In the moments after he was named an NBA All-Star in January, Ben Simmons stepped into Oracle Arena and did what he has been doing his entire life. He balled out.
A 113-104 triumph over the Golden State Warriors punctuated Simmons’ special day and, as has been common practice during his brief professional career, the Australian was the catalyst for a marquee Philadelphia 76ers’ victory.
Simmons stuffed the box score that night, finishing with 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists in what was his first career success over fellow All-Stars Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. Such gaudy statistical outputs are also normal for Simmons who, alongside Russell Westbrook, is already the NBA’s leading triple double maven.
On the defensive end, Simmons teased the crowd in Oakland with his transformative athletic gifts. It was a breathtaking performance, one that gave credence to Brett Brown’s continual proclamations that Simmons is destined to become an All-NBA defender.
These were the tangible illustrations of how Simmons led his franchise to their first victory over the Warriors since 2013. Impressive as they were, there was an even greater takeaway according to Brown. Instead of concentrating on the minutia of NBA basketball, the Sixers leading man identified a more holistic development during the brightest moment of his point guard’s career.
“I thought Ben had, in my eyes, his best NBA game,” Brown said, following the January 31st showdown.
Simmons putting forth the best performance of his professional career, in the afterglow of receiving the greatest accolade ever bestowed on an Australian Boomer was, in Brown’s opinion, anything but coincidental. There was an overt correlation, actually, to the day’s events.
Freed from the pressures, perceived or otherwise, of needing to prove himself to All-Star voters and the wider basketball community, Simmons was able to just play basketball. That was Brown’s theory at the time and given Simmons’ performance, it was hard to argue with the sentiment.
“He played a complete game tonight and he was a leader,” Brown added on Simmons as he left Oracle Arena.
Brown identified a newfound basketball maturity bursting out of Simmons in Oakland. He could identify a young athlete beginning to grasp the added responsibilities that come with finally being among the very best. It was the ultimate addition by subtraction. Detached from the “extra pressures and burden,” as Brown explained it, to prove he belongs, Simmons could instead focus on the immediate job at hand of leading the Sixers as a bona fide All-Star.
Flash forward to the present day, now more than a month since Simmons conquered the Warriors for the first time. Much has changed for the Sixers since.
Simmons fulfilled his All-Star prophesy in Charlotte last month, playing alongside idols and mentors like LeBron James. Philadelphia made another NBA universe shaking trade, acquiring Tobias Harris in the sunset of February’s trade deadline. Joel Embiid, Simmons’ All-Star running mate, has been sidelined with left knee tendinitis, missing eight straight games following the All-Star break.
Embiid’s absence, for obvious reasons, presented unwanted challenges for the Sixers. It placed added pressure on everyone to step up and win games. Simmons especially. Without Embiid in the lineup over the past month, Philadelphia needed their point guard more than ever.
The Australian averaged 38 minutes per game without Embiid, while his statistical outputs were predicably gaudy, too, as he averaged 18.6 points, 10.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists. While the results without Embiid were unexceptional – the Sixers went 4-4 over the period Embiid missed following the All-Star break – Brown could still sense growth emanating out of his point guard.
“I feel that since the All-Star award has been given and trades have been made, Ben now looks around and says ‘this is our team,’" Brown explained in Philadelphia last week.
“I think the self inflicted pressure to put his hand up to the All-Star voters and say, ‘don’t forget about’ me has dissipated. I think that as that has faded away the responsibility to connect the dots and be our point guard and understand personalities and needs of our players has grown.”
While it is impossible to tangibly quantify the impacts of a maiden All-Star appearance, Brown has noticed a difference. As for Simmons himself, he explained that a weekend spent alongside basketball’s elite helped facilitate a newfound appreciation of the work required to maintain superstardom in the NBA.
“Just to be at a certain level you have to put in the work,” Simmons explained on his takeaways from All-Star weekend. “Everybody here deserves it and everybody here works hard so that’s what I take away from it.”
Simmons is paying attention to lofty standards set by those he is chasing, and those atop the NBA universe are keeping an equally keen eye on the Australian. Dwyane Wade swapping jerseys and complimenting Simmons when Miami visited Philadelphia in February is one glowing endorsement. As is the opinion of Durant.
“He’s a guy that is changing the position as a 6’10” point guard,” says Durant of Simmons. “He can create for everyone, he is fun to watch and it is fun to see his progress.”
Durant claims to have been watching Simmons since the Melburnian arrived at Montverde Academy in 2013. The two-time NBA Finals MVP expected much of Simmons entering the league, although he too is impressed with what Simmons has achieved in just his second professional season.
"To see the success that he has had, we all expected it, but it is great to see the progression,” Durant added.
Fellow players identify Simmons’ progression on the basketball court just as clearly as Brown senses the advancements in aptitude. With the Sixers on the cusp of another postseason run, one that could determine the immediate futures of high profile free agents and the coaching staff, Brown is relying on his point guard more than ever.
“I think [Ben] has been fantastic on trying to put his own thumbprint on a game while also being an NBA point guard,” said Brown.
“I think he has done fantastically understanding that ‘I am a point guard,’ and I have Tobias [Harris] and Jimmy [Butler] and J.J. [Redick] and Joel [Embiid] and so on. I think he is growing in a mature way.”