Ben Simmons is not your typical rookie.
The Australian entered the NBA equipped with extreme basketball intelligence. He is a natural ball handler playing with extravagant size. He possesses otherworldly speed and athleticism, defensive instincts and can control tempo like a seasoned veteran. These are just some of the natural gifts that make Simmons a generational talent.
As Simmons entered his rookie campaign there was one more advantage that had nothing to do with his freakish talents. It was a necessity borne out of raging disappointment. A maiden NBA season spent on the sidelines, akin to a professional redshirt season.
Simmons was forced to sit idle and powerlessly watch his Philadelphia 76ers trudge through another losing season. A broken fifth metatarsal in his right foot dictated as much. See, Simmons was in the NBA, but he wasn’t yet an NBA player. He was receiving millions in the form of an NBA salary, despite being denied access to the hardwood.
The daily ritual of morning workouts provided a brief respite, before the reality of a season long rehabilitation kicked in. It was then back to his high-rise apartment, his devices and his social media outlets. There was no actual basketball in year one. While Simmons’ professional debut would be delayed twelve months, his basketball apprenticeship was afforded time to blossom.
“Sitting out a whole year gave me a chance to really take a step back and look at the game,” Simmons explained over Summer League. “To make sure I was focusing on the right things. And then, obviously, my body and taking care of my body and just continuing to work.”
Simmons had a year to learn the ways of the NBA. He had time to acclimatise to Philadelphia and everything such a crazy sports city brings. Yet perhaps most importantly of all, the 76ers coaching staff had the latitude to consider how best to deploy their Australian phenom.
The injury afforded Brett Brown time to ponder; time to consider, reconsider and ultimately commit to growing Simmons as a point guard. “I have a vision that I want to pursue with him [Simmons] as a point guard,” Brown said back in April. What followed was a robust educational program for someone who resented the NCAA, the very institution charged with providing such a thing.
Brown and Simmons would meet regularly in the coach’s office. They would watch highlights of Magic Johnson and LeBron James, two Hall of Fame legends who possessed Simmons’ cocktail of size and passing ability. This was a pledge to develop a millennial reboot of Magic in LeBron’s positionless NBA.
Here is how Lee Jenkins described Brown’s tutelage in his profile of Simmons from November.
“Here’s the play,” Brown would start. “What do you see? Why do you see that? Well, what read would you make? If they hedge in this pick-and-roll, tell me what’s open. Tell me why.” When they finished talking, Brown sent Simmons to the grease board. “Draw this play,” he’d say clasping his hands. “And this,” brushing his shoulder. They juxtaposed James’s Finals cut-ups with Simmons’s Montverde clips.
Simmons would commence his PhD at running the point. During away games, Simmons even had his homework assignments. Brown asked Simmons to watch intently and text observations after every half. This was a living, breathing representation of how the 76ers’ latest high-end draft pick was learning.
Fast-forward twelve months and Simmons is the toast of the NBA. A rookie phenom who started his career in a manner not emulated since Oscar Robinson. A likely All-Star after a handful of games. Simmons is in unchartered territory. He isn’t just collecting useless statistics and compiling a statistical resume. No, he is contributing across every aspect of basketball for the 76ers.
Simmons is third among rookies in scoring (16.9 points per game), but leads all rookies in rebounds (8.4), assists (7.5), steals (1.9) and minutes (35.5). He is already a plus defender – a rare feet for any NBA debutant - and is providing two way play more potent than any rookie since Tim Duncan.
Simmons entered the 2016 NBA Draft an elite talent. He was 6’10” and handled the basketball like a point guard. Prospects like this don’t come around often. And despite not playing a single minute of competitive basketball in almost 18 months, he entered the 2017 season more lethal than ever, with a pronounced advantage over every other rookie. Simmons remains the runaway leader for Rookie of the Year honours.
Donovan Mitchell has put forth a stellar campaign and is one impressive rookie. But he isn’t Ben Simmons. Mitchel has worked himself into the Rookie of the Year discussion only because the Australian has ascended above it. Quantitatively there is no debate.
