Well, it certainly doesn’t seem like Ben Simmons is all that concerned about building a fan base in Salt Lake City.
On Saturday, one night after going toe-to-toe with long–since–established prototype legend LeBron James (44 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) with a triple-double of his own (27 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists) to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a thrilling 132-130 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Philly’s rising star rookie point guard sat down for a chat with ESPN’s Chris Haynes. During their conversation, Haynes asked Simmons — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft, who missed all of what would have been his rookie season after suffering a Jones fracture in his right foot, and who had to wait until this season to make his first NBA appearance — to handicap the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race.
Some have suggested the award was Simmons’ to lose almost since the second he stepped on the court and started putting to rest any concerns that he’d be an NBA-caliber starting point guard, defender and game-breaker right off the bat. Others insist that there’s a legitimate discussion to be had about whether Donovan Mitchell deserves the award for his work as the offensive engine of a Utah Jazz team that has surpassed virtually everybody’s expectations on their way to a return to the playoffs just one summer after losing All-Star forward Gordon Hayward and starting point guard George Hill in free agency.
Simmons, it seems, falls in the former camp. From Haynes:
“Who would I pick? Me, 100 percent,” Simmons told ESPN at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Philadelphia on Saturday.
“I think I have been playing solid all year,” he continued. “If you look at the numbers, you will see. People who know the game know.” […]
When the 6-foot-10 point guard was told the Rookie of the Year race appears to be a two-man show, he buried his head down and proceeded to chuckle. Asked what rookies have caught his attention this year, he didn’t mince words.
“None,” Simmons responded promptly. “I want to be where the greats are. So, for me, I watch the guys like [Kevin Durant], [LeBron James], [Stephen] Curry, Russell [Westbrook]. Guys like that. That’s where I want to be. I think for me, that’s what I love to watch.”
After Simmons’ comments started to make the rounds, Mitchell offered what appeared to be a passive, oblique response to Simmons’ comments, delivered in the most modern of arenas: liked tweets and reaction GIFs.
— Michael Sanchez (@masanchez10) April 9, 2018
It would be unfair to suggest Mitchell doesn’t merit consideration. He’s been fantastic in Utah this year, a more polished playmaker and offensive initiator than many anticipated coming out of Louisville, and a player who’s proven capable of acting as the No. 1 scoring option on a solid NBA offense right off the bat; with only three days left in the season, Utah ranks 16th out of 30 teams in points scored per possession, and has scored at a top-12 level in nearly 2,600 minutes with Mitchell on the floor.
Mitchell’s one of just 31 first-year players in NBA or ABA history to average better than 20 points, three rebounds and three assists per game, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and is the first to do so since Blake Griffin in 2010-11. And, when Utah clinched its postseason berth with Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers, Mitchell became the first rookie to lead a playoff team in points per game since Carmelo Anthony did it for the Denver Nuggets way back in the 2003-04 season.
That production gets even more impressive once you factor in Utah’s preferred glacial pace, fifth-slowest in the league. Adjust Mitchell’s production by possession, rather than by minute, and he stands as one of just three qualifying rookies in Basketball-Reference.com’s database to average at least 30-5-5 per 100 possessions, joining Griffin and Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Decent company.
Mitchell hasn’t been the most efficient shooter, making just 43.8 percent of his field-goal attempts and 33.9 percent from 3-point range. It’s a decent bet that, were he operating on a team that didn’t need him to generate as much offensively, one on which he’d be taking fewer (and presumably sometimes better) shots, those numbers would tick up for an extremely athletic finisher with a solid stroke from outside. He’s not an elite facilitator, but he’s come a long way since September, and he’s certainly capable of making eye-popping feeds to set up his teammates:
Whatever blemishes you might find on his game, though, it’s impossible to ignore just how revelatory Mitchell has been in Utah. He’s been a plug-and-play starter who has held up well enough on the defensive end to log nearly 85 percent of the total minutes played by the NBA’s No. 2 defense (and its top unit by a mile since the All-Star break).
He has earned the chance to shoulder more and more of the offensive load as the season has gone on, and has responded by stepping up his production month by month. He’s been the point-producing motor at the heart of the two mammoth runs that completely transformed Utah’s season. He’s a bona fide star in the making, leading his team to an earlier-than-anticipated return to the postseason and energizing a rabid fan base all the while.
Just about all of that is also true of Simmons.
Simmons has, since Day 1, looked like he’s capable of being one of the game’s premier playmakers and game-dominators, despite having virtually no range outside of 10 feet. The Aussie almost never shoots outside the paint, doesn’t get to the foul line a ton and shoots just 55.9 percent at the stripe, yet he still averages 16 points per game on 54.7 percent shooting because, I mean, what the hell are you supposed to do with a 6-foot-10, 230-pound jumbo jet who responds to sagging defenders by ramming the ball straight down their throats to the basket?
Before Simmons, the only player in NBA or ABA history to average 16 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game in his first season was Oscar Robertson. Smmons has now logged 12 triple-doubles in his freshman campaign, tops on the all-time list ahead of another giant playmaker, Magic Johnson, who posted seven in 1980. And while the Sixers play at a much faster pace than Mitchell’s Jazz, averaging the league’s fourth-most possessions per 48 minutes, adjusting the numbers by possession doesn’t exactly hurt Simmons’ case. The list of dudes to average 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists per 100 possessions is four names long. The names are Magic, LeBron, Russ … and Ben.
Plus, like Mitchell, Simmons merits praise for turning up his play at the perfect time of year. After Sunday’s drubbing of the Dallas Mavericks, which secured the franchise’s first 50-win season since Allen Iverson was cupping his ear and showering in the adulation of the Philly faithful, the Sixers have now won 14 games in a row. Simmons’ numbers during that stretch: 14.7 points on 61.1 percent shooting, 10.9 assists, 10.1 rebounds and 2.0 steals in 31.1 minutes per game, with the 76ers outscoring opponents by 202 points in Simmons’ 435 minutes during the streak.
Yes, some of those numbers have been rolled up against an awfully friendly schedule down the stretch. A lot of them, though, have come without the benefit of All-Star running buddy Joel Embiid, the Sixers’ offensive and defensive centerpiece, who went down 12 days ago with a fractured orbital bone after a collision with teammate Markelle Fultz. It remains to be seen how quickly Embiid will be able to return to the Sixers in the postseason, but Simmons has proven capable of carrying the load in his absence, dominating Philly’s last six games to lend credence to the notion that, while Embiid was the rising tide that lifted the Sixers earlier in the season, Simmons has been just as able to help keep the club afloat since the All-Star break.
The best version of the Sixers, of course, features Embiid wreaking havoc on the block, at the 3-point arc and in the paint on defense. Simmons has proven, though, that this team still has the potential to do big things — like staring down LeBron James without blinking, and like securing home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs — as long as he’s on the floor.
It’s no surprise, then, that when Simmons looks for players to compare himself to, he’s thinking about MVPs and All-NBA First Teamers rather than fellow freshmen … even if there’s another one a few hours west who also has his team on track for a top-four playoff spot that few saw coming. Nor should it be a surprise that Mitchell would respond to Simmons’ dismissal with a shrug of his shoulders, a fuel-for-the-fire bookmarking via the like button, and a renewed commitment to getting himself prepared for his maiden voyage in the playoffs.
Whoever winds up winning the award come June 25, both Simmons and Mitchell have arrived. They’re for real, they’ve earned the respect of the league’s established stars, and they’re about to enter the time of year where reputations get built and burnished. Watching them figure it out on the fly in the postseason ought to be at least as much fun as watching voters tie themselves up in knots as they fill in their ballots.
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