With the first pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Ben Simmons is officially the future of Philadelphia basketball. And, thankfully for Sixers fans looking for young talent to turn this team back into a contender, he’s not alone.
The Sixers are going to be good soon, and they’re going to be very good shortly after that. This is not a drill. The Process may have been panned by those put charge of Sixerville since Sam Hinkie up and left, but make no mistake, that process did create the potential for actual basketball progress.
Drafting Simmons isn’t the start of a new era for the 76ers, but merely the latest, and probably the biggest, step in a half-decade long rebuilding process.
We’ve heard it all over the last month: Simmons has an attitude problem and his agent was working to get him to L.A. because Nike wanted him to be the replacement for Kobe. He was refusing to work out for the Sixers. He doesn’t have enough passion to be a great player. He’s the wrong guy for the team to bring in to this mix of players.
And yet, when it mattered, Simmons did show up to work out for the Sixers, and he did publicly state time and time again that he wanted to be the first pick in the draft and he does get along with the other players on the Sixers — at least off the court — and heck, if Joel Embiid likes him who the hell cares what the sport talk radio guys think?
All of that backtalk was a way for fans (and media) to justify the decision if the Sixers chose not to take Simmons, in the event the team opted (or felt pressured) to go with Brandon Ingram from Duke over Simmons.
Ingram is likely going to be a fine pro, maybe even better than Simmons in the right environment, but given what the Sixers need (read: everything), new GM Bryan Colangelo went with the best available player, someone who has been compared to the guy who just brought a title to Cleveland.
Before Philly gets too excited, Simmons is not LeBron James — smart basketball people are making a more obvious Lamar Odom comparison — but he might be the closest thing to LeBron to come into the league for some time. Sure, people talk about Simmons’ inability to hit the jumper, but he’s a 6-10 scorer with a guard’s handle, excellent court vision and a pass-first mentality, who averaged 13.5 rebounds per 40 minutes in one year in college. That’s a rare combination of skills to come into the NBA, and someone you cannot pass over at the top of the draft.
And much like that guy who just won a title, Simmons enters the league with people questioning his heart and desire, a knock people tried to put on LeBron for years until he won his first championship.
Nobody questions LeBron anymore, but Simmons doesn’t want to have to deal with those wrong-minded associations. From Scott Gleeson at USA Today:
“I try to play with an edge like that, too,” Simmons told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday … “Because a lot of people say things about me and my character. People say a lot of things about LeBron but he just keeps having a good mentality and grinding. That’s what I try to do, proving people wrong by what I do on the court.”
Simmons, who inked a $20-million Nike deal before the draft, shares an agent with James, but said, via ESPN, that even though he looks up to LeBron like an older brother, it doesn’t mean he isn’t making it his NBA goal to beat him.
“If I ever need advice, he gives it to me.” But Simmons says on the court it’s all business: “I’m not looking up to these guys while I’m playing them, no. I’m going at them. It’s a job, and I want to beat them every time I step on the floor.”
It is a job, and Simmons instantly has one of the highest profile gigs in the NBA. Now, how quickly he develops will go a long way in determining how the Sixers can go from Process to, as they put it, progress.
Simmons needs to get better at shooting the ball. He has shown no range at all, as evidenced by his three — THREE — attempts from beyond the arc for LSU last season, with more than 80 percent of his buckets coming from around the rim. The college three-point line is significantly shorter than the NBA mark, so that’s something Simmons is going to have to get better at fast. That said, LeBron is not a good outside shooter at .340 from three in his career, but he took 282 threes in the regular season and threw up another 94 in 21 playoff games this year, hitting on 32, for a .340 rate. If Simmons is going to challenge defenders off the dribble like LeBron, he’s going to have to keep them honest with a modicum of an outside game.
Heck, even Karl-Anthony Towns, last year’s first pick and a more traditional power forward, threw up 88 threes last season, hitting on 30, after attempting only eight in his one year at Kentucky. The NBA is just a different game than what Simmons saw in college.
The other knock on Simmons is that he isn’t as good of a defender as Ingram, or as good as a number one pick needs to be. Avery Johnson, former NBA head coach who is now the coach at Alabama, said on NBA TV Thursday he thinks Simmons will be just fine on the defensive end.
“He can defend all five positions,” Johnson told NBA TV’s Steve Smith. “I’ve seen it. Late in the clock he can switch on a point guard, he can switch on a big guy in the post, because he’s strong. I like him as a defender. I think he’ll be a first-team all-defensive player within the first three years of his NBA career.”
The beauty of the draft is that players never develop exactly how we expect, and the first pick isn’t always the best pick. Anthony Bennett went first overall in 2013. Greg Oden went first in 2007, the year after Colangelo picked Andrea Bargnani first overall in Toronto. Kwame Brown was a top pick. So Was Michael Olowokandi.
It’s not science.
And yet, Tim Duncan and Shaq and Dwight Howard and Yao Ming and Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis and Andrew Wiggins and Derrick Rose and Allen Iverson and the list goes on and on of first overall picks who did pan out, who did change their respective franchises almost as soon as they stepped on the court.
Not ever first pick will win a title, and Simmons is going to need a lot of help around him — that includes some combination of Embiid, Okafor, Noel, Saric and so on — but if progress is to be made, this pick was the right way to start.