WASHINGTON—The 76ers had finished their morning shootaround Wednesday in the Thompson Center, Georgetown University’s gleaming new athletic facility, and Markelle Fultz had just emerged from a small swarm of media. Most of them were there to ask Fultz, a native of Upper Marlboro, Md., and a star at nearby DeMatha Catholic High School, what it would be like to make his NBA debut at Capital One Arena against the Wizards, so close to where he grew up. Through all those questions, Ben Simmons stood outside the cluster, waiting his turn to face the press, and when Fultz finally extricated himself and stepped away, Simmons was there to tease him—and the people asking the questions.
Markelle, Simmons said, making his voice squeak like an eager, prepubescent, cub reporter, what’s it like?
From another pro athlete, from an older pro athlete, Simmons’ gentle mocking might have seemed immature. But Simmons is just 21 years old; for him, it really wasn’t an immature thing to say. In the moment, with the Sixers’ season and with Fultz’s and Simmons’ careers about to begin, it served as a timely reminder to temper the hope and expectations attached to this team. And as enjoyable as it was to watch the Sixers play crisp, competent, and competitive basketball for much of Wednesday night at Capital One Arena, their 120-115 loss to the Wizards served the same purpose.
“For any of us to make a judgment after opening night would be really unintelligent,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “It’s just not wise to do that.”
Judgment? No, that would be imprudent. Observation? Hell, yes. Their collective talent is obvious. My God, the speed they have already, especially Simmons — and they will seem all the faster as the days and games go by, as they grow more familiar with each other, as they develop synchronicity among whatever five players happen to be on the floor at a particular time. Consider a sequence at the end of the first half: Joel Embiid, with the ball in his hands on the left wing, beyond the 3-point arc, motioning to Simmons to post up. Simmons does, leaving Embiid’s defender with a choice: stay on Embiid or help mitigate the mismatch that Simmons has created. The defender backed off Embiid, who coolly hit a 24-footer.
But that’s what was missing too often: the cohesion necessary, at least on this night, to overcome the experience and skill of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and a Wizards team that could challenge for a top-two seed in the Eastern Conference. That should be expected. Simmons only became legally able to have a beer in July. Fultz is 19. Embiid is 23, on a loosely defined minutes-restriction, with just 32 games on his NBA ledger. They are young, and they are confident, and each of them believes he is destined to be great, and maybe all of them are, but it will take time for them to get there, if they ever do. For now, they looked less like an ensemble cast, working off each other, complementing each other, than they did a hoops version of the film Glengarry Glen Ross: Each would have his own monologue, his own moment to wow everyone. OK, Jack Lemmon, bring the pathos. Go ahead, Joel, dream-shake Marcin Gortat. Yes, Al Pacino, now you can bark out bad words at Kevin Spacey. Ben, time for you to take center stage and back down Jason Smith.
Somehow, it all still managed to be thrilling, even in a loss, because you could see not what the Sixers are, but what they might yet become. In that regard, losing Wednesday night wasn’t the worst of all worlds for them. It should mitigate, if not prevent, an overreaction from themselves and their fans, a miscalculation of just how far along they are in The Process. They are advancing — of that, there is no doubt — but the notion that they will take a great leap forward this season is no sure thing. It could happen, and it has happened, but the conditions don’t seem quite right just yet.
It happened, for instance, for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who in 2008-09 won 23 games and the next season won 50. In ’09-10, the Thunder’s two nascent superstars, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, were in their second and third NBA seasons, respectively. Their primes still well ahead of them, they’d still had more seasoning than Embiid, Simmons, or Fultz has now. That seasoning, that experience, matters. These Sixers need time to develop it, but it should be a hell of a ride along the way.
Hours before he scored 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and committed just one turnover in his first NBA game, Simmons said, “I’m trying not to make this bigger than it is.”
Wise words from the young man. Wise words.