These are uncharted days for Australians in the NBA. Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills are integral parts of contending franchises. Joe Ingles and Aron Baynes are the veteran presence on budding starlets, while Dante Exum is a next generation point guard with untapped potential.
With every successful foray into America, the collective profile of Australian basketball rises. On a macro level, we have witnessed Australians claim an NBA championship ring in each of the past three seasons, seen a Basketball Without Borders Asia camp take place in Victoria and seen Australia become the number one League Pass market outside of North America.
Our Australians playing in the NBA have become cultural icons, and the popularity of the sport is continually rising. A rising tide lifts all boats.
But where does Ben Simmons fit in? How will this 20-year-old phenom impact the Australian basketball ecosystem?
On talent alone, Simmons is a near lock to become Australia’s next basketball great. I’m not telling you anything new here - everyone agrees on this. Whether it be Andrew Bogut, ESPN’s scouting guru David Thorpe or any other so-called expert, opinions are in unison. Should Simmons develop into the basketball player his talents predict, we will witness a new form of superstar from down under.
The more fascinating question is how his impending stardom will be received back home. In the first instance, Simmons will be adored. This much is guaranteed. Any Australian who challenges the norms on a global stage earns this treatment. But will it last? Is Australia ready for an NBA superstar who doesn’t play by the mainstream public rules?
Simmons has been ‘Americanised’ in his quest for the NBA, and herein lays the difference to those who came before him. He isn’t the first local star to play college ball and be touted as a top draft pick; Bogut did exactly the same. But the hype train with Simmons is significantly greater.
Simmons was globally famous before he even played a college game. He was a presence on the American AAU circuit, was the number one college recruit in 2015 and as we all know, taken number one by Philadelphia in the recent NBA Draft. In other words, Simmons is world famous, not just Australian famous. And there is a massive difference.
Mills, Dellavedova and Ingles are great local stories, but if we are all sedated under truth serum, we don’t expect too much from them on the court. Simply contributing in the NBA is enough for us.
And that’s not to diminish their achievements. Playing in the world’s best league, making millions of dollars and being among the top 400 basketball players alive is an amazing feat. But we accept the successes and ignore their shortcomings within an NBA context.
We don’t expect them to win Rookie of the Year. We don’t expect All-Star appearances. It might be blasphemy, but we are not expecting them to beat the USA soundly, and lead Australia to an Olympic gold medal on the collective backs of their greatness.
As Winston wrote back in June, those who came before Simmons are akin to that trustworthy family sedan we all love. Or to put it another way, the likes of Ingles and Dellavedova are the safe, serviceable, reliable athletes Australia has adored since Captain Cook discovered our southern land.
But their days as Australia’s go-to NBA representatives are over. Ben Simmons is the new face of Australian basketball. The collective may not know it yet, but the scene is changing. It will only take a one highlight dunk or jaw-dropping dime in November for everything to change.
And yes, I understand the absurdity of saying that about someone we haven’t seen compete on the NBA level. It adds to expectations that are likely unfair, but what are sports without hype? It’s more fun to create the legend and grow with it. Better to become emotionally invested from jump street and ride the wave.
The question isn’t actually whether Ben Simmons is ready to be the face of Australian basketball, but rather: are we are ready for Ben Simmons, the Australian basketball star who can become our first great NBA athlete?
I might be too harsh a judge of Simmons, but his basketball pedigree cannot be underestimated, and with this talent come expectations. Matthew Dellavedova going missing in the NBA Finals doesn’t matter because he is an Aussie battler. I doubt Simmons will be afforded such luxury from the wider NBA community.
This leads into another harsh reality of life for Simmons: criticism is coming his way. Being the number one overall draft pick guarantees this, and it will only increase with every success.
Anthony Bennett was the biggest bust of all time and he copped it. LeBron James has arguably become the second best player of all time and still gets criticised for the one percent of things he doesn’t do well. Go figure?
How will we react when Ben Simmons is publicly berated by the likes of Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith? Aw wait… that already happened.
Simmons is aiming to become a global face of basketball, not just local basketball. He may be Australian, but he is more LeBron James than he is Matthew Dellavedova.
Speaking of James, it seems apt that Simmons has gravitated towards a man once dubbed ‘The Chosen One’. The on court comparisons are easy and obvious. Both entered the league as playmaking wings, with a jack-of-all-trades skill set accompanying a shaky jump shot.
But off-court, the influence of James is even more striking.
Signing with James’s talent agency Klutch Sports was the first step in a budding basketball apprenticeship. This was followed by a big money shoe deal with Nike, the same company who services James, and a refusal to work out for anybody prior to the NBA Draft - a power move straight out of LeBron’s playbook.
Simmons is rightfully following the path of a basketball colossus, it just happens to be a path foreign to his compatriots. By simply being the first transcendent Australia talent in this millennial generation, Simmons is breaking the mould. Just as James did fifteen years ago, albeit in a different context.
Our Australians competing in the NBA have garnered public attention by personifying Australian sporting ideals. Namely, hustling harder than anyone, playing smart defense and being selfless team contributors. Take Delly for example, those three traits embody his NBA career and define how we perceive his journey.
LeBron James does all this on the basketball court. But they are reasons 27, 28 and 29 why he is a superstar. They are footnotes to his greatness, not foundational items that define his legacy. James is defined by his championships, his MVPs, his brand, his image and a quest to become the twenty-first century’s maiden billion-dollar athlete, things no previous Australian athlete could even dream of.
All of this isn’t to say Ben Simmons is the next LeBron James, that would be insanely unfair. There will never be another LeBron James, on or off the court.
But the point remains, Simmons will be measured on a sliding scale that goes beyond any other Australian athlete before him. The happy medium for success lies somewhere between Dellavedova and James, although it probably sits much closer to the King than our little warrior Delly.
The American media won’t pass off Simmons’ failures as expected flaws from an international athlete. No, they will expect him to be an NBA superstar and anything short of this will attract criticism.
I don’t necessarily agree with the vicious American media cycle, but it’s an unwavering reality of the NBA. Avid followers of the league know all about it, but what about those on the fringes?
If you’re reading this, you likely know all about Ben Simmons, but what about your friends? What about work colleagues who ask benign basketball questions every April when the playoffs begin?
Do they understand the nature of this sport? How will they react when some talking head with an American accent is spewing hyperbole about Australia’s next great sporting prodigy?
Is Australia ready for this criticism? How will we react? Will we follow suit? It will be an interesting social experiment as we find out.