TORONTO -- Just three games into his NBA career, Ben Simmons is already drawing comparisons to some of the greatest players of all-time. Teammate T.J. McConnell has gone up against Simmons throughout training camp. With his court vision and ability to create mismatches at the point guard position, McConnell compares Simmons to Magic Johnson. "Sometimes I'm just like, wow," McConnell said. "He looks like he's been in the league for years,"
Head coach Brett Brown, who was previously an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, compares his rookie point guard's approach on the court to Tim Duncan. "He's not a chest-beater or a towel swinger," Brown said. "But leadership comes in different forms." When you watch Simmons up close, it's easy to see why he's worthy of these comparisons. On Saturday against the Toronto Raptors, Simmons finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. Per ESPN Stats & Info, he became the first player since Oscar Robertson to have 10-plus points, 10-plus rebounds, 5-plus assists in his first three games.
Brown also sees a little bit of Simmons' father in the way he approaches the game. In the 1980's, Brown was an assistant coach with the Melbourne Tigers in Australia. David Simmons was one of two American imports on the team. Brown sees the similarities between father and son, especially in the cerebral way they view the game when they step on the court. "[Ben] doesn't seem to get too worked up," Brown said. "There's a pace and poise that he plays with that seems comfortable to him."
The Sixers have been rebuilding through the draft since 2013. Their lottery picks have shown promise, but injury has derailed a few of them, while they're still waiting for others to fulfill their potential. Joel Embiid is brilliant when he's on the floor, but he remains on a minutes restriction and did not play on the second half of a back-to-back on Saturday in Toronto. Markelle Fultz spent the summer re-working his jumpshot, and won't make a significant impact anytime soon. Dario Saric is part of the second unit, while Jahlil Okafor is not part of the team's regular rotation. As long as Embiid's injury concerns linger, Simmons, who himself missed his entire first season in the NBA with a foot injury, has the highest ceiling of any Sixers player on the roster.
Simmons is very soft spoken, and prefers to let his game speak for itself. But he did perk up when the conversation turned toward his parents' relationship with Brown. "It's a big advantage for me, just having this relationship with him," Simmons said. "He's a great coach, and a great person as well." The word process is synonymous with this Sixers team, and Brown is taking his time with the development of Simmons as well. Two areas of focus this season: his free-throw shooting (Simmons is 11-for-20 through three games) and finishing at the basket.
In his one season at LSU, Simmons shot 56.0 percent from the field but only attempted three shots from beyond the arc. Brown would like to see Simmons continue to improve his pull-up jumper, but thinks it will take three years before his three-point shot becomes part of his offensive arsenal. Despite all this room for growth, Simmons' numbers have been impressive so far, although Brown isn't focused on the stat sheet when he watches his 21-year-old rookie. "I'm not paying attention to the numbers, but I feel what the numbers say," Brown said. "When you're coaching the game, you feel that he has the ability to be incredibly special. The stuff he does on the floor is very unique, with his size, his burst of speed and his ability to get to the rim and take hits."
After years of rebuilding, the Sixers are hoping to see finally see results on the floor this season. In the locker room, players believe this is a playoff team. The first three games of the season provided an early litmus test for the Sixers, who faced three clubs -- the Wizards, Celtics and Raptors -- who all advanced past the first round of the playoffs last year. "It's just about closing out games for us," McConnell said. "We're right there." Against the Wizards and Celtics, the Sixers had a chance to win both games in the fourth quarter but came up short. The Raptors led by as many as 34 points on Saturday in a 128-94 win, dropping Philadelphia to 0-3.
The Sixers added veterans Amir Johnson and J.J. Redick in the offseason, and while both continue to preach patience, they admit there is still a learning curve for this young roster before they can start winning games. "We have all the talent in the world," Johnson said. "But winning games in this league is tough. There's stuff we need to clean up. Once we clean up our mistakes during games, and learn how to win, the sky's the limit for us." Even though Simmons has impressed so far, the Sixers don't look like a playoff contender just yet. "We'll keep hammering away and continue to find ways to improve," Brown said. In Philadelphia, the process is still very much in progress.