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March 20, 2018

Sixers' guard Ben Simmons is doing things few rookie players ever have

Sixers NBA

There is perhaps nothing more fitting of Ben Simmons' rookie campaign than the post-game media availability that followed his latest triple-double performance against the Charlotte Hornets. With Simmons' superlative effort speaking for itself, the assembled reporters took to questioning head coach Brett Brown about a different subject out of the gate: Joel Embiid's turnovers.

Perhaps this is because it is a lot more unusual for Embiid to have nine turnovers than it is for Simmons to dominate a game on every level. And that alone should tell you how special of a season we are witnessing from Simmons, who keeps quietly matching or surpassing the rookie feats of some of the game's greatest players.

Against a Hornets team ill-equipped to deal with him, Simmons did not exactly blow anyone away as a scorer. He forced some tough shots in the first half, playing with an aggressiveness his coach loves without the results to show for it. But all the while, he was dismembering the Hornets to the tune of 11 points, 12 rebounds, and 15 assists without a single turnover, and his work as a passer this season should perhaps make people reconsider where their highest expectations are placed moving forward.

Simmons' body and athleticism force a comparison to LeBron James, which is exacerbated by the fact that the two share a student-teacher relationship.While those physical traits allow Simmons to pull off plays only LeBron is capable of, the way he approaches a game is pretty far removed from how the veteran from Cleveland has always gone about his business. Where his mentor was always a scorer, Simmons thinks and plays like the "point guard" his coach has labeled him as.

What separates Simmons from the average player at his position is his area of operation. Utilizing his background as a power forward, the Sixers have basically inverted the expectations of how an offense can work. Instead of stationing their lead guard on the perimeter, they often throw him onto the block, and from there he picks apart opponents by making quick, instinctive reads that send defenses scrambling.

Of course, it helps that he can play alongside a center who is able and willing to space the floor alongside him.

What separated his performance against Charlotte from the typical big night as a passer was Simmons' protection of the ball. He pushed the tempo when necessary, but by playing under control he managed to pile up his 15 assists without a single turnover. At 21 years old, Simmons is the youngest player to accomplish such a feat by almost two full years.

"To be able to make the right read and not turn the ball over, there's [only] a few guys in the league that can do it," his teammate Embiid said of the feat. He mentioned Chris Paul as one of the few guys capable of doing such a thing, and he was more right than he knows — Paul was actually the third-youngest player to have such a game prior to Simmons' accomplishment, followed immediately by Penny Hardaway, Jason Kidd, and John Stockton.

Yes, the names above Paul on that list are Kenny Anderson and Damon Stoudamire, admittedly less noteworthy in the annals of NBA history. But That list of names is instructive. 

Those are players who were capable of scoring and did so as their team needed it, yet they created their offensive value primarily through passing. Their skills and their success were built around this reality, and they all succeeded at a high level (or in Penny's case, at least until he shredded his knees) because they played with an intelligence and understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.

Looking at Simmons, it's not totally unfair to expect him to wield his tools as a weapon for himself more. He can't be a truly elite player if he's not generating more free-throw attempts or acting as a threat to score, and at 6'10", he is a heck of a lot bigger than a lot of his statistical comps.

It just seems like a shame to focus so much on the lack of a scoring punch when you see him routinely create opportunities for his teammates out of thin air. Some of that stems from his defensive aptitude, which stems from that same set of physical tools people wish he would use more on offense.

His teammates are thrilled about playing with him, and Robert Covington explained that their shooters have adjusted to playing alongside him. They are hyper-concerned with getting to their spots on time and being alert, because they know how much pace Simmons can put on the ball.

"Right place right time, he sees the floor compared to a lot of our guys, and he's 6'10". He does so much and he's strong, so he gets the ball there in so many different ways," said Robert Covington after the victory over Charlotte. "Everybody's ready because they know once he passes it, it's going to come fast."

"How about that, 15 assists and no turnovers? I thought he was great tonight. He really was something unique with the pace that he played [and] finding shooters," added Brown. "Ben was fantastic tonight ... I think it's a rookie point guard growing. I think it's a prideful player that understands as a team, with Joel and Ben they have to own some of that. The comfort level of knowing where he can most impact the game, and when we post him, where are his outlets?"

