Will there be Magic for 76ers in putting Ben Simmons at the point? | Bob Ford

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Ben Simmons speaks with the media during Sixers' exit interviews at their practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, Thursday, April 13, 2017.

The list of big men, or even reasonably big men, who have successfully played the point guard position in the NBA, or been asked to, is not - you should pardon the expression - a long one.

Ron Harper, Michael Carter-Williams, and Brian Shaw did so at 6-foot-6, and Penny Hardaway and Shaun Livingston at 6-7. Oscar Robertson, one of the all-time greats, was 6-5, which was enormous for a point guard in his day.

Beyond that, there is only one name. As you search for comparisons to what the 76ers might discover in terms of advantages and challenges with 6-10 Ben Simmons as their starter at the point - which is the intention of coach Brett Brown - that name will be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because Magic Johnson, a 6-9 Hall of Fame talent, showed it could be done. A curse because, well, the woods aren't exactly full of Magic Johnsons.

"I know. I had to guard him in practice every day," said former Sixers coach Eddie Jordan, who played three years with the Lakers. "Because of his size, and because of how big Ben Simmons is, I don't see that many challenges to playing the point. I see all the positives. He demands so much attention because it's hard to guard a guy that big."

Brown isn't talking about a hybrid position for Simmons, a "point forward" role similar to a Draymond Green or a LeBron James in which the ball is often in his hands but not exclusively. Brown is talking about Simmons bringing the ball upcourt on every possession and being the creator and distributor for the entire offense.

"No one can promise that I'm right, but I feel comfortable that we should try it," Brown said. "You go back to LSU . . . and two things are apparent: He wants the ball, and he loves to pass. They had two point guards, but many times Ben wouldn't run his lane. He would come back and want the ball. How can we put him in position to experience the most success? My judgment is I want to try this. I feel this is where he can help our team the most."

Simmons, who played just one year at LSU and missed the past season with the Sixers because of a fracture in his right foot, is an exceptional ball handler and passer. How the rest of his game will translate to the NBA is unknown. Using Johnson as a template for how a man of his height can alter things at that position is intriguing, however. Whom will opposing teams use to guard him? Whom will he guard? Where will the matchup benefits and pitfalls be found?

Johnson played 12 seasons with the Lakers before he contracted HIV, missed four years, and returned for what amounted to a cameo in the last several months of the 1996 season. In those 12 seasons, the Lakers went to the NBA Finals nine times and won five championships. That's not bad, but, of course, not all attributable to having a 6-9 point guard, even one of generational talent. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes, Byron Scott, Norm Nixon, Mychal Thompson, Michael Cooper, A.C. Green, and others had a little to do with it.

But Johnson was the key. He usually forced the other team to expend its best and most mobile frontcourt defender on him, which opened the floor for his teammates, and Johnson could find them. He broke Robertson's record for career assists in 1991 (a record subsequently broken by John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, and Mark Jackson).

"Because of his size, he could see over the defense, and deliver the ball over your head. That was easy for him," Jordan said. "Most guards have to see to the side and make bounce passes. That's a huge advantage. Or he'd just dribble to the post and back you down."

It was a different game then, and Brown will certainly coach it differently. If you look at one of the Lakers' best statistical seasons with Johnson, a 1986-87 season in which the Lakers went 65-17 and won the title, the team attempted just 447 three-pointers. Every team in the NBA had more three-point makes than that this season, and Houston led the league with 3,306 attempts. Where Johnson's ability to move with the ball opened up the basket and wing areas for the Lakers, Simmons' gift for penetrating the lane can have a similar effect on the perimeter, which is the golden ground of the modern game.

"In my wildest dreams, I can't envision [5-11] Isaiah Thomas guarding [Simmons] or even, as tough as he is, [6-0] Chris Paul. I don't see other point guards guarding him. If they do, we'll take him down on a block and beat up on a mismatch," Brown said. "I think Ben Simmons has a chance to be a matchup nightmare."

Brown has even gone back and watched games from the Magic-era Lakers to get some ideas on how to build a lineup around a tall point guard. Those teams were able to pair Johnson with a smallish guard, someone like a Norm Nixon or a Byron Scott, and pound the ball in through the post, either to shoot it from there or kick it out. Can a healthy Joel Embiid be a presence like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? It is as big a mouthful as saying Simmons can be another Magic Johnson, but the comparison begs to be made.

"It won't matter who Simmons covers because everything is pick-and-roll, and he'll switch," Jordan said. "What's hard is guarding him with the ball. The Sixers used [6-3] Clint Richardson on Magic, and he wasn't that big, but he stuck with him everywhere on every possession and made every possession tough. Those guys are hard to find, though."

The injury to Simmons cost the Sixers a full season of learning if Brown is right, wrong, or somewhere in between, even though the coach said he would have lowered the rookie slowly into the deep end of the pool. With the team inclined to be conservative as Simmons completes his rehabilitation, it looks unlikely he will take part in summer league play. That pushes the experiment farther down the road. The end result will be worth waiting for, however, if the comparison to the only other true point guard of his size turns out to be apt.

"I'm excited," Brown said. "I can't wait to see if we're on to something."

Even if it can't be Magic, because that's a lot to ask, it could still be magic.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports