CHARLOTTE - D'Angelo Russell vividly remembers his first impression of a teenage Ben Simmons.
“Killer,” says Russell. “He was always a killer.”
Russell is, of course, speaking on the basketball talents of Simmons, and his words carry more weight than perhaps any other player in the NBA. The Brooklyn Nets guard was one of the first American athletes to lay eyes on an adolescent Simmons.
Upon leaving his homeland in 2013, Simmons enrolled at Montverde Academy in Florida, to begin his American basketball career alongside Russell at one of the country’s leading NBA incubators.
Simmons and Russell have been linked since meeting as teenage classmates. Both graduated through the amateur circuit and fulfilled respective visions by playing in the NBA. While much has changed in the six-plus years since they first met, their personal journeys have come full circle this weekend.
Today in Charlotte, both Simmons and Russell will realise a childhood dream in becoming NBA All-Stars for the first time. Accomplishing the feat together, at the same time, is a serendipitous twist of fate for two young men who, despite hailing from opposite parts of the world, have found a common bond through basketball.
“I was talking to Ben yesterday and it’s a beautiful thing,” said Russell of sharing this weekend together. “I remember just being in high school with him.”
Predictably, the pair of future NBA All-Stars dominated the high school circuit. In their lone completed season together in 2013-14, Simmons and Russell led Montverde to an undefeated 28–0 record and captured the high school national tournament. Simmons, who averaged 18.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game that season, secured Montverde’s national title with MVP honours in the concluding game, but it was Russell who ran the team as their experienced leader.
Simmons’ first full season at Montverde was Russell’s third and final with the school. Both were born in 1996 but Russell (February) is five months older than Simmons (July) and by virtue of his earlier birthdate, the American was NBA draft eligible in 2015, a year earlier than Simmons.
Being one step ahead of Simmons on the junior circuit, Russell offered a constant benchmark for the Australian to chase. That facilitated a friendly competition that was born the moment Simmons arrived in the United States to chase his NBA dream.
“Moving to America and going to high school he was the guy,” Simmons said of Russell. “He was the main player on the team so there was always a competitive practice environment. For me, I always got better each day being around him.”
Simmons credits Russell for pushing him to improve and showing a new benchmark on the hardwood during those early days. That feeling is mutual, as is the appreciation for the role each played in the blossoming of respective basketball careers.
When sitting in the jam-packed media room at Bojangles' Coliseum in suburban Charlotte this weekend, Russell first pauses, when asked to elaborate on his early memories of Simmons. Very quickly, however, the Nets guard allows his mind to race back and recall the lesson that Simmons offered as a teenager. The Australian gave Russell, for the first time in his own basketball journey, a glimpse into the day-to-day mannerisms of a professional athlete.
“I thought he was a professional at a very young age,” said Russell. “I didn’t even know what a professional looked like but I knew whatever it was, or whatever it looked like, or whatever it walked around like, that’s what Ben was. He was a professional for sure.”
Russell’s sentiment became a reality in 2016 when Simmons was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the first overall draft pick. Just 12 months earlier, Russell was taken with the number two overall draft pick by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Despite frantic professional lifestyles in the NBA, the pair have stayed in contact over the years. A coming together in Charlotte this weekend has provided a chance to reflect on everything that has led to this moment.
“We were talking the other day about how crazy it was for both of us to be in the All-Star game at the same time,” Simmons said. “It is just amazing.”
Equally astonishing is the timing of the NBA’s showcase event. Five years ago on Saturday, Simmons and Russell led Montverde into battle against St. Joseph High School and another man who shares basketball’s biggest stage this weekend in Charlotte.
Karl-Anthony Towns was a member of the 2014 St. Joseph team that faced off against Simmons, Russell and Montverde Academy at Kean University in New Jersey on February 16, 2014. Montverde, the number three ranked school by USA Today at the time, brought their highly touted playing roster to America’s north east for one of the most publicised high school games this decade.
“It was the biggest game of the year for New Jersey,” said Towns. “It was St. Joseph High School versus Montverde.”
Montverde won the night 79-70, thanks in large part to 24 points each from Simmons and Russell, who combined to overshadow a 22-point, 11-rebound performance from Towns.
This game has come to represent a showdown between three future NBA superstars, although the professional prospects of all involved were unknown at the time. But Towns, who in defeat came across both Simmons and Russell for the first time, could instantly recognise the prodigious talent within Montverde’s dynamic duo.
“I met Ben when we were playing Montverde,” Towns said. “I just saw his athleticism and it was very weird to see a guy that tall, with that speed, using his left hand as his dominant hand.
“It was super different but also awesome just to compete against him and be able to go out there and produce that type of game for the fans and be able to compete against the best.”
Towns, whom the Minnesota Timberwolves selected one spot ahead of Russell in 2015, explained Russell’s intellect made the Montverde pair a dangerous amalgamation of youthful talent.
“I remember playing against D’Angelo in same game,” Towns added. “He was a pick-and-roll master. As smart as you see D’Angelo is in the NBA, it is as smart as he was back then and he has been the same player, with a smooth lefty stroke.”
Roles will be reversed this weekend, with Towns and Simmons joining forces on Team LeBron to face off against Russell on Team Giannis. As they now do four times a year in the NBA proper, Simmons and Russell will compete as rivals on the basketball court.
Bragging rights will be on offer, although the minutia of tonight’s affairs won’t define their time spent together in Charlotte. The result is merely an anecdotal footnote to a special weekend for both Simmons and Russell.
A moment that has been years in the making will be realised, and two young men who entered the NBA as friends will leave North Carolina with another bond. They will be fellow NBA All-Stars.
“I just salute all his success,” Russell says of Simmons. “He has come a long way.”