Is that fair enough? Ben Simmons and the question of judgement

It’s time we thought about judging Ben Simmons, for the player he is.

In February this year Simmons took to the hardwood in Charlotte, North Carolina as Australia’s first ever representative at an NBA All-Star game. In the euphoria of that historic moment, he set in stone the standards the basketball community can now fairly measure him against.

With the title of All-Star comes the burden of expectations. Before his selection, Simmons was often measured in comparison to players from his rookie class, young stars like Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum. While he will always be tied to his 2018 rookie classmates, his fellow All-Stars are his peers moving forward.

After two years in the NBA, the sun is setting on Simmons’ honeymoon period. With the title of All-Star now emblazoned on his resume, the clock has struck midnight on his ability to drift through the league on talent and sky-high potential.

However, this isn’t a green light for the critics of Simmons, who have been sharpening their knives for the past two years, to pile on the 22-year-old. It would be very wrong to interpret this as a war cry.

Let's be honest: like many other professional, highly-paid athletes, players in the NBA are subject to constant scrutiny. The media spotlight swivels from the highest of praise, to the harshest critique. Since his ascendance onto the international stage, Ben Simmons has had to endure his fair share of commentary, both fair and foul.

The battle over Simmons’ basketball soul has sometimes been cartoonish in its polarisation. His fanatical detractors have bayed for his blood over every imperfection. Equally zealous defenders wrap him in cotton wool, with their own heads buried in the sand, seemingly deaf to the constructive criticism that sometimes escape the white noise.

Simmons' work ethic has been questioned. Likewise, his temperament, his lack of a jump shot and seeming unwillingness to get one. Every shred of his being has been picked apart and dissected, without a guiding light to pierce the fog. This confusion over how one fairly judges Simmons has come from the lack of a clear standard of measurement, that goes right back to his earliest moments on an NBA court.

In his first year of playing NBA basketball after redshirting the 2016/17 season, the LSU alumni set the NBA on fire. He was rough around the edges, but seemed readymade for the speed and physicality of the competition. As the season progressed, confusion swirled around whether or not he was a real rookie, and if he deserved to be judged as a rookie, or instead as a sophomore who had the benefit of acclimatising himself to the NBA environment.

Winning the Rookie of the Year award only seemed to make the question of judging Simmons even more difficult to answer.

Part of this dilemma stems from the fact that Simmons is an inherently enigmatic and mysterious basketball persona. He plays the modern point guard position, but instead resembles the old school point guards that balled out in the ’70s and ’80s, compared to the fearless jump shooters of the modern era.

Ben Simmons has the physique of a power forward, but plays the role of a guard. He seems to prefer his right hand at certain spots, others his left. He embodies an unstoppable animalistic force, but looks disengaged at moments. He looks like he should belong to the next wave of elite NBA talent, but appears worryingly limited in his ability to impact a game on occasion. Since his debut on the Philadelphia 76ers, the team has had two deep playoff runs spearheaded by the young Australian, following years of deliberate mediocrity.

It is at the tail end of the season, when the playoffs arrive, that his limitations cast their longest shadows.

Simmons is a confusing and sometimes contradictory puzzle, and in many ways has become another personification of the issue of how we judge young professional athletes. He has become so good so early and has achieved success in ways we rarely see from sports figures his age, that it’s possible he sits upon a pedestal prematurely.

For those of us from Australia, the question of how we could judge Simmons is particularly challenging and conflicting. The Melbournian superstar has in a way, become our sacred cow. There is an instinct to defend him from harm, in a way that is completely understandable. Simmons has become the poster boy of Australia’s headlong charge onto the world stage. It’s as if all our hopes and dreams are bundled up in this 6 foot 10 inch young man, who was born in Fitzroy, Victoria. At times, there is a slight collective whiff of an overprotective parent in the air.

What remains a fact is this; whether we or like it or not, Simmons has rounded a corner he can’t come back from. He is an All-Star, and he should now be judged according to All-Star standards. The big names that Simmons is compared to, superstars like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, work on their craft like true All-Stars. The holes in Simmons’ game that he has been lambasted over, need to be rigorously addressed at practice and put into effect on the playing court.

Most urgently, we need to see the beginnings of a jump shot and a capacity to stretch the defence with his scoring. This deficiency has long been the monkey on his back, and in back-to-back playoff runs has been exposed as a major Achilles heel. It has been the major factor holding him back from truly dominating.

In his rookie season, the average distance from the basket of his shots was 5.5 feet. The following season the distance shrank to 4.1 feet. It doesn't take an analytical genius to notice the numbers are going in the wrong direction. The numbers show a player getting set in his ways rather spreading his wings, getting comfortable rather than testing new waters.

The 2019 FIBA World Cup tips off this August in China, and Simmons will be leading the Australian campaign. It will be a chance for Simmons to (hopefully) preview the fruits of his off-court labour to the world, without the weight and baggage of the Philadelphia uniform on his back and the glare of the NBA media. The World Cup is Simmons' chance to step outside his comfort zone in a way the pressure cooker environment of the NBA might have been inhibiting. It's his chance to be bolder and take more risks with his game.

It would be absurd to expect him to remedy all the deficiencies in his game by the time the 2019/20 NBA season rolls around, and be mentioned in the same breath as the NBA’s biggest stars. However, Ben Simmons is too special to be judged against anything but the highest of standards.

After all, the last thing we want to associate with the name Ben Simmons in history is a whimsical, even ponderous ‘what if?’