- Award-winning columnist and author
- Recipient of Basketball Hall of Fame Curt Gowdy Media Award
- Joined ESPNBoston.com in 2010
BEN SIMMONS CAN still summon the bounces in his head.
The first sprung high off the rim, then the ball descended straight back down to the iron, where it bandied about two, three, four times before finally nestling through the strings, coronating Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors as the Game 7 clutch winners, and the Philadelphia 76ers as the disappointing, hard-luck losers of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
A year later, marinating in expectation, the Sixers sit in sixth place in the East. They are suspended in arrested development as the world deals with the coronavirus. But throughout the season, observers searched for cracks on a team anchored by a 26-year-old Joel Embiid and a 23-year-old Simmons: They don’t like each other (asked separately, both players immediately respond, “Untrue”). They can’t coexist on the court (Sixers coach Brett Brown insists, “They will win a championship together”). Embiid is too big, too injury-prone. And while no one is asking Simmons to be Stephen Curry, is it too much to ask once in a while to take a 3-pointer? Just one?
This is what Simmons must navigate, a cauldron of controversy — whenever play resumes. The hope of a mid-April return for the playoffs has been deferred, though sources tell ESPN that Simmons will be good to go as his lower back impingement has all but dissipated. “If the season resumes,” says a team source, “we’re expecting to have him.”
Simmons’ injury momentarily distracted his detractors from a conspicuous gap in a dossier that would otherwise be the envy of most young aspiring NBA talents. Simmons has the size and strength of a bruising power forward along with the nimbleness of a point guard. His defensive skills, court vision and passing acumen are exceptional, as is his ability to slither in and out of tight spaces. He is a near-impossible defensive assignment — save the one thing he can’t do. Or, to be more precise, won’t do.
“I think that Ben Simmons is a great player in transition,” 13-year NBA veteran Jared Dudley said last year. “Once you slow him up in the half court, I think he’s average… it’s just take away his easy baskets … make him make free throws.”
Ex-NBA big man Kendrick Perkins was more succinct: “Grow some balls!” he groused on social media last year.
This does not fluster Ben Simmons. It has never been external forces that initiate doubt, because his own internal barometer is so much more discerning than any of his critics. You cannot unnerve him; only he can do that to himself.
ON JULY 20, 1996, Julie Simmons passed the time while in labor with her sixth child at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, watching Muhammad Ali light the Olympic torch in Atlanta. That Benjamin David Simmons came into the world just moments after that felt like some kind of sign. He arrived alert, but strangely quiet.
“He didn’t cry at all,” says his father, David Simmons. The doctor held him aloft and informed his parents, “This child has been here before.”
He thrived in Australia, far from the glare of American AAU basketball and the obsession with Duke or North Carolina lineage, spending his childhood days in gymnasiums while his older siblings competed. By the time he was 5 years old, Simmons was so adept with the ball he was practicing with 7- and 8-year-olds. But when game time came, Simmons refused to play. Instead, he retreated to his mother’s lap and leaned into her, content to watch. She gently encouraged him to join in, offering $5, then $10, all the way up to $100.
But he nestled closer, shaking his head.
“It was too intimidating for him,” his father says. “The refs, the whistles, the noise … he just wasn’t ready.”
As a teen, Simmons played a “friendly” against New Zealand in his native Australia, and a burly forward began posturing a foot away from him during pregame, so close that Simmons fixated on his bloodshot pupils, bulging with anticipation. When the player launched into the traditional haka, a ceremonial Maori dance that originated as a way to prepare for battle, the spittle from the man’s animated cadence flecked Simmons’ cheeks.
The New Zealanders flexed their muscles, shook their fists, bellowed forcefully, all in a rhythmic tempo that might have been mesmerizing to Simmons’ mum if not for the fact her son, barely 15 and unable to sprout so much as a stubble, was being accosted a nose length’s away by a 20-something man with bulging biceps and a full beard.
“They targeted him,” his mother says, “to get him to crack.”
They picked on Simmons because he was the youngest, and also the best. Yet he stood motionless, like a sentry on duty at Buckingham Palace. All these years later, when asked what was running through his mind, he explains calmly, “I’m thinking, ‘Why am I going to let this person faze me? You can do all the yelling and stomping you want, but you still have to show up on the court.
“And I’m a better basketball player than you.'”
