The knock on Ben Simmons is that he can’t defend guards.
The 76ers have always thought otherwise, but wanted to see what he could do in game action. So the 6-foot-10, 230-pound rookie tested things out in Friday night’s preseason game against Boston Celtics at the Wells Fargo Center.
Simmons guarded swingmen Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown in the first half of the Sixers’ 110-102 loss. Then he primarily defended point guard Kyrie Irving in the second half.
While Simmons was shouldering new responsibilities, Markelle Fultz sat out the game with right shoulder soreness. Sixers coach Brett Brown said Fultz’s absence was just precautionary. The first overall pick is expected to play against the Celtics on Monday night in Boston.
“It’s not anything that we expect to linger,” Brett Brown said of Fultz’s shoulder soreness. “It’s something that we want to get on top of.”
But Friday was all about seeing what Simmons could do defensively.
The towering point guard’s results were mixed. He didn’t look out of place against Hayward or Brown in the first half. But they still made shots as the Celtics got players open with solid ball movement. Hayward, an all-star, shot 4 for 7 in the first half, scoring all nine of his points. Brown scored six of his 10 points in the first half on 3-for-4 shooting.
All their first-half points didn’t come against Simmons.
But on occasion, Simmons sagged off them as if he was waiting to rush the rim for defensive rebounds.
Then Simmons used his length to provide solid on-ball defense against the 6-3 Irving. However, the former Cavaliers all-star took advantage of the times when Simmons guarded him off-ball, especially when the rookie tried to help out a teammate on defense. Being left open, Irving buried a couple of three-pointers.
“I think the late change onto Kyrie was a little confusing just because we didn’t run over too much of that for me personally,” Simmons said. “But it was good to be matched up against a great point guard like him. And get a feel for that, what it’s like to guard somebody like that.”
He’s confident it’s all going to come together once the team has better defensive communication and movement. The Sixers aren’t ready to abandon Simmons defending smaller players.
“I think when it was static, he was pretty good,” Brown said of Simmons’ on-ball defense of Irving. “I think his length is something that interests me, probably more at end of games when you decide which matchup to put him on.”
Simmons finished with three steals and three rebounds – all defensive. He also had eight points on 3-for-8 shooting, five assists and five turnovers.
Jerryd Bayless finished with 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting while starting in place of Fultz at shooting guard. Former Celtic Amir Johnson and J.J. Redick had 12 points apiece. Meanwhile, Jahlil Okafor turned in another solid performance.
The reserve center had 11 points on 5-for-7 shooting to go with six rebounds before leaving the game with 8 minutes, 11 seconds left. He fell hard to the floor after recording a flagrant one foul. Okafor is averaging 12 points on 10-for-13 shooting through two preseason games.
Justin Anderson also had a solid performance Friday with 10 points.
Irving finished with a game-high 21 points while making five of seven three-pointers.
The Sixers (0-2) had expected Fultz to play against the team that he will always be linked to. Philly acquired the first-overall pick from the Celtics (2-0) to draft the point guard in June’s NBA draft. Boston, in turn, used the third pick they received from the Sixers to select Jayson Tatum, who finished with nine points.
Dario Saric (rest), Joel Embiid (left knee) and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (right knee) also sat out the game for the Sixers.
Redick is scheduled to sit out Monday’s game. There’s a possibility that Robert Covington will also have the night off.