v Philadelphia 76ers

Having just fouled Otto Porter Jr. to allow two easy points, Simmons quickly got over it and spent the ensuing dead time telling his four teammates the next play. It ran to perfection. He brought the ball up the right sideline and handed it to Covington.

Now came the casual craftiness.

He carried on running past Covington and toward the paint, where J.J. Redick was settling in for a back screen. Porter Jr, who was guarding Simmons, suspected nothing because Simmons was jogging smoothly as he had all game, looking toward the crowd as if he’d spotted a rather juicy and overpriced burger. In a split second, Simmons turned on the jets, the Wizards failed to switch and Embiid found him with a dart pass from the top of the arc, all alone under the basket.

Tick tock, Brett Brown’s boys go.

Simmons has even dabbled on the defensive end. Thanks to his size and adaptability, he guarded Beal, Kelly Oubre Jr., Porter Jr. and Morris at different points against the Wizards.

He’s crafty with his hands, timing deft swipes at the ball without committing fouls, and isn’t afraid to bump bodies down low. Most of the time he works hard to stay in front of his opponent. Stabbing for steals and blocks, Simmons communicates incoming screens to teammates and leads with silent high fives and basic pep talk, very similar to the way he talks to the media.

Short and sweet, but sometimes failing to satisfy us.

Miami Heat v Cleveland Cavaliers

Looking ahead

So, how do we project Simmons after a quarter of the season?

He is imperfect, hard-working and in the fast-track lane to become a very good NBA player.

Brown keeps the court spread for Simmons to work inside and he often avoids the basket with his eyes as if it’s a solar eclipse; that’s how unselfish he is. One minute he swishes a free throw and the next he cans it off the backboard, and no player is complete if they are sent to the line for four consecutive minutes of a fourth quarter.

Work that shot out and he will be so much harder to defend; for now his powerful driving ability, passing and smart play inside will keep the box score filled, but he could be less reliant on the spin which sometimes leads to charges and turnovers.

As always at this point, there is a reward for coming this far: those stats that weren’t ever supposed to appear.

Averages of 18 points, 7.1 assists, 9.3 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 35.8 minutes a game lead all rookies, as do his 12 double-doubles. He’s like the Giannis Antetokounmpo of his class, except he’s not contending with his own team but the entire rookie class. Not bad, even if we said we weren’t going to mention stats and that he’s not really a first-year player.

Philadelphia 76ers v Washington Wizards

Cooling the hype

One thing we definitely won’t do is compare him to LeBron James, or take seriously James’ comments to Simmons that he has the opportunity to be better than him. It’s a tad debilitating when we are currently witness to the closest being to Jordan yet already trying to compare that guy with a rookie.

What’s important now is the evolution of Simmons’ game. Can he become a competent shooter? Can he lead more vocally? Can he enter 70 per cent range from the line and reach top-tier status as a defender? Just as Lonzo Ball (we nearly made it without mentioning a Ball) needs to apply himself when he isn’t hitting shots, Simmons needs to find different ways to score when his drive isn’t clicking.

Asked by the sideline reporter after the Wizards victory what he wants to prove while playing at ‘an All Star level’, Simmons responded with the following: “Everything. Free throws, finishing, defence. Everything.”

Consistency from beginning to end. That might be Ben Simmons’ career.

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