- The rookie of the year debate is already played out. With Ben Simmons having an historically good season and the Sixers looking like the future of the Eastern Conference, what are the next steps in his development?
The NBA Rookie of the Year race was dead even for most of the regular season, but Ben Simmons has finished the year averaging 14.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 10.9 assists across 15 straight Sixers wins. Nobody can blame him for feeling confident here. "Who would I pick?" he said to ESPN's Chris Haynes this week. "Me, 100 percent."
In the same interview Simmons also claimed that none of the other rookies in a historically good rookie class have caught his attention, which is perfect. That kind of imperious disregard for his peers matches the way he operates on the court. While Joel Embiid spends entire games laughing and talking trash to everyone within earshot, Simmons is icy and distant. He almost never shows emotion. The best description of Simmons came from J.J. Redick, who said, "He sits behind a glass wall and looks at everyone else on the other side."
Redick delivered that quote after last weekend's Cavs game, a massive win that came without Embiid. That game likely sealed the Rookie of the Year race, a merciful conclusion to a months-long festival of takes and stats and personal attacks that has been almost worse than last year's MVP debate. So, because rookie debates have already been beaten into the ground, and because the Sixers currently look like the future of the East, let's think bigger. If this is Simmons as a 21-year-old rookie, what will he become in his prime? Where is this going? It's become the most interesting question of the NBA's final month.
Here are three outcomes to consider.
1. Simmons is already close to his peak. (Odds: 20%)
This sounds like blasphemy, in part because projecting Simmons' impossibly bright future is half of what's made his success so thrilling for the past few months. If he's doing this now, God knows what's possible in a few years. And we'll get to the wilder sides of the spectrum in a minute. But for the record, Simmons is already playing at a borderline All-NBA level for a team with 50 wins. If plateauing at this level is the worst-case scenario, he'll still be a perennial All-Star who spends the next several years anchoring a contender. Pretty solid!
But if we're talking progress beyond where we are, there are valid questions about how much better he can become if the jumper doesn't materialize. Among players who come into the league in the "Just wait ‘till he gets a jumpshot" category, there are far more failures than success stories.
It's not a great sign that Simmons often refuses to shoot altogether, and his ability to succeed despite the holes in his game could keep him from ever fixing the problems. So there's at least a chance that Simmons in 2018 isn't far off from what he'll be in his prime: a unique chess piece with freakish physical gifts who drives defenses crazy, but also has some glaring holes in his game that make him complicated to build around.
The Sixers have done a great job tailoring the roster to his talents with shooters like J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, and Marco Belinelli, but two of those guys are on one-year deals. What happens next year if Simmons is passing to Markelle Fultz instead? For that matter, if we're talking about limits, these playoffs will provide a fascinating test as teams begin to scheme around his weaknesses and Philly tries to execute in close fourth quarters.
Simmons is still so smart and physically gifted that he'll find a way to help any winning team. It's not a knock on him to say that he may not be that much more effective in the future, it just means that he'll be closer to All-Star level than MVP level. More like Draymond Green than LeBron James. He'll be very good, but the appreciation for his game will be directly correlated to the talent and fit of the supporting cast around him.
2. Simmons becomes the new-age Jason Kidd. (Odds: 60%)
There were always two big problems with comparing Lonzo Ball to Jason Kidd. First, Kidd was much better on defense than Lonzo ever will be. Second, Kidd was a phenomenal, borderline LeBron-level athlete when he arrived in the NBA in 1994. Lonzo isn't in the same category. But what if we were all focused on the wrong rookie point guard? On NBA TV this weekend, Rex Chapman called Simmons a bigger version of Kidd, and that seems just about perfect.
Simmons is gigantic, and he's faster than most guards in the NBA. He's better finishing at the rim than anyone could've dreamed nine months ago, and he makes lightning quick passes that make the Sixers look impossible to defend. He's an offensive scheme unto himself, and these games without Embiid have made that even clearer.
Simmons isn't 6'10" Rondo, a great player destined to be hamstrung by his limitations. Simmons is 6'10” Kidd. He can overpower teams. He's got speed, strength, intelligence, and he's great on defense. He's obscenely valuable. And while magically developing a reliable jumper seems like a long shot, dominating with everything else is looking increasingly plausible. In some ways, it's already happening.
Whenever we have the "If he gets a jumper" conversation about anyone, Kidd is inevitably thrown out as a success story. It's misleading. Kidd needed 13 seasons before he ever shot above 35 percent from three, and his entire game had changed by that point. Kidd makes more sense as the story of someone who was so gifted that the jumper didn't matter. In 2002, Kidd shot 39% from the field and 32% from three and finished second in MVP voting. He took Kerry Kittles, Richard Jefferson, and Keith Van Horn to the Finals.
That's the type of impact that's possible for Simmons, with the added bonus that he's currently finishing 75% of his shots at the rim (Kidd was at 55% in 2002). If Simmons can add enough of a mid-range game to keep the defense honest, his passing and finishing will become twice as dangerous. In that scenario, he may not need to make threes. He could be a new-age version of Kidd, spending most of his career as one of the 10 best players in the league, with a few years in the top five, contending for the MVP throughout his prime. Of course, there's also the third door...
3. Simmons becomes the best player in basketball. (Odds: 20%)
There are two reasons the Kidd trajectory may not do justice to Simmons' future. First of all, obviously, if Simmons develops a reliable foul-line jumper with even league-average three-point range, he becomes completely unstoppable. He's already as physically imposing as a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo, and while he's not quite as long or athletic, he's more skilled. Add a jumper, and it's over for everyone else. But that's obvious.
The other reason Kidd comparisons might be underselling the future is that Simmons is 6'10”. And for all the Kidd parallels, there are also some obvious similarities to Magic Johnson. Magic was another massive guard who didn't like to shoot outside 10 feet early on, and it didn't matter. He won three MVPs and five titles. He spearheaded the most terrifying fast break on earth.
Any Magic comparison feels like hyperbole, and maybe it is. But there are stretches of Sixers games, when they are blitzing teams and playing at 150 miles per hour, where they start to look as impossible as the Showtime Lakers. And when the Sixers are at their best on offense, towering over teams and running them off the floor, it's Simmons setting the tone, not Embiid.
He's so fast in transition, and he makes split-second decisions that leave the defense paralyzed. In those moments, you're either giving up open threes or you're trying to guard Simmons one-on-one at the rim. There are no good answers. As his game is refined over the next few years and the team learns to play to his strengths, it'll only get more dangerous.
Of course, there's also the next few weeks. Shooting is more important in the NBA than when Magic played, and not everything will be a fast break, and defenses will be testing Simmons as soon as the playoffs begin. It's entirely possible that he will handicap Philly in crunch time. When the Sixers have looked shaky closing games this year, like they've run out of ideas on offense, those struggles usually start with Simmons, too.
Anyway, I can't stop wondering where the story goes from here. There are valid questions and real concerns, and yet the longer this Sixers season goes, the wilder the Simmons possibilities become. There's a chance we'll see his flaws exposed as soon as the playoffs begin. That would make the ceiling clearer. Or maybe he's so good that focusing on the flaws has always been beside the point. We might be watching the beginning of one of the best players ever.