“With the first pick in the 2016 NBA draft, the Philadelphia 76ers select Ben Simmons from Melbourne, Australia and Louisiana State University.”
The highly anticipated announcement by Adam Silver got completely drowned out by cries of joy produced by the attending fans in 76ers jerseys. They were growing increasingly weary of the promises of a bright future they’ve been fed since 2013, aptly dubbed as The Process, and were desperate for their third top three pick in three consecutive years to start paying out dividends.
To find themselves in that position, the Sixers would have to go through a number of tough compromises and adversities. The decision by the 76ers front office to err on the cautious side and sit out Joel Embiid for the entirety of the 2015-2016 season foreshadowed a season filled with turmoil. After an atrocious 1-21 start, Sam Hinkie, the visionary behind The Process, got laid off in favour of Jerry Colangelo; a move which was regarded highly controversial at the time. No immediate changes were introduced however, and the Sixers embraced the full tank mode yet again, finishing the season with their second worst win-to-lose ratio of all time and hitting rock bottom in points per game and both offensive and defensive rating.
The only thing that appeased the disgruntled fanbase to a certain extent were Youtube videos and scouting reports featuring Ben Simmons, an Australian wonderkid whose physique and skillset bore an uncanny resemblance to that of Lebron James. Despite his lackadaisical college campaign in which he failed to lead LSU to an NCAA tournament berth, he was labeled as the consensual number one pick and one of the most hyped prospects of the past few years. Sixers would eventually cash in on a catastrophic 10-72 season and the rights to swap picks with the Kings acquired via a trade that also landed them Nik Stauskas, and turn the 26.9% chance into a number one pick at the 2016 NBA draft.
With the reported recovery of Joel Embiid, Dario Šarić finally crossing the Atlantic, and Ben Simmons ready to leave his mark in the NBA, the Sixers now seemed properly equipped for a return to relevance, at least within their own conference. However, in an unfortunate turn of events, Simmons turned his ankle in practice right before the season was about to kick off. The long-winded fruition of the Process was postponed yet again, and even though the 2016-2017 Sixers weren’t completely underwhelming as their predecessors, it was the 2017-2018 season that got the designation of the season.
To remove any doubt about the intent to abandon their tanking habits, the Sixers also secured additional shooting and veteran leadership in J.J. Redick. The projected starting lineup of Bayless – Redick – Covington – Simmons – Embiid with a bench unit led by Šarić, who entered the season with a chip on his shoulder following the ROY snub, and Markelle Fultz, yet another product of the Process, looked like a good bet for causing an upset in the season opener versus the Wizards.
Despite falling short in a tight affair against the Eastern Conference semi-finalists, the Sixers fans were given several reasons to celebrate. Embiid got 27 minutes of playing time (the most since mid-January), and has proven yet again that his imposing athleticism and soft touch that extends even beyond the perimeter will be an enigma for opposing frontcourt; if he stays healthy that is. However, the skillset he brings to the court was more or less well-known, so a considerable amount of attention was directed towards the player that was making his opening statement in the NBA.
The talent basketball gods bestowed upon Ben Simmons will never be in question, but the extra year he got to mentally and physically prepare for the his rookie season has done wonders for polishing that talent. Judging by his career debut, the NBA-ready athleticism, footwork, court vision and offensive awareness are all present, and it’s been amazing seeing him hold his own on the defensive end as well. He finished the game with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists and became the first rookie to achieve those numbers in his debut since Grant Hill back in 1994. But forget the numbers; the feel for the game he put on display gave impression of an elite NBA veteran, not a 21-year-old at the conception of his NBA career.
As the first week of NBA action went on, Simmons convinced us that consistently putting out that kind of all-around efficient performances will not be an issue. He became the first rookie since Shaquille O’ Neal with a double-double in each of his first four games and, to put it into context of all-time greats he usually gets compared to, amassed more combined points, rebounds and assists (169) in the first five career games than Jason Kidd (124), LeBron James (155) and Michael Jordan (167).
As amazing as these individual statistical achievements may sound, they are completely worthless if they don’t translate into the collective success. However, the eye test suggests (and the advanced stats confirm) that Ben Simmons is just as good at making his teammates better as he is in making things work individually. When he is not on the floor, the 76ers offensive rating plummets from a 100.4 to a measly 85.0, but when he’s on the floor, the 76ers EFG% goes up by a spectacular 13.8%, which puts him in the top 5% of players in the league in that context. Remember, he’s a 6′ 10” rookie.
The trait that makes him seem omnipresent during the time he spends on the court is the incredible poise with which he approaches each game. Although his elite athleticism often gives him a clear physical advantage over the defender, he is much more prone to developing plays via his amazing playmaking ability. That’s exactly what makes him that rare type of guy you can rely on making the right play. His patience and maturity often in turn allow him to occasionally dig into his deep bag of tricks and bring the crowd out of their seats with some highlight reel passes, such as this absolute beauty for Joel Embiid and the masterfully executed cross court corner pass, one of the toughest passes to make in basketball.
While it’s true that his unselfishness sometimes make him seem a bit reserved on the offensive end, Simmons was never the guy who was supposed to take on a major scoring load, and it’s evident that the point forward facilitator role suits him the best. Developing at least a respectable shot would do wonders for his game (over 75% of his shots have come from inside 10 ft, and we’ve already witnessed a couple of ugly airballs), but judging by his current trajectory, he will be that kind of a player that will contribute even on bad days, especially since he’s not at all reliant on getting his shooting into the groove.
Five games is too small of a sample size to start equating Simmons to Lebron or any other all-time greats, but the individual achievements and the enormous influence he’s had on the 76ers team simply can not be overlooked. While there is some justified criticism to his game that mostly has to do with the shooting woes and the fact that the talent hasn’t translated to wins from the get go, it’s hard to imagine a timeline in which Simmons & Embiid (who drew comparisons to Magic & Kareem after a win over the Pistons) don’t eventually click and start making noise in the East. With the way Simmons has looked on the court thus far, it would be foolish to write this team off; expect him to further extend this impressive run that he’s been on while being a major contributor to the Sixers’ rise in the standings.