Why Ben Simmons, not Joel Embiid, is most vital to Sixers in NBA playoffs

Rookie
noun
An athlete playing in his or her
first season as a member of
a professional sports team.

Radical
adjective
Relating to or affecting the
fundamental nature of something.

It doesn’t matter what Utah Jazz first-year guard Donovan Mitchell, his sweatshirts, or anyone else says about who deserves the NBA’s rookie-of-the-year award.

No matter what your definition of rookie is, one thing is certain — the Sixers’ Ben Simmons will not be defined by his rookie season.

That’s what is so exciting for Simmons’ coach and teammates and so terrifying for his opponents. Simmons has the potential to be a player who forces radical change in the NBA.

The era of positionless basketball

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Simmons passes the ball against the Mavericks.

As early as December 2016, during Simmons’ season spent watching from the sidelines after being a No. 1 draft selection, Sixers coach Brett Brown was calling him a point guard. Even after the team drafted Markelle Fultz No. 1 overall in June, Brown doubled down, saying he expected Simmons to be the team’s primary ball-handler.

Immediately, there were concerns and questions coming from every corner of the NBA universe.

Can Simmons share the ball? Can he be a reliable playmaker? Does he have a jumper? Where will he go on defense?

Even Brown and Simmons questioned what was going to happen on the defensive end and what Simmons’ limitations would be.

All concerns started to fade once Simmons took the court. He:

  • Earned 12 triple-doubles in his rookie season.
  • Finished the season with 661 assists, the third-highest assist total in the league this season and 7th highest by an NBA rookie.
  • Racked up 140 steals, good for fifth in the league.
  • Tied for the 12th-best field-goal percentage in the league, making 54.5 percent of his shots.

The truth is that basketball is changing — it has been for a while — and Simmons is the most recent example that the traditional positions don’t apply anymore.

Simmons sets the tone and pace for the Sixers, initiates the offense, and scores at will without needing a long jumper. He does exactly what a modern point guard needs to.

Just as centers are no longer chained to the paint, point guards are not relegated to the perimeter. There is a reason that Simmons has drawn comparisons to Magic Johnson and LeBron James. When he’s bringing the ball up the floor, he doesn’t fit the mold that people are used to.

“He’s going to change the game,” T.J. McConnell says of Simmons. “He’s already a special player, and he’s only going to get better.”

Calm, cool, and cocky

Simmons expected his game to translate to the NBA and to be a leader of the team. He said as much in training camp before this season.

Simmons is a man of few words. That can come across as arrogance for those who aren’t around him every day. But, there is a large amount of truth and selflessness in Simmons’ short answers.

He knows he is good but acknowledges that his stat lines mean nothing when the team doesn’t win. Simmons knows that he is breaking records, but he has larger ambitions than being a record setter.

Ben Simmons since March 12
Averaged a triple-double of 13.8 points, 10.4 assists, and 10.0 rebounds per game.
Shot 58 percent from the field.
170 rebounds — NBA rank: 8th.
176 assists — NBA rank: 1st.
30 steals — NBA rank: 7th.
One of only three players to average at least 10 pts., 5 ast., 5 reb. per game in less than 31 minutes. (Draymond Green, Tyreke Evans are the others.)
 Eastern Conference Rookie of the month for games played in March and April.

Simmons wants to win. It’s the one thing he repeats, and it’s what makes him the consummate teammate. He is rarely rattled, never admits to fatigue, and doesn’t seem to care what anybody outside his team says.

How opposing teams will defend Simmons is a much-talked-about topic heading into the playoffs, but Simmons is not worried. It doesn’t matter when teams sag off him, knowing that he won’t shoot more than a midrange jumper — that just allows him to gain speed on his way to the basket.

“I can get to the rim easier,” Simmons said.

With a shrug, and calm as ever, he added that he will be prepared for anything the opponents throw at him.

“I’ve seen it all this season. I’ve seen guys pick me up full-court and sag off me in the paint. … Whatever I see out there, I’ll work on and have something for it.”​

The future

Camera icon STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Simmons drives on Hornets Dwight Howard and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

For the regular season, Simmons averaged 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game.

His size, athleticism, ability, and understanding of the game can cloud the fact that he has only 81 NBA games under his belt. What he’s accomplished in his first season makes McConnell’s assertion ring even more true. He’s only going to get better.

That’s the reason Simmons’ rookie season will not define him. No matter what end-of-year honors he receives, Simmons’ career has just started.

Every coach who has come into the Wells Fargo Center has been asked how a player such as Simmons can be defended, and they have said the same thing: there is no one way. Most coaches say it has to be defense by committee. Some coaches just hope Simmons can be limited for small stretches, knowing that he can’t be stopped for good.

He’s already stepped up in the absence of injured center Joel Embiid, and on the eve of his first shot at the playoffs, chances are he isn’t going to slow down.

Simmons is redefining what it means to be a point guard and what it takes to guard the position. He is the kind of player who has the potential to not just be rookie of the year but league MVP. He won’t be defined by a single season, but by a trendsetting career.