As a child, Ben Simmons had a poster of Allen Iverson hanging on his bedroom wall. This makes him like a lot of children. What makes him different are things like the one that occurred midway through the third quarter on Tuesday night.
The Sixers were clawing their way back from an early deficit and their 6-foot-10 rookie was in mid-air, having just released a one-handed turnaround shot. It was a good look, one that Simmons’ singular combination of size and ball-handling ability affords him, backing down a smaller defender and then elevating above him. But the pivotal thing happened the moment he landed, when he darted to his right and slipped around his defender. By the time the ball clanked softly off the front of the rim, Simmons was all by himself underneath the basket, elevating again for the easy put-back.
It was all for naught in the end, and that can’t be glossed over. The Sixers again had a chance against a potential playoff opponent, and they again came up short, a demise again mostly attributable to an inability to take care of the ball. The past three weeks had already seen two losses to Miami and another to Milwaukee and a combined 66 turnovers among them. This time it was the Pacers, and a 101-98 loss in which they gave the ball away 21 times.
They are a young team, and they play like it, in both the good and the bad. But like a lot of young things, it’s hard to stay mad at them for long. Pups sometimes make messes. There’s no sense in raging against nature.
The fact of the matter is that these Sixers are well ahead of where we thought they would be, and even losses like this can’t erase the positive things. Take Simmons, who finished the night with 10 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. It was his 65th game as a pro, and his seventh triple-double, giving him two more of those than any previous rookie at that juncture.
Before the game, Simmons was talking about a conversation he’d had with Iverson the previous night at the Sixers’ charity gala. The two have chatted periodically throughout the season, with Iverson most recently telling Simmons about the pregame nerves he experienced throughout his career. These are fascinating interactions when you think back to the era that Iverson jump-started as a rookie. Back then, he was the one doing things that only the all-time greats had done, joining Oscar Robinson as the only rookies to average 20-plus points and 7-plus assists. Now, it is Simmons, who is on pace to join Robinson and Magic Johnson as the only rookies to average 16-plus points, 7-plus rebounds, and 7-plus assists.
“It’s special to have him there and to be able to talk to him,” Simmons said. “That’s another point guard that can give me a lot of advice.”
He will only get better. There was a moment midway through the first quarter when a couple of Pacers defenders around the rim seemed resigned to a dunk or a layup as Simmons left his feet following a nifty fake crossover that opened up a clear path to drive. Instead, the rookie was looking to pass the whole way, barely glancing at the rim as he lifted off and turned his back and kicked out to a teammate for an open three. It wasn’t a horrible decision — the teammate, Robert Covington, is a 50-plus percent shooter on wide-open looks from deep — but Simmons finishing matters himself was the higher-percentage play. Or, at least, that will be the case someday, in some not-so-distant future where this 21-year-old has harnessed the true potential of his game.
The killer instinct is there. You saw it in the second quarter, after he sent Lance Stephenson crashing hard to the floor while contesting a layup attempt. The foul wasn’t dirty — Simmons was playing the ball the whole way — but he made no move to assure Stephenson of this. Instead of helping him up or pleading his case to the refs during the ensuing kerfuffle, a stone-faced Simmons just turned and walked away. Coincidence, perhaps, but the rest of the quarter belonged to the Sixers, with Simmons taking the ensuing inbounds and driving the lane, then bouncing a behind-the-back pass to Dario Saric on the baseline for an assist.
How far the Sixers go will depend in large part on how quickly Simmons can accelerate this team’s learning curve over the last month of the season. Not just him, of course. Joel Embiid’s eight turnovers were a big problem against the Pacers.
“You can’t expedite birth certificates,” coach Brett Brown said after the loss.
But you can project the adults they’ll become. Like Iverson and the era he spawned, it is hard not to feel good about the way this one is beginning.