Ben Simmons, like almost every other NBA player, wants to be the best in the league, but he’s got time before that happens.
The 21-year-old Australian phenom hasn’t yet suited up for an NBA game, but he’s looking for long-term success with his goals. “My goal is to be the best in the league,” said Simmons to ESPN Australia and New Zealand. “I’m not worried about other rookies — I’m worried about the guys at the top, and that’s where I want to be.”
After going first overall in the 2016 draft, Simmons suffered a broken right foot, and the Philadelphia 76ers decided to shut him down for the season. They’ve had bad luck with injuries. Rushing Simmons back before he healed is the last thing they’d want to do. Now, however, the potentially franchise-altering forward is at 100 percent and is looking to take the league by storm.
“Physically I feel really good, [I am] ready to play and get the season started. I’ve just got to go out and work hard … And if everyone in the team does the same thing, I think we can do great things.”
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The Sixers are coming off a 28-54 season. It was their highest win total since they won 34 in 2013, but it was yet another season spent trusting the process which didn’t end in a playoff appearance. However, we got our first look at Joel Embiid. It was magical. One of the biggest stories last summer was how Simmons and Embiid would play together. The two studs play contrasting styles, thus making it easier to integrate them offensively. Simmons is a pass-first point forward who’s as unselfish as they come; in essence, he’s a 6-10 point guard.
Embiid, on the other hand, is a handful to deal with on offense and has a surprising repertoire that we didn’t see at Kansas. In 31 games last year, he put up 20.2 points, 7.8 boards and 2.5 blocks a night while shooting 46.6 percent from the field. There wasn’t an area where Embiid didn’t make an impact, and watching him dominate was more than enough as a consolation prize for missing out on Simmons. However, his shortened season only builds anticipation.
Both guys have dealt with lower body injuries to start their careers, and that’s what limited Embiid to just 31 games. Moreover, he spent the entire season on a minutes restriction, with Brett Brown being apprehensive about playing Embiid more than 28 minutes a night. The good news is that Embiid expects to be ready by training camp.
A frontcourt with Simmons and Embiid is scary. Combine that with Markelle Fultz, J.J. Redick, Dario Saric and Robert Covington, Philadelphia has a six-man rotation that oozes potential. For any of the young guys to reach their pinnacle, they must learn to play together.
Simmons has made it clear that he wants to be the NBA’s best. It isn’t far-fetched. He’s got a skill set that we’ve never seen before. The basketball gods blessed Simmons with physical attributes any player would die for. He’s strong and has tremendous fluidity for someone his size. Additionally, there’s the explosiveness and athleticism to boot, and that’s what helps Simmons take the next step. Of course, the separator is his vision.
Point forwards are nothing new. A point forward who is 6-10 with Magic Johnson-like vision is. Simmons sees the floor like a guard and has the skill to make almost any pass, and he does it so effortlessly that we can’t attribute it to something other than being a gift.
At LSU, Simmons did everything. He put on nightly passing clinics while doubling as a 20-point, 12-rebound threat. The Tigers didn’t have a noteworthy campaign and failed to breach into the NCAA Tournament, where watching Simmons would’ve been a treat. That doesn’t take away from any numbers, and the All-American finished fifth overall in total assists (158) and assists per game (4.8).
Being such a huge cog in LSU’s offense, Simmons had a usage rate of 26.4 percent. According to Sports Reference, he assisted on 27.4 percent of his teammate’s buckets which was ninth best in the conference. I know college numbers don’t project to the pros, but the NBA has only seen seven guys 6-10 or taller boast an assist percentage greater than 25 while playing more than 2,000 minutes. (If Simmons replicated that assist rate with the Sixers, 27.4 would be third-highest all-time behind Vlade Divac and Nikola Jokic.)
Of those gentlemen, only Jokic has that sixth sense. That’s not to take away from the others, but these two have the ability to see three or four plays ahead, and that allows them to play chess with the defense. Simmons’ exploitation of his opponents will generate easy buckets for everyone, and the Sixers want the ball in his hands as often as possible.
When we think about the guys who are the best in the league, they all have similarities. Size is one, and that’s what puts LeBron James and Kevin Durant ahead of everyone else. Being 6-8 and 6-10, respectively, and playing the way they do makes it almost impossible for us to rank guys ahead of them. Simmons has the size and the gift, but it’s now up to him to produce at a consistent level for four, five or six years before we have that conversation.
Take LeBron, for example. I’d say that at least 90 percent of basketball fans believe that he’s still the best player in the league. That didn’t happen after his rookie year. Around 2007 is when he first entered the debate, and he snatched the crown in 2008 after averaging 30.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists. By then, James was just 24-years-old but already five seasons deep. He had accumulated five All-Star selections and landed on four All-NBA teams (two first). LeBron had also finished top-10 in MVP voting each of those five years, and he won his first in the subsequent season.
If James doesn’t retire in the next five years, he’ll be close to it. Simmons won’t have to worry about him. Further, this batch of stars won’t be producing at the same level once Simmons is ready to leap. That doesn’t mean it’ll be a cakewalk. Simmons will have to rise above contemporaries like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, Embiid and Jokic, as well as other rookies like Lonzo Ball and Dennis Smith Jr.
Ben Simmons will have a spot in “best player in the NBA” conversation at some point, but that’s contingent on him using the gifts that God gave him. Additionally, the Sixers have to win. I don’t anticipate Philadelphia staying in the cellar for long, but, if they do, we’re going to overlook Simmons because a player of his caliber — along with his teammates — should be able to dominate the Eastern Conference once they reach their primes.
Before snatching that crown, though, Simmons will have to develop other parts of his game. He is still a reluctant jump shooter and scored so regularly in college because of his size and strength. In the NBA, Simmons won’t be able to push guys out of the way, and being a reliable scorer is going to make his quest to sit atop the league that much easier. When he decides to be more comfortable playing above the free throw line, the floor is going to open up, and Simmons will be able to do what he does best — pass.
As of now, defenders can sag off and stop him from penetrating. If Simmons can’t get into the paint, no one will collapse or rotate. A broader offense is going to take some time to develop, and I won’t use that against Simmons for the first few years of his career. However, teams are going to find ways to gameplan against him, and it’ll be up to him to evolve and keep them on their toes. Every great player has done it.
Ben Simmons is a budding star. He’s got the physical tools and the skill set. But, for him to become the league’s best, everything must get brought together to create an unstoppable force that the NBA has never seen before.
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