Two years later, it was Montverde coach Kevin Boyle who stood inches from Simmons’ grill, launching a verbal assault of his own. It was halftime of the 2014 City of Palms tournament on Christmas Eve, and the undefeated Montverde team from Florida, riding a 25-game winning streak, was getting spanked by Jaylen Brown and his Marietta (Georgia) Wheeler squad. Montverde alum D’Angelo Russell had come back to visit and, perched on the locker room bench, smirked as Boyle unleashed his fury on Simmons, chiding him for everything from poor rebounding to lackluster defense. “It’s your fault,” Boyle seethed. “When are you going to take over this game?”
“I remember that day very clearly,” says Tahj Malone, Simmons’ best friend and former Montverde teammate. “Ben wasn’t giving a ‘get out of my face vibe’ like most kids that age would have been. He wasn’t upset or emotional. Didn’t ask, ‘Why are you embarrassing me?’
“Instead, without saying a word, he was like, ‘I get it. Time to wake up.'”
Simmons stoically absorbed the wrath of Boyle — his favorite coach of all time, he says — then followed his own mantra: learn from it, put it away and move on, same as he did following that gutting elimination by the Raptors last May. His inner circle knows how much that playoff loss wounded him, but how Simmons feels in those moments is not for public consumption.
“I don’t like to express myself too much in front of everyone else,” Simmons says, “because then that lets you know how I feel.”
His family frets that by internalizing all the brutal commentary centered on his lack of perimeter prowess, it has obscured the amazing accomplishments of his blossoming young career. They worry whether he’s able to enjoy it, how he blocks out the noise, which is relentless, often deafening. Even those closest to him find themselves occasionally wondering, what is Ben thinking?
One notion the young Sixers star doesn’t mind sharing: he craves being challenged, even admonished. He knows he needs it, even though he wishes he didn’t.
“My weakness,” Simmons says, “is I need to have someone make me accountable. The goal is to be accountable to myself.
“That’s been a bit tough. It takes time.”
But as Ben Simmons has come to learn, nobody is in the mood to wait.
“He’s not blind to it,” says Sean Tribe, his brother and agent. “Ben loves to be efficient. He wants to make the correct move — not the wrong move — and sometimes that’s a hindrance. You need to experiment with things, and sometimes you might fail.
“The acceptance of failure is something Ben needs to be comfortable with. That will come along through hard times, experiences of losing.”
IN ANOTHER CITY, perhaps, Simmons would have the latitude to experiment, to stumble even. Not in Philadelphia, where winning is paramount and scrutiny is often harsh. In late February, when the Sixers played the Cleveland Cavaliers, Brown noted that their young core of Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. was playing with “house money,” free to develop and make mistakes without pressure. Rarely — if ever — is such a luxury afforded a No. 1 pick like Simmons.
“There was never any house money with Ben,” Brown agrees now. “If Ben was with a team in his first few years that no one gives a rat’s ass about, and they were figuring out who the keepers were on their roster, he would have come in cranking 3s. I’m sure of it.”
Instead, Simmons, who the Sixers coach believes Philadelphia should be unequivocally embracing, has somehow come to symbolize the maddening shortcomings of the franchise itself, Brown says.
“Because he is such a polarizing player, a unique athlete at an All-Star level in a high-profile city, you zoom into the weakness he has, which is he won’t shoot,” he says. “I get it. Personally, I think it gets overblown.”
Brown’s NBA peers agree with him. A sampling of league coaches insists that even if Simmons began routinely making two or three 3s a game, when the score tightened, particularly in the playoffs, teams will still back off and dare him to shoot. “Just like with Giannis [Antetokounmpo],” says one Western Conference coach. “It’s great he’s working on his 3-point range, but we’re still giving him that shot every single time — and hoping he takes it.”
It is a perpetual talking point that doggedly follows Simmons. In December, when he connected on a 3 against Cleveland in a blowout win, Brown announced he expected Simmons to take “a minimum of one 3-pointer every game, and you can pass it along to his agent, family and friends.”
Simmons attempted just two in the subsequent three months.
“Some people put so much emphasis on it,” Simmons says. “It’s a little too much. It made me back check and say, ‘Let me focus on what I’m good at.’ There are things I do on the court where nobody can stop me, when I’m putting up steals, assists, scoring in the paint.”
Brown is asked if he feels his declaration to his point forward backfired. “I said it because I meant it,” Brown says. “It was my way of trying to give him a nudge.”
His brother has done the same, with mixed results.
