The NBA Finals are heading into the final stretch. Whether it ends with a Golden State Warriors repeat or the Cleveland Cavaliers pulling off a miraculous comeback, we’ll be seeing an Australian champion for the third season in a row.
It’s a great period for Australian recognition at the NBA level; Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills play integral roles on contending teams, while experienced veterans like Joe Ingles and Aron Baynes provide solid presences on their respective teams. Our Aussies in the NBA have become cultural icons, with some attending the upcoming Basketball Without Borders Asia camp in Melbourne.
It is as good a time as any other for Ben Simmons to make his grand debut in the NBA. The stage is set, the groundwork laid; the Ben Simmons era of Australian basketball is just waiting to be ushered in.
But the question remains: Is Ben Simmons ready to be the face of Australian basketball?
The Australian sporting ethos
Our Aussies in the NBA have captured public attention by personifying Australian sporting ideals; hustle harder than hard, and play smart, selfless team basketball. For example, Delly went from a non-entity to having a stadium named after him in his hometown (as well as a signature coffee blend) by playing to exhaustion in last year’s Finals guarding MVP Stephen Curry. Or how about Joe Ingles, the physical embodiment of the ultimate glue guy? These are guys you could totally see yourself grabbing a drink with at the pub, and have your back on the court too.
Simmons might not be one of those guys. If anything, he seems to be the complete opposite: a high-profile draft prospect, with the lifestyle to match.
There are a litany of examples which, unfairly or not, paint Simmons in this light. Making the headlines for signing a huge shoe deal before even playing a single minute in the NBA. A seeming inability to lift LSU out of a mediocre season. No discernible improvement on the most obvious flaw in his game: his outside shooting, even though he acknowledged the issue back in April 2015.
And perhaps most troubling of all, Jonathan Givony of The Vertical wrote about Simmons’ alleged attitude issues, ranging from lack of competitiveness to sheer arrogance. Being called a “taller Rajon Rondo, a more athletic Evan Turner, or a skinnier Royce White” by an NBA executive is as hilarious for us spectators as it is a terrible look for Simmons. Rumours of his close-mindedness to coaching and needing to be the center of the universe, both on and off the court, aren’t exactly ringing endorsements either.
The big money shoe deal with Nike also brings up his close connection with LeBron James. Adidas extended a monetarily-superior deal, worth an unconfirmed $17 million over five years, more than what Nike supposedly offered in comparison. Simmons and his family reportedly had a difficult time choosing which brand to go with, as the allure of Nike’s marketing prowess made up for the fewer dollars.
Nike’s pitch centered around its market-share dominance in the footwear industry, and how its upcoming partnership with the NBA (beginning in 2017) would allow the brand to include players in uniform in its advertising efforts. A tour of the Nike Sports Research Labs and the brand’s Innovation Kitchen couldn’t have hurt either.
This was a legitimately difficult decision to make, and one that might have been tipped in Nike’s favour by his relationship with LeBron. The two share the same agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, and every shoe deal Paul has negotiated for his clients has been with Nike. Add the fact that Paul is LeBron’s childhood friend and Klutch is funded by James, and it looks extremely likely that Ben’s friendship with LeBron may have been the deciding factor.
— Klutch Sports Group (@KlutchSports) April 29, 2016
Simmons and James being close friends is completely understandable when you examine their situations. When LeBron was drafted, he was also a big playmaking wing with a shaky jumper. The similarities in their play-styles and in the extreme pre-draft hype both have conjured up may have worked as a bridge between the veteran and the soon-to-be rookie. It’s natural for Simmons to be more amenable to the words of someone who’s gone through exactly what he’s experiencing right now, maybe even at a higher level.
While LeBron James definitely is one of the best players to ever grace the game, his ability and/or reputation as a mentor is much sketchier.
James exudes positivity. During his return to Cleveland, he talked about growing and achieving with the team. “I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys.”
Despite that, all we’ve ever seen in terms of leadership from King James, is a masterclass in passive-aggressiveness.
It’s perhaps telling that the only times he had ever gotten rings, was with a true mastermind pulling the strings: Pat Riley. Having James as a mentor, isn’t necessarily a sure sign of success to come.
That said, Simmons is apparently working hard to change perception as the draft approaches. A recent ESPN Insider report from Chad Ford called him “incredibly focused on his NBA career” and that his pre-draft work ethic has been “extraordinary”. Even his shooting looked good to Ford, who said that Simmons’ “outside shot is getting better – or maybe it was solid all along, and he just seldom used it.”
— Chad Ford (@chadfordinsider) June 1, 2016
How much that perception changes, will become apparent soon.
Of course, Simmons is still really young. How many of us were anything at all approaching mature or measured at 19 years of age? To make it at the top of the professional game, having self-confidence is paramount. In more tangible aspects, there’s also no doubting his ability to run the break from rebound to finish or his vision to pick out a great pass to a teammate.
Talent-wise, Simmons certainly has the title of ‘next Australian basketball great’ in the bag – at least, according to Andrew Bogut. But is that enough for us to get behind him wholeheartedly? Shouldn’t we be asking more of our Australian representatives to the basketball world?
Talent can take one very far, and of course, winning solves everything. But ask yourself this.
How much value should we place on the exhibition of “Aussie values” for our Australian basketball heroes?
Should we be more discerning and not just fall in love with highlights dunks and blocks and turn a blind eye to everything else?
Maybe, for now, we should get off the Ben Simmons hype train and trade it in for a more sensible family sedan. Maybe, we should take our time and just let Simmons grow into the legend, and not create the legend now.
Anyway, being a mature and understated family sedan doesn’t mean there can’t be any oomph in the engine. Just ask the Reasonably-Priced Car.
By all means, get excited for Ben Simmons making his NBA debut later this year. Maybe one day, we will get to see a mature Simmons leading the Boomers to an Olympic or FIBA gold medal, while doing Australia proud in the NBA.
But for now, the Bogeys and Dellys, those reliable sedans? They can, and will continue to be our go-to Aussie representatives, as far as the NBA is concerned.