Somebody asked J.J. Redick on Monday afternoon if his experience playing with former Clippers teammate Blake Griffin would help him get acclimated to playing with new Sixers teammate Ben Simmons. The questioner’s intent was not to compare the two players overall skill level, but, rather, their styles of play: athletic big men, capable passers, etc. So the thinking went.
However legitimate the query, Redick’s response was a good reminder that, to a relative newcomer, the groupthink that has seized the local populous regarding this Sixers squad can seem a tad optimistic. Or, at least, premature.
“Ben has yet to acclimate,” Redick said. “He hasn’t played a game yet.”
Redick didn’t sound as if he was being derisive. He was simply stating a fact that can sometimes get lost in the effusive sense of anticipation with which the team and its fan base are approaching the upcoming season.
That anticipation seems much more grounded inside the building than it is out there in Processland. Veterans like Redick, fellow newcomer Amir Johnson and incumbent guard Jerryd Bayless are already sounding like the steadying influences the Sixers hope they will be on a team fronted by three players who have combined to play a total of 31 NBA games in their careers. While Simmons, Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz did not shy away from the word “playoffs” during Monday’s media festivities at team headquarters, the older heads approached the topic with plenty of veteran guile.
“I always tell guys,” Johnson said, “it’s so, so hard to win in this league.”
Yet the expectations already say that the Sixers will win. Part of that stems from the elite play we saw out of Embiid during the 31 games he squeezed in before succumbing to a knee injury last season. It sounds silly to say that the numbers don’t do justice to a guy who averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game in just 25.4 minutes while shooting .367 from three-point range. But as ridiculous as those numbers are, they don’t begin to tell the tale of his impact on the game.
Simmons is the other significant piece that people are penciling in for a court-defining impact. The player himself seems to agree with those expectations. Asked about Bryan Colangelo’s recent characterization that he was spending his summer “dominating the court” during pickup games at the training facility, Simmons essentially shrugged and said he agreed with his boss’ assessment.
“Compared to last year, I’m a much better player,” Simmons said. “It’s not even close.”
In what areas has he progressed the most?
His jump shot?
“Everything,” he said, delivering the one-word answer before the question had even finished being asked.
Simmons indicated that Brett Brown’s decision to use him as the team’s primary ballhandler was a move that he has yearned for at previous stops in his career, and that he will have the advantage on any defender he faces.
“I mean, he’s the first coach to finally give me the opportunity, so he obviously sees something in me,” Simmons said. “I believe in myself. I believe I can do it. There’s not really many people who can really guard me off the dribble the full length of the court. There’s going to be a mismatch problem a lot of the time.”
While Fultz carries himself with a deferential air, Simmons seems intent on making the Sixers his team. He said that the year he spent recovering from the broken right foot he suffered last training camp allowed him to do some soul-searching.
“Just learning a lot about who I am as a leader, as a teammate, as a friend, player, just everything, he said. “There’s potential to be a great leader, and I believe that. It’s not an easy thing to say to someone, but I believe that I can lead this team even if I’m one of the youngest guys on the team.
“You have to be open, you have to listen to your teammates, but you also have to be willing to address somebody if things aren’t going the right way, or your way, or the team’s way, but you have to put the team first, and that’s what I’m going to do this season.”
How Simmons manages to coexist with Embiid is one of those underrated storylines heading into the season. He will be inserting himself into a team that developed a palpable sense of chemistry last season, its identity developing around the emotion and style of play of guys like Embiid and point guard T.J. McConnell. The Sixers will gladly suffer through the growing pains if it means both of their stars are healthy. But Simmons will bring a different personality and skill set into the fold, and, as Redick said, none of us really know how either will express themselves.
“I don’t know who Ben is as a player,” Redick said. “I don’t think anybody in this room does. No. 1, he hasn’t played a game yet. No. 2, he’s young enough where he’s still figuring it out himself. But he’s going to be a great player. I mean, a great player. I love what I’ve seen so far, and I’m really looking forward to playing with him.”