One of the most impressive plays Ben Simmons made was one that didn’t even show up in the box score. Five minutes into the Sixers’ preseason opener at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night, the 6-foot-10 point guard grabbed a Grizzlies miss off the front of the rim, turned upcourt, and spotted fellow rookie Markelle Fultz sprinting down the left sideline. Without even taking a dribble, Simmons lofted a two-handed chest pass that sailed from the elbow in his own end of the court, over three defenders and the center stripe, and hit Fultz in stride near the three-point line in the Sixers’ offensive end. There, Fultz took a dribble, spotted a wide-open Robert Covington arriving in transition in the far corner, and delivered a one-handed bounce pass that Covington stroked home for an easy three-pointer.
The sequence was one of many on the night that offered a glimpse of the promise that everybody from the oddsmakers in Las Vegas to the Sixers’ rabidly optimistic fan base have seen in them since the end of the offseason. Of course, those were counterbalanced by nearly as many cautionary moments, when the Sixers looked very much like a team with five starters who had never played together before and a 19-year-old shooting guard two years removed from high school. Which makes sense, because that is exactly where they are.
Figuring out a realistic set of expectations for this team is going to take a lot more than one preseason game in which two starters were making their NBA debuts. On Wednesday, they allowed Memphis to shoot 46.7 percent from the field, even with a 6-for-32 showing from downtown. Despite the absence of point guard Mike Conley, they struggled to prevent the Grizzlies from getting to the rim.
“The newness of all of this is real,” coach Brett Brown said before the game, “and you can’t fast forward any of it.”
With Simmons, the Sixers have a player who seems destined to become one of the most exciting players to watch in the league, a nightly matchup nightmare who spent most of his 22 minutes using his remarkable combination of size, quickness and ball-handling ability to penetrate the lane and create quality scoring opportunities. He was unable to finish at the rim on a couple of them, and he missed all four of the jumpers he attempted. But his 2-for-8 performance from the field was easy to overlook given how easy his performance made it to project his game into regular-season situations against regular-season competition. As of right now, we still don’t know what kind of player will be able to guard him.
The Grizzlies tried a handful of matchups, starting off with 6-foot-7 small forward James Ennis, then switching to athletic 6-foot-9 power forward JaMychal Green, before introducing 6-foot-5, 220-pound rookie guard Dillon Brooks into the mix. None seemed able to slow Simmons off the dribble, whether in transition or up top in a half-court set. At least four of his nine assists came after he beat a defender off the dribble and then found the open man. With a little more than two minutes left in the first half, he beat Brooks with his left, went up for a layup, spun away from the double team, and dropped a pass to Richaun Holmes for an open dunk.
— Marc Narducci (@sjnard) October 5, 2017
Simmons finished with seven assists, nine rebounds and six points in 21 minutes and 55 seconds of action. While he downplayed the significance of his debut in the days leading up to it, the rookie acknowledged after the 110-89 loss to the Grizzlies that it took him a little while to find his legs and catch his breath, given the adrenaline he was experiencing.
Fultz’s game left a lot more to the imagination. He shot just 2 for 13 from the field, finishing with four points, three assists and two turnovers in 22:44.
“I look at Ben Simmons and I look at Markelle, and I’m reminded of the year that Ben had with us,” Brown said, referring to the year Simmons spent recovering from the broken foot he suffered last year in training camp. “And it helps, the familiarity of the NBA, the familiarity of the program. I don’t see Ben like I see Markelle in relation to they both haven’t played any NBA games at all. I think Ben tonight you could see was an advanced rookie in my eyes.”
The greatest roadblock to projecting this team remains the uncertain health of the center. Joel Embiid was a familiar sight Wednesday night, sitting in street clothes on the bench. Brown sounds hopeful that it is only a matter of time before the big man is back in his rotation. But, once that happens, there’s the question of how long he lasts. Simmons alone makes this team interesting. At the moment, though, the Sixers are a long way from complete.