If Mitchell can get the discussion close enough then he may be seen in some quarters as the best ‘pure’ rookie. This could persuade certain voters, although it’s unlikely such a sentiment would prevent Simmons from becoming the first Australian to receive an NBA Award. Simmons enjoyed the benefits of a redshirt season, but he is a rookie nonetheless. History is also on his side when it comes to the current award races.
Blake Griffin, the last number one overall pick to redshirt his entire rookie season, was unanimously chosen as Rookie of the Year in 2011. Just like Simmons, Griffin’s all-around dominance was simply a level above all other rookies.
Griffin was also the last rookie to make the All-Star game, a feat that Simmons is working towards during his maiden NBA campaign. Questions of whether the Australian can actually make All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles have been answered in the affirmative. He is performing at the level required. A vigorous Twitter campaign, one that stretches from Philadelphia to Melbourne, is now underway to crown Australia’s first All-Star.
Whether Simmons actually benefited from a year of learning and watching – something Kevin Pelton attempted to explore using his advanced analytics - is up for debate. Naturally, there is no alternative for comparison. Would Simmons have been just as dominant making his debut last season? We will never know.
One thing is undeniable, however, and that is the fact Simmons’ redshirt season made him more prepared for life in the NBA. “I’ve learnt a lot more with this [first] year in Philly and being a professional, than I did at LSU.” This is how Simmons described his first year in Philadelphia during an interview with Maverick Carter, simultaneously praising his new surroundings and slamming the NCAA with that familiar tone seen in One & Done.
Simmons went onto explain the lessons learnt with taking care of his body. The challenge of replacing financial advisors and securing his wealth. He has spoken ad nauseam on the time taken to adjust to living the lifestyle of an NBA player. These are the intrinsic benefits of a redshirt season. They go beyond reading an opposition defense or containing a pick-and-roll ball handler; they cover the routine adjustment period undertaken without the rigors of daily basketball.
On the court, he is a special case. Simmons is a stupendous athlete who would have exceled with or without the year off. To what extent is simply a debate in semantics. In fact, the fanfare concerning his debut would have likely been larger had it occurred last season. With Malcolm Brogdon leading a much weaker rookie class, Simmons’ output would have been more of an outlier.
While there is no ‘correct’ answer to the watch versus play debate, the incredible start to Simmons’ career adds to the legitimacy of redshirting an NBA season. Time away from the spotlight afforded an opportunity to truly understand life in the NBA and work on his weaknesses without the grind of an NBA regular season.
It would be absurd to argue Simmons’s redshirt season is the sole reason for his All-Star calibre introduction. Natural talent can take the credit here. Then again, it would be negligent to completely discredit the benefit of working through teething issues away from the spotlight.
Thon Maker’s NBA career is, in many ways, the exact opposite to that of Simmons’. The Sudanese-born Australian was a raw prospect when drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks. He was thrown into NBA games during his rookie season, at a time when it was fair to ask whether he was ready for the challenge. Those questions remain valid today.
We have seen Maker’s confidence wain in the face of a prolonged shooting slump. We have seen regular errors on the defensive end as schematic rotations elude him. And we have seen him physically bullied by a plethora of opposition big men over the course of two seasons in the NBA.
That’s not to say Maker has been a write off. There have been glimpses of a modern day Kevin Garnett spurting from his seven foot frame. Although these remain infrequent and he continues to be a net negative for the Bucks. Maker’s development is still lagging behind his physical gifts and learning time is a much needed accelerant. This then begs the question: would Maker have benefited from a year on the sidelines where his sole focus was education?
It must be said that Simmons is a much better prospect than Maker, meaning it is somewhat unfair to compare their respective performances. The juxtaposition of their careers however, is an interesting case study in professional development. One was forced to sit and watch when he was evidently ready for the NBA, while the other was thrown into the lion’s den without any significant basketball experience.
Blessing in disguise is too rosy a descriptor for what deprived Simmons of an NBA debut, although time spent within the NBA system appears fruitful. He is destined to claim more individual accolades than any other rookie this decade. Most important of all, he is leading Philadelphia’s march back into the playoffs. His year away from basketball was not planned, but it is virtually impossible to argue against the results that have followed.