76ers

‘He’s fast as light,’ and Ben Simmons' preseason goal of Defensive Player of the Year doesn't seem so outlandish

‘He’s fast as light,’ and Ben Simmons' preseason goal of Defensive Player of the Year doesn't seem so outlandish

When asked about his goals for this season at media day, Ben Simmons would only reveal one.

He wanted to be the Defensive Player of the Year.

Saturday night against the Pacers, he acted like one, recording three steals in the final 13.9 seconds of the Sixers’ 119-116 win over the Pacers (see observations). Amid all the concern about Simmons’ offense and the question of whether he’ll ever be a willing and able jump shooter, he’s racked up some gaudy defensive numbers.

His 42 steals in 18 games are most in the NBA, while his 72 deflections and 41 loose balls recovered are second. Opponents have shot just 40.9 percent when guarded by Simmons this year. 

Simmons has been excellent defensively in important moments, too. He intercepted Jeremy Lamb’s inbounds pass Saturday in a similar fashion as his game-sealing swipe of Frank Ntilikina’s inbounds the night before at Madison Square Garden.

“The plays that he can make from an athletic standpoint, the plays that he makes from a physical standpoint in that part of the game — we saw last night, you saw two tonight — are just elite,” Brett Brown said. “You hear me sort of cheerlead the cause of him being on an NBA All-Defensive team and it's examples like that that to me make it a no-brainer.”

Simmons has perhaps received the most attention this season for his weakest skill, and the speculation about what it would mean for the Sixers if he were to become a threat as a shooter. Yet since his first regular-season three-pointer on Nov. 20 vs. the Knicks, Simmons has shot just 23 of 59 from the floor (39 percent). 

He did have two bright areas offensively against Indiana — his 13 assists, and his 7-for-7 performance at the foul line. It’s the most foul shots Simmons has taken in an NBA game without a miss, and his teammates and head coach are constantly encouraging the aggression that produces those free throw attempts.

“It’s really been Jo and guys like that, making sure I’m being aggressive and getting to the rim,” Simmons said. “Once I’m doing that, I’m able to make plays and find my guys in the corners, or Jo rolling.”

The free throws are significant, but they’re definitely not what Simmons enjoyed the most about his night. 

“I love being able to get steals and make guys turn the ball over,” he said. “I have a sense of pride in that. It gives us energy.”

His teammates love it, too, even if it doesn’t surprise them.

James Ennis picked up a key steal of his own about a minute before Simmons’ flurry of thefts, jabbing from behind Lamb and unearthing the ball. Like Simmons, he was waiting for his moment to strike. 

“They kept running a 2-5 pick-and-roll with Lamb,” Ennis said. “I’d seen the last two to three times, he put the ball right there. The third time he did it, I saw it happen and I just poked it.”

Unlike Simmons, Ennis doesn’t have the gifts to materialize out of nowhere or single-handedly change a game with his defense. 

“Ben’s incredible,” he said. “He’s fast as light, so he’s everywhere. That’s what he [does.]" 

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Sixers Talk podcast: Hopefully Charles Barkley is wrong about Joel Embiid, Sixers

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Sixers Talk podcast: Hopefully Charles Barkley is wrong about Joel Embiid, Sixers

On the latest Sixers Talk podcast presented by Wilmington University, Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick discuss Charles Barkley's criticism of the Sixers and Joel Embiid, compare the Sixers to the Clippers and more.

• Does Charles Barkley have a point or this all just sensationalism?

• The Sixers have new pieces and it's leading to a clunky fit. What is the solution?

• Just a little more Matisse Thybulle love.

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To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

In years past, it was a common occurrence for Joel Embiid to make a big play and elicit cheers from a sold-out Wells Fargo Center. He’d then raise his arms, imploring the crowd to get louder — and they’d oblige.

This kind of moment happened in Tuesday night’s 97-92 win in a slugfest against the Nuggets (see observations).

With Denver having gone on a run to cut a double-digit deficit to two, the Sixers made a push late in the third. As the clock was winding down, Embiid grabbed an offensive rebound and made a circus shot while he was being fouled.

Embiid went out to center court, raised his arms and the fans went nuts.

Moments like this haven’t been as frequent this year. Not because Embiid hasn’t had spectacular moments, but because he’s trying to be even-keeled.

I haven't done it enough all season,” Embiid said. “I have not been having fun like usual. … It goes back to with me being mature. And one of the biggest parts of my game is just having fun and by having fun is talking trash, but that part, that's kind of been cut. I just need to be myself and I guess just do whatever I want. Because when I'm having fun, I dominate. But this year, I don't know, I can probably count on one hand how many times I've done it. Last year was basically a reaction that I love it. They get me going. They understand me, I do understand them. So, I need to start doing it again because that's how I'm gonna dominate.

Embiid continues to be his dominant self on the defensive end — in case some national pundits forgot that there are two ends to a basketball court. He’s No. 1 in the NBA in terms of defensive rating (95.3) and anchored the defense that held the Nuggets to just 92 points.

With Jimmy Butler gone, it’s also been Embiid who’s been tasked with being the team’s go-to scorer in the fourth quarter. Going to a post player late in games is not something a ton of teams do. Then again, most teams don’t have a big man as physically gifted as Embiid.

Brett Brown has tried to do different things here and there — run isos for Tobias Harris or pick-and-rolls with Ben Simmons. Ultimately, though, Brown said his offense still runs through his “crown jewel.”

Embiid, who almost sounded like a player that had just lost, admitted that he’s still adjusting to his late-game role and also to the idea of drawing attention to free up his teammates.

“Not good enough,” Embiid said when asked about his late-game scoring. “Still getting used to [it]. The whole season I've been trying to adjust. Obviously, it's not the same as last year. It's completely different. So the adjustment has been hard but I'm gonna do whatever I'm asked to every single night. Like I keep mentioning, even if it's being a ball screener or just rebound the ball or take three shots — I'll do that. Whatever they ask me to do.”

It’s been a peculiar season for Embiid. If you were to just look at his scoring numbers, they’re way down. He’s averaging just 21.9 points, down from his 27.5 mark last season. A lot of that is the result of more aggressive double teams and a new supporting cast.

He also just seems a little off as far as his personality goes — and his words Tuesday kind of confirmed that. The only game where he seemed to be his usual plucky self was back on Oct. 30 against the Timberwolves. Of course, that’s the game where he got into a scuffle with Karl-Anthony Towns, shadowboxed to the crowd, got into a profanity-laced Instagram war with Towns, and got suspended for two games.

After that incident, Embiid vowed to never get suspended again. It’s a respectable cause, to be sure, but it seems like it’s led the 25-year-old into an existential crisis.

I'm not trying to be a distraction to the team," Embiid said. "The fight happened and we had good momentum and from there, we just kind of lost it. We lost a couple of games. So, I'm not trying to be a distraction, but that's just part of my game. And I feel like me losing that part, I think it's kind of taken a toll on my game. So it just goes back to me. Sometimes I might be childish and like I said, do whatever I want to, but then again, I care about winning. Everybody knows that. I'll do whatever it takes to win. I care about my teammates, I care about the organization, I care about being a role model. Everybody told me that I need to be — from fans to everybody else — I gotta be mature, so I'm doing it and I don't think it's working but I'm gonna keep doing it.

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question.

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