Ben Simmons won’t find out if he’s Rookie of the Year until June. Donovan Mitchell is his biggest challenger, his only challenger actually. After Simmons sprinted to a sizable lead in October, there didn’t seem to be any sort of competition. Mitchell, however, has made things more interesting than previously imagined. This isn’t a post detailing why Simmons should be Rookie of the Year over Mitchell, because it’s hard to say. I don’t watch many Utah Jazz games. I did see Mitchell drop 40 points twice, and he’s been clutch, at times, down the stretch of games. The Jazz have been nearly unbeatable for the past couple months (that might have something to do with Rudy Gobert being healthy for Utah’s top-level defense), but Mitchell has been the go-to scorer, carrying the offensive load with Gordon Hayward leaving the team last July. Simmons benefits from playing with a gigantic difference maker in Joel Embiid. But again, Simmons being most qualified for Rookie of the Year isn’t the point of this exercise. Simmons has outplayed any expectation during the regular season.
Philadelphia won its 43rd game of the season Monday night. Simmons has achieved a triple-double in four of Philadelphia’s last eight games, seven of which the 76ers won. He has 10 triple-doubles this season. Now triple-doubles might be the most over-hyped statistic in basketball. It’s a novelty, really. Simmons doesn’t necessarily pad his stats, though. He’s a quick-footed six-foot-ten 21-year-old point guard who wants to push the ball, so it makes sense he’s grabbing rebounds, simultaneously sprinting up the court. There were two overriding obstacles facing Simmons as he entered the NBA, at least based on what scouts said following his lone year at Louisiana State University. His shot and his engagement on defense.
Defense has been a revelation for Simmons. He’s able to guard several positions. He’s able to use his long wingspan to deflect passes. He looks actively engaged, silencing any doubts he’d fail to rise to the occasion on that end at the NBA level. The shot for Simmons remains a work in progress. There have been stretches where he’s made mid-range jumpers. But, like anything else, it’s all about consistently doing it. Simmons has been a mostly effective scorer, averaging nearly 16 points per game, which ranks third behind Embiid and sharpshooter JJ Redick, just ahead of Dario Saric. Simmons, earlier in the season, struggled to make an impact without Embiid on the court. Some games, he’ll actively seek his shot, but other times he’s complacent with just being a distributor.
And what a distributor Simmons has been.
Saturday night, the Timberwolves arrived in Philadelphia after beating the Knicks Friday night. Minnesota’s without star Jimmy Butler, so the 76ers were comfortable favorites in the game. But still, Minnesota has Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins (although has anybody’s stock plummeted more than Wiggins the past four years?). Simmons played sensational, but it had little to do with his scoring. He ended up with 15 points, but Simmons dished 13 assists. None of which compared to his best play of the night.
Three-point shoots spark and propel big-time runs throughout the course of games. Slam dunks instill fear into the hearts of the opponent, or at least provide an energy, momentum boost. Passes like Simmons made Saturday night, however, remain the most poetic form of basketball. There’s creativity to see the pass. There’s courage to make the pass. There’s also plenty of skill to make the pass. Simmons sees the floor better than most players see the floor, and it has been a joy watching him play this season.
I tend to gravitate to players who make daring passes. Manu Ginobili, Jason Williams, Steve Nash are a few favorites. It took about two minutes of his first summer league game nearly two summers ago to know Simmons would join that list. There’s some so beautiful about the bounce-pass Simmons made Saturday night. After he made the pass, as Dario Saric stepped to the line for free throws, Simmons mouthed “Wow” repeatedly, illustrating even the near All-Star was surprised with it.
Simmons has attempted two threes this calendar year. Both were heaves. The great players add skills to their game each summer. Tim Duncan, a five-time champion, had been an inconsistent free-throw shooter throughout his career. He made nearly 83 percent of his attempts in a season in his mid thirties, though. There’s no certainty Simmons develops a reliable three-point shot. And it might not even matter. A couple times, teams have fouled Simmons on purpose this season, forcing him to shoot free throws. The Washington Wizards game was the lowest point of his rookie season as he struggled to connect on freebies. His free-throw shooting must become more reliable, but there’s no reason why it won’t be better as he further develops his game.
Simmons proved himself time and time again on defense, vaulting the 76ers to a top-5 unit. Next month, Simmons will play in the playoffs. It might be against the Pacers, or the Wizards or quite possibly the Cavaliers. It’s going to be a challenge, regardless. Teams will game plan against the Australian non-shooter, shoving him into uncomfortable situations. The regular season’s one thing, but next month will be a real test for Simmons with how he handles the pressure, the defense and the attention.