- Ben Simmons joined elite company with Oscar Robertson and Hambone Williams as the only players in NBA history with a triple double within their first four career games.
Without diving headfirst into the realm of sweeping conclusions we can never take back, let’s at least appreciate these facts. On Monday, Ben Simmons recorded his first triple double at 21 years, three months and three days old, in his fourth career game after missing all of last season recovering from a foot injury. LeBron James is the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple double, at 20 years and 20 days old, in his second season after leaping to the NBA out of high school. Without foisting an unfair comparison, it’s impressive company (and to be fair they’re likely to be joined by Lonzo Ball sooner than later). Watching Simmons go to work bordered on the sublime.
The Sixers won their first game of the year thanks to his efforts, beating the Pistons 97–86. Simmons had 21 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in 34 minutes, shooting 8–11 from the field. Joel Embiid also posted 30 points and nine rebounds, but Simmons’s feat grabbed the headlines: he’s the first player to post a 10-10-5 line in his first four games since Oscar Robertson and the first player since Shaq to open his career with four consecutive double-doubles. And for what it’s worth, he’s the first Australian to mess around and get one of the triple variety.
Despite the fact we are one week into the season, the reasonable things we can assert are that 1) Simmons has emerged more fully-formed than anyone expected, and 2) he looks like an obvious front-runner in the Rookie of the Year race. Just look at these highlights:
The Sixers haven’t set the world on fire, but they’ve wisely given Simmons full control out of the gate, and he’s been up for the challenge. On Monday, he was at his most aggressive, starting the break, finding teammates with passes both simple and difficult, and showing just how valuable oversized playmakers are in the modern league. Effectively driving and kicking at 6'10" is quite a cheat code, and Simmons has done it with ease and aplomb just days into his rookie season. And though he’s visibly inherited a little bit of the Rajon Rondo stat-chasing gene on the glass and the break, it’s not just the passes for assists that make the difference.
Simmons’s ability to see over defenders and advanced know-how probing around the half-court puts him in a rare category of skip-passers, able to alter the geometry of the court and open up lanes for everyone else. He can score around the rim just by being huge. Most importantly, he’s further along as a point guard than anyone guessed, and Philly has been successful by putting shooters on the floor, running simple actions and letting him make the right decisions. He’s had entirely too much space to operate, with J.J. Redick and Robert Covington working the flanks. Pair him with Embiid in a pick and roll, and it’s a nightmare. And it’s awfully hard to think about the possibilities without getting ahead of yourself.
His early returns are even more fascinating in the context of his development. When I first saw Simmons play three years ago as a junior at Montverde Academy, it was clear he was one of the country’s top prospects, but he was still in the middle of an on-court transformation of sorts. There were games where he’d float and barely shoot, and he shared ball-handling duties with D’Angelo Russell, playing as more of a nominal four-man by necessity. In transition, there were incredible glimpses of what that combination of size, handle and vision could do, but Simmons was shockingly deferential at times for someone that naturally gifted.
While his star has risen—a star he seems to have increasingly embraced, as well—the fundamental unselfishness of his game has remained.“I’m definitely learning I need to be more selfish and take over the game sometimes,” he told me in 2014. Simmons grew up in Australia largely playing with older kids, which he admitted lent itself to some on-court shyness and hesitance to impose himself. After an up-and-down year at LSU followed by what amounted to a redshirt season, it appears he’s on his way to a happy medium.
Teams have yet to force Simmons to take jumpers, and you suspect there are plenty of double-teams and junk defenses still to come. But he’s largely been patient as a scorer, doesn’t force many bad shots, and a useful hook has lent credence to the popular internet theory that he might actually be right-handed. He’s not playing mistake-free ball, but what he’s doing and how he’s doing it have already put him in special company. Any way you cut it, Simmons has arrived ahead of schedule.