Ben Simmons is going to become Australia’s first NBA All-Star.
After just nine games and 317 minutes of playing time, making such a bold proclamation already feels appropriate.
Simmons looks like the queen of the chessboard; a generational talent who excels at almost every aspect of basketball. This was the elevator pitch for Simmons enthusiasts entering the 2016 Draft, and early returns validate the hype. His statistical averages through nine games – 18 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.2 assists in 35.2 minutes - are unmatched. Not just by NBA rookies, but the entirety of the NBA.
Since 1983, only four players – LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Russell Westbrook and Fat Lever - have ever averaged 15 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists over their first nine games of a season.
Simmons is performing like an elite NBA creator, with extreme basketball intelligence and defensive versatility to boot. His on-court relationship with Joel Embiid is blossoming, and the potential of their two-man game is limitless. His defence, something that was much maligned whilst at LSU, has been better than expected. Simply put, Simmons’ early output belies his standing in the league.
John Wooden’s mantra of “be quick, but don’t hurry” is a fitting describing of Simmons. His otherworldly speed and athleticism has translated to the NBA. He plays fast, is always looking for early offence, but he is rarely panicked. That is a trait reserved for the historically great. Simmons looks at home in the NBA. He is ahead of the curve and things will only get easier once repetition comes and the game slows down. That is truly a frightening thought given what we have seen to date.
The Australian is putting up rookie stat lines that can only be matched by Magic and Oscar Robertson. Yes, those of the Hall of Fame career variety. It’s only early, and small sample size theatre can rightfully be used to explain away some of this statistical dominance, but the scary thing is this: Simmons’ output not only feels sustainable, it seems like the tip of the iceberg. With each passing game, there are signs of improvement across every aspect of his performance.
Simmons already has Rookie of the Year honours on lock-down. It almost seems unfair for this rookie class, one that appears stacked with talent, to be compared with the Melbourne native. The likes of Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball and Dennis Smith Jr. might be good rookies, but Simmons is on track to become a historically great one.
Barring an injury setback (**knock on wood**), the Rookie of the Year debate is over. The award belongs to Simmons. He is already playing like an All-Star. Not someone who could or should be an All-Star, but someone who is an All-Star. No other rookie can match that.
This then begs the question of whether he can make the All-Star game in his rookie season. There has been some scuttlebutt on the topic, and it should now be brought into focus. Simmons has the talent to do so, and his counting stats scream of someone who belongs on the NBA’s grandest stage. But can he actually make the team in year one? Here are some important questions that will decide his All-Star fate.
Can a rookie make the All-Star team?
Yes. Blake Griffin was the last rookie to earn All-Star honours in 2011. Just like Simmons, he had the misfortune of sitting out his first season in the Association, before exploding with a debut season for the ages.
In total, 45 rookies have made the All-Star team. While this number may seem high, it has become an extremely rare feat. Griffin and Yao Ming are the only rookies to play in the NBA’s showcase game this century.
Rookie All-Stars were more frequent in the NBA’s early days. Players entered the league with multiple years of college basketball under their belt, making them more equipped for success than today’s ‘one and done’ generation. There were also fewer teams and the talent pool was smaller. If you’re interested, Bleacher Report conducted a detailed analysis of rookie All-Stars on a decade by decade basis
What is the All-Star selection process?
The NBA announced sweeping changes to the All-Star game format in October, with new rules being implemented for the 2018 game in Los Angeles.
Under the renovated system, the leading vote getter in each conference will be nominated as a team captain, before selecting their teams in a special draft. This new structure replaces the long used Eastern Conference versus Western Conference arrangement. While the format of the actual game has changed, the voting process remains the same as last season. Each conference will still elect 12 All-Stars.
Five players from each conference (two guards and three frontcourt players) will be selected from the initial voting process - chosen by a combination of votes from fans (50 percent of the vote), current players (25 percent) and basketball media (25 percent). NBA head coaches will then select seven reserves from each conference; electing two guards, three frontcourt players and two wildcard players across any position.
What does this mean for Simmons?
Labelling Simmons, for All-Star purposes, could prove challenging. He’s played almost exclusively as a point guard on offence, whilst gravitating between opposition guards and forwards on the defensive end.
For all intents and purposes, he is the 76ers’ point guard and should be assessed accordingly. Whether the NBA community recognises him as one, however, is up for debate. There may be a reluctance to identify a near seven footer as a guard.
Positional labels are slowly eroding, but the idea of someone with Simmons’ physical gifts being officially rewarded at the guard position goes against the status quo. Established ‘point forward’ mavens Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James have been nominated as forwards in every NBA award ballot during their respective careers.
It must be noted that Simmons has aggressively chased the label of ‘point guard’. The 76ers are doing their part and announcing him as their starter at the position, with J.J. Redick – the very personification of a shooting guard – being labelled a forward to make the line-up gymnastics work. Expect a strong social media campaign from the Bryan Colangelo led 76ers in support of Simmons’ candidacy as a guard.
