Having not covered a Sixers game in a while, I was interested in how the arena would look and feel. Things are different. The atmosphere is not as stale as in recent years. An underlying expectation of becoming a playoff team this season is a real thought despite the reality of 76’ers youth. This is a new era of Wells Fargo Center relevance, and a disarming “Trust the Process” theme is ubiquitous the minute you enter the building. There is much to trust here in Philly these days, as young phenoms Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid offer a sense of relief that a lack of talent not good enough to compete with the NBA elite will no longer be a constant. This is as unique a team ever in the city of basketball love, and a gifted Simmons, even as a redshirt rookie, will be seen as an exhale of hopeful optimism.
Simmons is averaging 18.5 points, 7.9 assists and 9.6 rebounds eight games in, and the Sixers have won 4 of those games because teams do not have an answer of how to guard this young versatile team. He already has a triple double to his credit, and could approach averaging one for the entire season given he’ll have the rock so much in his hands directing the team. As I walk up to the media speaking to Simmons pregame, I quickly sensed his intelligence interacting with the press, his cool confident demeanor, and keen game knowledge. Being a follower of this team when I’m not reporting since the days of Julius Erving, an arena electricity something of a playoff atmosphere could be felt in a classic Sixers sense. As I spoke of how the Sixers are becoming a national attraction once again, Simmons was adamant in shouldering such a responsibility of keeping this team relevant. “Yeah definitely. It comes with it. I want this to be a championship team. It takes time. It takes hard work and discipline, and listening to coach (Sixers head coach Brett Brown). We are making sure we are doing the right things on the court, and holding each other accountable.”
Stock quotes I thought. He’s humble yet eager to answer questions. Genuine. This kid will be a star on and off the court, I again thought, as I attempted to loosen him up a bit asking if his father, Dave Simmons -- who played for Coach Brown as an Anthony Mason type player in Melbourne, Australia -- still talks to him about the game itself. Simmons, shook his head, and says “No, he just texts me good luck.” (media chuckles)
The one thing that many Sixers fans are critical about is how Simmons finishes. He has a penchant to lay the ball in or dish out to the arc, and driving to the lane, opportunistic big men are able to alter his shot because he doesn’t throw it down like anyone should no matter the size when attacking the rim. That he is 6’10” suggests this should never be an issue. Earlier, I spoke to his coach about just that. “There’s a phrase we use of body-body ball. Like your body, the defenders body, and the ball. Body-body ball (he motions as if having a defender locked off using his legs, and holding the ball out securely away from that defender). When he has the defender on his hip, and he really has that mindset to punish people, and go one more step and go in through people’s chest and at times their chin to get to the line, that is a mentality. For the most part, that’s been an evolution with him. He’s been 6’10” – he can drop floaters about any time he wants. I think one more power dribble, and one more body-body ball in that mindset, and I think he’s going strong or either dunking. The play with Capela (Rockets center, Clint) at the end of the Houston game (a last second Sixers loss), is a little bit of an example.” Ok, so through Brown’s words about Simmons’ finishing, this is something Brown has definitely stressed to his young star. When I asked Ben about finishing, he chuckled, so yes, it has surely been a coaching point. “Yeah I gotta dunk the ball. I just get up there (in the air), and these guys are really big (the media laughs). Once I start dunking it? Yeah.”
The Sixers defeated the Atlanta Hawks that night, November 1st, 2017, 119-110. Robert Covington led with 22 points. Embiid was solid with 21 points, 12 boards, and a career high 6 assists. Simmons had 19 points, 13 boards and 9 dimes. He spoke of how getting this first home win of the season out of the way was big given it also was his first career home win in front of an engaged and excited Philly crowd. Simmons wants this team to be great, and though he thinks he should be a little more successful early in his career despite his notable stats, the commitment to greatness exists, and the city will ultimately benefit. He also had a thunderous LeBron James-esque dunk down the lane that gave the sellout crowd a charge late. He did some incredible things on the floor, and at his height, his gifted handle belies stereotypes of who should be dribbling the rock in this era of big guards doing common guard things.
Many names come to mind with Simmons: the aforementioned James, Lamar Odom, and Magic Johnson without the flash, the rebounding skill of Scottie Pippen, to name a few. I even see a little Larry Bird in him because of his versatility. If he never gets to that sort of pantheon, his only nemesis will be himself. That’s how outlandishly talented Ben Simmons is. His skills seem to mature by the game, and everyone is noticing. As far as not possibly becoming the superstar the level of his gifts, with such support of family, the long told nuances acquired from being a second generation pro, and a coaching staff willing to show him how it’s done, I don’t see that happening. The wunderkind twins, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will be a terror in pick and rolls because both can do so much with the ball, and defenses will be stressed. You sense this team wants immediate respect, and adding the hot shooting of J. J. Redick and an inspired Robert Covington, this team will surprise if everyone within the organization handles themselves accordingly. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out. The city is energized, wants to return to prominence quick fast in a blurry. Expectations should be tempered, but Ben Simmons might be the atlas to help do just that sooner than later. Postgame, I asked Simmons in passing how the aforementioned crowd loud dunk felt. His facial expression spoke his answer before his mouth opened as he simply said,“Nasty”.