The ball came off the rim, Ben Simmons grabbed it on defense and there was no hesitation. He turned and, in a blink, in less than that, in the time it took an onlooker to glance upcourt and see where he might pass, the ball and Simmons were suddenly at midcourt already and it was clear he wasn’t going to get rid of it until someone made him.
And who exactly would that be? Who is going to stay with a 6-foot-10 point guard whose strides eat up the court in huge gulps? Ben, who would that be?
“There’s not many people who can really guard me off the dribble the full length of the court,” he said. “It’s going to be a mismatch problem a lot of the time.”
Simmons isn’t bragging. He’s observing. NBA players are the elite of the elite, the best basketball players in the world. But few of them will be at his side when gets that rebound and then still be there when he reaches the other basket.
“Ben can play fast,” coach Brett Brown said.
That is the basis for the experiment of putting Simmons on the ball as the starting point guard for the 76ers. He is a big man who goes very fast. Other teams will have to figure out how to offset that dichotomy. Forget that the Sixers have options if the trial doesn’t work; like, for instance, the top pick in the draft, Markelle Fultz, who would be the starting point guard on nearly every other team in the league. The idea of what Simmons can uniquely bring to the position is what has put the ball in his hands as the Sixers prepare for the season.
It’s true that the names of positions don’t mean what they used to mean. In reality, there are bigs, wings and guards, and even those have become frequently interchangeable. Simmons is all three. He and Fultz will both be combination players, but, at least as things begin, Simmons will be the primary ballhandler. When you watch part of a training camp scrimmage, like the one that took place Wednesday at the Camden practice facility, there are moments when that seems so ridiculously obvious. Those moments when Simmons takes the ball off the rim and turns and the whole court is open to him.
Of course, there is going to be another team on the court very soon, and it won’t be a group of training-camp second-teamers. It will be another NBA team and it is very unlikely that the coach of that team will throw up his hands and say, “Well, there’s not much I can do about that.” Teams will try many things to turn around the mismatch of Ben Simmons until it boomerangs against the Sixers. Brown has spent a good portion of his summer trying to predict how opponents will respond, and he has some pretty good guesses, but only the season will give the answer.
“We spent the whole summer guessing how they’re going to play him, who’s going to play him and we have a belief how it will play out. We’ll learn for sure when we play Washington on opening night,” Brown said.
Brown suspects that teams might not even try to get in front of Simmons until he gets to the frontcourt. That makes sense since both teams will be “cross-matching” on the fly anyway; that is, the guy who Simmons guards will almost certainly not be the guy who guards Simmons at the other end.
“I think we’ll be ready for whether they don’t play him, but meet him and just sag all the way back. I’m calling upon my Tony Parker days and thinking about how we would guard [Rajon] Rondo,” Brown said. “Will it be another point guard guarding [Simmons], or like a big three or maybe a four? The league is so smart and well-coached, it’s just an evolution and we’ll keep seeing different ways teams try to guard him. I believe we’ll have answers. If they do something, then something else will be open and we’ll prepare with that in mind.”
The goal for opponents will be to stop the transition and get them into a half-court offense. The Sixers will have weapons there, too – particularly Joel Embiid – but then Simmons should cease to be much of a scoring factor. Until his shooting improves, he won’t be freed up by ball screens because his defender will be able to go under all of them. Simmons will be wide open for jump shots every time he gets the ball in the half-court offense, but taking them would be falling into the opponent’s game.
Slowing the transition game, however, will be a lot easier to set as a goal than to achieve. Ben Simmons is going to be a handful at the point.
“This feels normal to me. [Brown] is the first coach to give me the opportunity,” Simmons said. “He obviously sees something in me, and I believe in myself … I’ve been playing pretty well.”
Playing well against teammates is one thing. The real stuff arrives very soon, and opponents will do what they can to stop them. Watch him for a few minutes, though, and the temptation is to say he’s going to be more ready for them than they will be for him.