Whenever the discussion has turned to Ben Simmons over the last six months, a sort of cool confidence seems to underlie the words of whatever member of the Sixers organization happens to be speaking. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that it suggests a sort of knowing, as if the person talking about Simmons is privy to some sort of inside information that all of us will come to acquire in due time. Just you wait and see, the tone says.
Take, for instance, a little remark Bryan Colangelo made on Wednesday afternoon during the opening stages of the Sixers’ annual media luncheon. The smooth-talking, tailor-made, wrinkle-free president had just endured a battery of questions regarding Joel Embiid that he either could not or would not answer with any degree of specificity, and now the talk turned to Simmons. Colangelo not only labeled the broken foot that sidelined the 2016 No. 1 overall draft pick for all of last season a non-issue, but he also went further.
“He’s playing five-on-five basketball,” he said, “and he’s dominating the gym right now.”
The conversation quickly moved on to other pressing matters, but the comment lingered. Colangelo is a guy who clearly likes to play things close to the (imported) vest. He volunteers concrete information as if every question is the early stage of a negotiation. And yet, there it was, this unsolicited pronouncement of dominance to a public that has already more or less accepted the fact that it will just have to wait and see what the Sixers have in Simmons.
He is a tantalizing player, and he has been ever since the Sixers drafted him. The combination of size, speed, strength and hops that he brings to the court makes him one of those rare athletes who might never reach his ceiling because he does not have one. But it’s the way the Sixers talk about him that really makes you wonder what they’ve seen over the last year in their gym.
“I’ve been lucky like Bryan has been lucky to be around some great players,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said, “and I think he’s got the real foundational pieces, and I don’t say this lightly, he’s got a real chance to be great.”
Simmons hasn’t played basketball in public in almost 13 months, and so for most of us he still exists largely as he did on draft night. But listen to Brown talk about the player he’s seen. When asked for a peek behind the curtain, Brown responded with a testimonial of 400-plus words.
“Let’s just talk about what we’ve seen in our own gym, and most of it is what you all have seen at LSU and in the limited summer-league action. Let’s first talk about with the ball: There is a vision line at 6-foot-10 that he has that T.J. [McConnell] doesn’t have … seeing things from that vision line and then having the intellect to see things a little bit quicker than others is a powerful combination as a basketball player. When I watch him, either in an open court or in a half-court situation, those two things immediately stand out and really make him an elite passer.
“When you talk about his sheer body, his sheer athleticism, there’s a breakaway speed that is jaw-dropping. When we look at our conditioning drills that go on in our gym and we watch him go from A to B, his first step-and-a-half, if you were to interview a world-class sprint coach, they would talk about that … Baseline to baseline, there’s a thing we’re referring to as ‘Bolt’ when we talk to Ben, where, you are Usain Bolt, and off you go. It’s jaw-dropping at times, his ability to cover ground.
“I think when you go to the defensive end, it’s where he’s going to make his biggest mark most immediately. I think right off the bat, he has a chance to be an elite defender, for some for the reasons I just said, mostly the physical side, the reaction side. There’s an Australian grunt in him, a grit — he was for sure raised in that country, you can see it. It doesn’t come out like it comes out with T.J., a sort of in-your-face type play, but I think he has a strong chance to be a multiposition elite defensive player, and when you kind of add all that up, it equals a modern-day player.
“We’re continuing to try to work on his shot; it’s not as critical right now as it probably is on everybody’s mind. We talked a lot about finishing at the rim: right hand, left hand, which hand do you use? We talk about becoming a 73 to 75 free-throw shooter at the start … and he definitely put in work with his perimeter game, but none of us should expect him to come out and start burying threes.”
The assumption in most parts is that the end result of the Sixers’ Process still hinges largely on the ability of Embiid to stay healthy. And maybe it does. But if Simmons optimizes his physical tool set and becomes the kind of player that Brown and Colangelo seem to envision, it could render a healthy Embiid a luxury. Given how little those of us outside the Sixers’ building have seen of Simmons, it is awfully difficult to envision the kind of player he will be in the NBA. Inside of those walls, though, something special seems to be emerging. Listening to the Sixers talk, it’s hard not to start counting down the days until the rest of the world gets a glimpse.