“Confidence is a huge thing, which seems like a contradiction because you look at this guy and think, ‘Nothing can break him,'” Tribe says.
“But he’s human, you know? You can break it down to a psychological thing. ‘Do I shoot it? Do I need to? Am I going to miss?’ I think, ‘Am I going to miss?’ is a big thing.”
Simmons agreed to work with a sports psychologist, while Sixers personnel, friends and teammates have tried — and failed — to instill the necessary impudence to get him over the hump.
“I know it’s going to come,” Simmons says. “It’s a matter of me being comfortable doing it. Some of that is getting the reps in. I can take a hook shot from the elbow, because I’ve done it so many times, I’m confident it will go in. It’s second nature.
“With 3s, it’s never been like that. I’ve got to make it a point of emphasis. I could be one of those guys shooting 30% right now. But I’d rather be one of those guys shooting 40%.”
Boyle, who texts regularly with Simmons, says he is well aware of the internal battle his former prize player grapples with.
“People don’t realize these incredible athletes can lack confidence,” Boyle says. “It becomes a mental thing.
“I keep telling him, ‘You have nothing to be embarrassed about. You’re one of the best players in the world. You’re dating a supermodel. So if you struggle and start out 1-for-20, so what?’ He’s got to get past, ‘I don’t want to read people saying I can’t shoot.’ Well, right now they’re saying you won’t shoot — and that’s worse.”
Boyle offered his own solution on how to coax Simmons into action: Threaten him. It’s a technique, Boyle insists, that Simmons has responded to before, especially considering his thirst for accountability.
“If I were in charge of the Sixers, I’d tell him, ‘If you don’t take a pull-up jumper and a perimeter shot in each half — I don’t care about your percentages — you’re sitting,'” Boyle says.
That is precisely the conversation Brown claims he had with Simmons and his parents last summer. This is not just another family for Brown; he coached David Simmons from 1989 to 1993 on the Melbourne Tigers, and Brown has known Ben since he was an infant. When Ben Simmons missed his entire rookie season following foot surgery, he and Brown watched film of Magic Johnson together, plotting his future as a point guard. His reticence to take 3s has heightened tensions between them, as pressure from the front office to expand his range increases.
“I told Ben, ‘If you aren’t willing to shoot, then do I just bench you? Because I can do that,'” Brown says. “We could have gone that route or continue to coach him as it relates to spacing. We worked on the ability to use it as a choice to shoot the 3, catch and go, get in the paint, or find someone else.
“This was all discussed. I opted to take this path. I think only down the road will we be able to truly assess if it was the right one. In the meantime, he’s a two-time All-Star, a kid that’s gone from a college 4 to an NBA point guard. His story is a pretty darn good one.”
Joel Embiid lauds Simmons’ learning curve, which Embiid says has “no ceiling.” He says he has no doubt they can win together. But at some point, Simmons has to rip off the Band-Aid.
“We’ve had conversations, especially when it comes to shooting,” Embiid says. “Ben can help me a lot. I feel like I’ve helped him a lot with his game. People keep saying, ‘Oh, you have to stop spending time on the 3-point line,’ but I do it because Ben is such a good driver, going to basket, that I’ve got to help open that up for him.
“I would like if he would do the same for me, to start shooting [3s]. But I also know how uncomfortable he is with it.”
SIMMONS IS A PRANKSTER, lethal with a bottle of hot sauce. Turn your head, and your food will suddenly become so spicy you will be guzzling a pitcher of water. He once hid behind a pillar and pelted his closest friends with eggs as they arrived at his residence at the Ritz in Philadelphia for a visit. He placed prawns on the pillow of his Montverde Academy roommate Noah Dickerson because he knew creepy, crawly critters freaked him out. He bombarded his brother Sean with water balloons when they roomed together in Philadelphia.
But Simmons also thwarted a bully from picking on a kid at his primary school in Melbourne and received a commendation from his principal for his compassion.
“I’m a completely different person off the basketball court than on,” Simmons says.
He craves the comfort of his family and will lose himself for hours in video games. He left his native country at 16, alone, and is still figuring out how to compartmentalize the constant scrutiny, along with managing his time and his responsibilities to a franchise that has invested millions in him.
Being accountable means many things. One of them, as Boyle hammered home to Simmons while he was at Montverde, was to adhere to self-discipline. Simmons was late to practice and missed deadlines in the classroom. That, Boyle assured him, wouldn’t fly once he got to the NBA.