Ultimately, the flexibility of the All-Star voting system will work in Simmons’ favour. He can be shoehorned in to whatever position fits. Selecting Simmons as one of the two wildcards would eliminate the need to even have this debate.
So can Simmons actually make the team?
Let’s start by looking back at the 2017 Eastern Conference All-Star roster. Here are the 12 names selected to represent the East in New Orleans earlier this year.
Starters: Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler
Reserves: John Wall, Kemba Walker, Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap, Paul George and Kevin Love (Carmelo Anthony was an injury replacement for Love)
Of that list, six names are perennial All-Stars talents that will assuredly make the team again this year. Go ahead and pencil Irving, DeRozan, James, Antetokounmpo, Wall and Lowry down for the festivities in Los Angeles.
On pure talent alone, Love should also be considered a lock to make the team, although this hasn’t been the case during his time as a Cavalier. The UCLA product has only been selected once since leaving Minnesota. He could be overlooked if the Cavaliers continue to struggle.
Walker enjoyed a career season in 2016/17 and rightfully netted his maiden All-Star birth. That said, and with all due respect, his selection was more a comment on the watered down Eastern Conference than his superstardom. Simmons may already be a better all around player than the Hornets point guard.
Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Paul Millsap and Carmelo Anthony now play in the Western Conference. They are out of the equation. Isaiah Thomas will miss (at least) the first two months of the season and can be eliminated because of unavailability.
That leaves four, and potentially six, All-Star births available for players who didn’t make the squad last season.
Who is competition for Simmons?
Most teams will play approximately 45 games before the full All-Star rosters are announced on 23 January. Somewhat remarkably, we now have 20 percent of each player’s All-Star resume. While it is still extremely early, here are some names that could challenge Simmons for a place in Los Angeles:
Incumbents: Love and Walker
Guards: Bradley Beal, Victor Oladipo and Reggie Jackson
Frontcourt: Al Horford, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Aaron Gordon and Andre Drummond
Within the six names we stated are locks to make the Eastern Conference roster, there are four guards and two forwards. That leaves room for four forwards and two wildcard selections. Recognising Simmons as a guard will reduce the All-Star positions available to him.
Simmons will put up bigger stats than many names listed above. The debate would be easier if it was a pure numbers game. As the season draws on, team success and media narrative will drive the selection of those on the fringes. The narrative behind Simmons is intriguing and should be helpful; after all, he is a seven-foot maestro putting up numbers not seen since Magic, he is trying to become the first Australian to make the event, and he is making the 76ers relevant again. What is not to love?
What about Joel Embiid?
The best argument against Simmons making the team is that his teammate beats him to it. If Embiid is healthy through January, he is almost assured an All-Star birth. He has the following, the name recognition and the cache that excels within an All-Star setting.
Embiid was one of the most gifted and prolific rookies in NBA history last season, but that production wasn’t enough to get him onto the 2017 All-Star team. Despite receiving the third most fan votes among Eastern Conference frontcourt players, Embiid only finished fifth in the media vote and eighth in the player vote. It’s highly likely the media and players show The Process more respect this season.
For as good as Simmons has been, Embiid might be even better. According to NBA.Com’s On/Off Court statistics, Philadelphia’s net rating jumps 20.1 points when Embiid is on the floor. That’s an absurd figure. The 76ers’ net rating is 8.4 points better with Simmons in the game, still an outstanding account, but this is dwarfed by Embiid.
If it ever came down to a choice between Simmons and Embiid, expect Embiid to come out on top. In general terms, a previous snub will receive preference over an up and coming starlet. And if the 76ers struggle, it could be hard justifying two All-Star births.
What will it take for Simmons to make it?
The simple answer is more of the same. If Simmons maintains his statistical output and the 76ers are in the playoff mix through January, he will be deserving of a spot. Then it will be up to the vote.
The stigma of electing a rookie to the NBA’s marquee weekend may prevent some within the industry from recognising Simmons-- especially given his selection would come at the expense of a veteran player. That said, the Australian is enjoying the start of a campaign that will be hard to ignore. Simmons is a dominant force helping drive the turnaround of a dormant franchise. In the process, he is stuffing the stat sheet and that places history on his side.
According to Basketball Reference, there have been 35 instances where a player averaged 15 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists over the course of an entire NBA season. Only twice did the player not make the All-Star team. Continuing the historical dominance will make Simmons hard to ignore.
While it’s impossible to account for injuries and predict what the NBA will look like come January, here is a plausible prediction of how the Eastern Conference All-Star roster could shake out.
Guards: Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, John Wall and Kyle Lowry
Frontcourt: LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Al Horford, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis and Kevin Love
Wildcards: Ben Simmons and Bradley Beal
Receiving Rookie of the Year is the baseline for Simmons’s season. Making the All-Star team and leading the 76ers to the playoffs are the next goals within his reach. That’s an extremely high standard, and maybe an impossible one, but it is the ultimate sign of respect for Simmons.
Australia’s basketball phenom has arrived, and he is better than anyone could have expected. A maiden All-Star appearance, both for Simmons and his country, could be just months away.
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