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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