Simmons always believed he worked hard, yet some of his peers begged to differ, pointing to offseason regiments that seemed focused primarily on pickup games. As Simmons matures, he says he has aimed higher with regards to conditioning. This past fall, he hired trainer Chris Johnson, whom Simmons had worked with over the summer. He was excited about his first day — until Johnson announced they’d be focused on passing.
“I was top three in assists the last two seasons, so I’m thinking, ‘Why am I working on this?'” Simmons says.
Johnson devised a series of drills that required Simmons to handle two balls at once. Some were simple; others, like executing a pinpoint pass while maintaining the dribble of the second ball, were not. After two weeks, Simmons realized his handle and his facilitation were not as flawless as he thought.
When it came time for shooting, Johnson informed Simmons that players with big hands like him tend to shoot the ball relying on the off-hand thumb to balance it, creating funky rotations. He worked on better placement and exaggerating the use of his fingertips to release the shot. Simmons’ homework assignment was to walk everywhere with a ball, toss it up to himself and note where his hand landed on the ball.
LeBron James, who participated in the summer sessions with Johnson, scoffed at the notion that Simmons didn’t train hard enough.
“He worked his tail off,” James says. “The sky’s the limit for Ben. His size, his strength, his vision, his IQ … he carries himself as someone who believes he’s the best, as you should.
“As long as he doesn’t care about what other people say, he’ll be fine. Nine times out of 10, people who criticize you have never done anything in their life. Either that or they’re jealous ’cause you’re better than them.”
Johnson says he and Simmons have regularly trained together throughout the season, often on the morning of game days. That workload raised eyebrows among the Sixers hierarchy following Simmons’ back injury. Johnson vows their work will pay dividends.
“When Ben’s ready to show the world how good a shooter he is, it won’t just be 3s,” Johnson says. “It will be pull-ups at the elbow, midrange, every aspect of the game.”
Brown reports that he and Simmons had a discussion following the All-Star break that suggested his young star was ready to be more proactive in the final weeks of the season regarding his shot selection. But then he got hurt, dampening that optimism.
“I am disappointed for him and our team,” Brown says. “I wish Ben did [shoot 3s]. More so, his teammates do.”
The last official update on Simmons was on March 11, when Philadelphia released a statement announcing he would be “reevaluated in three weeks.” But multiple team sources confirmed the original plan was always to bring Simmons back for the postseason and, depending on his comfort level, work him back in for a “handful” of regular-season games.
That strategy was disrupted by the stoppage in play due to the pandemic — and the need for the Sixers to be quarantined for two weeks, denying Simmons the opportunity to continue his rehab under the care of the team’s medical staff. Because Simmons is injured, he has been permitted, per NBA guidelines, to visit the Sixers practice facility for treatment.
Even during the early stages of his rehab, Simmons regularly engaged in ballhandling drills to keep his skills sharp. Since then, Simmons has graduated from water rehab to training on a weightless treadmill to conditioning and shooting and a regulated weight-training program. Like many NBA stars whose movements have been confined during social distancing, he ordered a basketball hoop online for his driveway at his new suburban New Jersey home and has been getting up shots in preparation for his return.
“He’s feeling strong,” a member of Simmons’ camp says. “The original restrictions were very limiting, but all of them have been removed. He would probably need another scan, so the doctors could officially clear him, but there’s been no setbacks. He’s dying to get out there.”
Boyle believes Simmons is tantalizingly close to being an unstoppable NBA force.
“But he’s got a choice,” Boyle says. “He can either go to bed at night with this for the rest of his career or do something about it. It’s not gonna go away. If he doesn’t fix it, he won’t get to the All-Pro level, which is OK. He will still be a great player.
“If he can live with that, then live with it — be good with it. But one way or another, he’s gotta confront it. If he does, he’ll be an All-Pro for the next seven years.”
Simmons has heard this from his former coach, his current coach, his family, his friends, his teammates. He concedes he needs to “step outside my box and take that chance.”
“I feel like I want to take [3s] now,” Simmons said shortly before his injury, “as opposed to being asked to force them up. It could be during the playoffs. I’ve prepped so much for it, when I do it, it will work.”
He will not answer to other players or cranky Sixers fans or his coaches or even his family on this matter. He is only 23, but his time is now, and there’s only one voice that matters.
“Me,” Simmons says. “It’s up to me.”
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