When all was said and done, Simmons accomplished something very few players have. With 15 assists and no turnovers in a game where he had a triple-double, Simmons joined Magic Johnson, Russell Westbook, Fat Lever, and Scott Skiles as the only players to do so in league history.

With 13 games to go, Simmons is averaging just over 16-7-7 for the season. If he's able to finish his rookie year without those numbers dropping, he would join Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson as the only two players to hit those thresholds in their first NBA seasons.

Ultimately, Simmons will be judged not on the numbers he has put up this season, but on whether his style can power the Sixers to wins alongside Embiid, Dario Saric, and whichever other players emerge as the foundation of Philadelphia's core. While we're on the journey toward answering that question, however, it doesn't hurt to appreciate what Simmons is accomplishing right now.

We talkin' bout practice, Joel?

Philadelphia's leading man didn't have a terrible game, but it's hard to call a performance "good" when someone turns the ball over nine times. Embiid's talent is vast enough that he almost managed a 20-20 game anyway, which should terrify pretty every other team in the Eastern Conference moving forward.

That was the root of Brown's message following the game on Monday night. In an effort to explain Embiid's on-again, off-again problem turning the basketball over, Brown circled back to the lack of practice time he has pointed to as a problem all season.

"When Joel has the opportunity to practice and go through shootaround and he's playing basketball, there is a feel to the sport he inherits quite quickly," said Brown. "We're trying to do our best to deliver him to a playoff situation in the end of the year, and it's hard to say it any other way."

"He's ours and he's going to be off the charts special and off the charts good when he gets into a true basketball life. Right now it's not that."

Embiid downplayed his coach's suggestion when he was pressed on his practice habits after the game, insisting that Philadelphia's schedule has left little practice time for anyone on their roster. There is probably some truth to both sides of this story, but Embiid's inexperience combined with his attitude is undoubtedly going to lead to turnovers.

I don't use attitude pejoratively. He rightfully believes he's one of the best players in the league, and that ego prompts him to attempt things that need to be cut down. The area where this is most evident is when he tries to attack from the perimeter, which can often turn into an adventure.

There is no shame in a 7'2" center being less than great at dribbling from the perimeter. Perhaps Embiid's functionality will increase here if he puts in more hours on the practice court, but it's still not a high odds play. He'll be defended and doubled by players smaller than he is for his entire career.

While it may seem strange for a man his size to bomb away from outside, the Sixers would probably be better off if Embiid just let it fly more instead of trying to bait defenders with a long, slow pump fake. Open looks from the perimeter turn into turnovers, and there's no good reason for that to happen.

Far be it from me to lecture a basketball prodigy over how to play the game he already excels at. But this is an area where the easiest corrections seem possible, practice or not.

Welcome back, Amir Johnson

If you were looking for the guy who stood out the most on Philadelphia's bench, it was obviously Marco Belinelli. He caught fire in the second half, and he ended up with 21 points and a hefty +27 plus/minus for the evening. Great night at the office for a guy who has been really hot and cold during his brief Sixers tenure.

Instead of rolling through a series of Belinelli made shots — some of which inspired even more ridiculous misses — it's worth noting that Johnson probably had his best game in recent memory. With Embiid struggling to hold onto the basketball, Johnson's solid night allowed the Sixers to extend leads without their franchise center on the floor, a rarity around these parts.

In fact, Johnson was part of why Belinelli was able to get going in the first place. He can be a devastating screener when asked to wipe out someone's man, and on several different occasions, he erased the wings chasing Belinelli and created separation for the eventual jumper.

The Sixers have gotten worse with Johnson on the floor as the season has gone on, inspiring a lot of talk about what the team should do behind Embiid. Is this a one-game resurgence against a team comfortably outside the playoff picture, or the beginning of a resurgence? Too early to tell right now, but the Sixers would be ecstatic to get productive minutes out of him and buy Embiid more rest heading into the playoffs.

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