Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown prides himself on establishing good relationships with his players. It’s his nature and a necessity, having decided that forging strong bonds and focusing on their development was the best way to accelerate The Process, the team’s long and sometimes tortured rebuilding plan.
So it was natural for Brown to sit down and chat the other day with rookie Ben Simmons, whose spectacular first month has sparked comparisons to Magic Johnson and has put Simmons in the same sentence with Oscar Robertson through his precocious accomplishments.
The topic was extraordinary. But so is Simmons, the unlikely 6-foot-10 point guard whose lack of a consistent outside shot is almost trivial compared to the vision, quickness and selflessness he brings to perhaps the most difficult position a rookie can play.
“I showed him the royalty, the company he’s in with the assist leaders. It’s amazing,” Brown said of Simmons, who ranks fifth in the NBA at 7.7 assists per game behind James Harden, Russell Westbrook, John Wall and LeBron James while also averaging 17.8 points and 9.2 rebounds.
“To look at the royalty that you’re around, look at the company that surrounds you when you look at the NBA assist leaders, it’s a reminder that he doesn’t need to score. He can score and it does help, but it’s not mandatory, especially making shots. That’s not going to define him this year. I think finishing will and free throws will. But growing that end of his game, and encouraging your point guard to pass the heck out of it like you do, it’s exceptional at an early stage.”
Simmons, the No. 1pick in 2016 after a year at Louisiana State, missed last season because of a fractured foot. He’s making up for lost time, falling short of a triple-double Wednesday by one rebound and solidifying himself as a favorite for rookie-of-the-year honors as he and Joel Embiid lead the 76ers back to respectability. That’s no small feat for a team that was 75-253 in the last four seasons and was forever preaching the virtue of The Process without much to slow for it.
Some of Simmons’ scoring came at the expense of still-struggling Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, though he faced Kyle Kuzma too. It was Simmons’ ninth double-double in 14 games this season. He already has two triple-doubles, one of them coming in his fourth game in the league. “Eye-popping,” Brown said of Simmons’ statistics, and it’s not just partisan bias.
Simmons, a native of Melbourne, Australia, joined Hall of Famer Robertson as the only rookies to have 10 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in their first three NBA games. They’re also the only rookies to have 10 points, five rebounds and five assists in each of the first 10 games of their careers. Simmons also became the third rookie, after Robertson and Art Williams, to have a triple-double in his first four games. He can shoot left-handed or right-handed with equal ease.
“He just does it in a bunch of ways,” Brown said before the game. “He does it in half court. He really does it in full court and open court. I think that when the table’s set and he’s going against a static, set half-court defense that is a challenge early but he’s still finding ways to contribute and score without sort of having a defined 17-footer or three-point shot. It’s quite exceptional that he can pepper a stat sheet like he does.”
The Lakers are still waiting for Ball’s game to evolve. He didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter, and the late third-quarter surge that gave the Lakers an 84-83 lead was capped without Ball on the floor. He had another poor shooting night (one for nine, including 0 for 6 from three-point range). He had a bad miss in the third quarter that drew a smattering of boos and rumbles of exasperation from fans who have seen that kind of performance too often to be sure Ball is capable of helping lead the Lakers out of the non-playoff wilderness anytime soon.
Lakers coach Luke Walton sees similarities between Ball and Simmons, starting with their unselfish nature.
“I know Lonzo would prefer to get his teammates going and get them shots, but Ben seems to have that same type of mentality,” Walton said. “Where to them, it’s more important that the team is playing well and the team is winning than their own personal scoring or statistics.”
Simmons and his team won their battle Wednesday.
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