In Summer League debut, No. 1 pick Ben Simmons shows point guard potential with precision passes, all-around game
BY SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER
SALT LAKE CITY — His new coach watched Ben Simmons play with uncommon authority for a 19 year old in an NBA uniform for the first time, summer league or not, followed along mostly from a few rows up in the stands along a sideline with other 76ers officials as Simmons delivered a perfect bounce pass on the run in the second quarter that Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot turned into a fast-break layup and then in the fourth period as Simmons snapped a chest pass down the lane to T.J. McConnell camped underneath the basket that became another easy basket.
Brett Brown could see a player in control. He wasn’t alone, of course, not after 24 minutes of constant encouraging signs from the No. 1 pick against the Celtics, especially the unlimited promise of Simmons as a playmaker with composure, except that Brown is Simmons’ coach with the regular-season Sixers and so his voice matters more than most.
That Simmons is expected to sit when Philly returns to Vivint Smart Home Arena on Tuesday to play the Spurs was part of the plan all along, not the result of cramps in both legs that sent him to the locker room with 4:19 remaining in the opener of the Utah Jazz Summer League, and the plan guides everything. Not just here, either. All the way into fall with training camp, then exhibition games, then the start of his first regular season.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunities where I can find guys like I did today in the season.”
– Ben Simmons
Including the part about Brown strategizing to reduce some of the immediate workload, not wanting Simmons to face more pressure than is already hurtling at him as the first selection in the June 23 Draft and a new reason for hope for an organization anxious for tangible optimism while helping to carry the flag for basketball in his native Australia.
The 76ers will play Simmons at point guard, Brown told NBA.com. Not just the expected role of a unique threat as a 6-10 point power forward who can grab a defensive rebound and lead the break, as he did before finding Luwawu-Cabarrot, or use the court vision already superior to many veteran ball handlers, showcased on the frozen-rope assist to McConnell. Point guard.
Just not right away. Simmons has enough to learn with the normal rookie learning curve, especially as a No. 1 pick who will be the focus of opposing defenses, and the ball will be in his hands a lot by any definition, as it was Monday. Extra-hot spotlight, point forward and foundation of the 76ers future is enough for now.
“I think the point-guard position is the hardest position to play in the NBA as a first-year player, let alone as a person that’s played a four man his whole life,” Brown said. “He would be all over the place. It seems quite reckless to do it, almost unfair. I hope to continue to be ambitiously creative at tapping into what he really can do, and in my heart of hearts I think he can do it.”
It’s probably coming eventually, in other words. Point guard Ben Simmons.
“Everyone gets all twisted on what their version of a point guard is,” Brown said. “When I say point guard I mean point guard. You’ve got the ball. You could call him Isiah Thomas, the old Isiah Thomas of my generation. You could call him Chris Paul. I mean point guard point guard. There are times I think that he can be a point guard. Not Draymond Green. Not LeBron. Not Lamar Odom. That’s a point forward. I walk both lines at different moments. To start him off, we’ll play him as a point forward.”
Imagine the ways the 76ers could eventually put opponents in matchup hell with two bigs in traditional roles plus a mobile 6-foot-10 playmaker with a high basketball IQ, a tight handle and the kind of presence after a one-and-done at LSU that prompted one NBA executive to offer praise that “The way he plays, the game slows down for him.” And now imagine when 2014 lottery pick Dario Saric makes the jump from Turkey and Philadelphia has a 6-10 small forward who is projected to become a good passer.
Monday was obviously just a first step, against a lot of competition who won’t see an NBA rotation in 2016-17, when the final score didn’t matter, but 10 points on 2-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds and five assists with just one turnover against the Celtics was important anyway. It was the next step, when Simmons got a chance to test whether he will be able to measure the court the same way he did at LSU or whether he has a big transition ahead.
“I think it will change,” he said. “Obviously it’s not as easy as college because these are pro athletes. I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunities where I can find guys like I did today in the season.”
It was a successful pseudo-debut in that way. He rebounded, he pushed the ball, he found open men, sometimes while playing with a true point guard, McConnell, making him point forward Ben Simmons. For now.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can follow him on Twitter.
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