On media day, there was a different vibe to Ben Simmons.
He came across mature, thoughtful, self-aware, confident. It’s not that he didn’t show some of these traits before, but this was different.
He said he was focused on blocking out all the outside noise. He knew his much-discussed shot needed to improve, but he was working on it. Several of his teammates lauded his leadership.
It was fair to wonder how any of that would translate to the court.
If Wednesday’s performance in the Sixers’ 107-93 season-opening win is any indication, the rest of the league better take notice.
“Ben was unbelievable,” Al Horford said. “Just his pace, getting to the basket at will. Tough finishes — very, very tough finishes around the basket. He really just carried us tonight, that's how I felt, making the right play every time, either taking it or finding an open man. It was great to see, to be honest.”
The numbers were impressive. Simmons put up a team-high 24 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. Since the NBA started keeping track of assists and rebounds, no Sixer has ever recorded that stat line on opening night.
What made the night even more impressive was the way Simmons did it. No, he didn’t take a three — he didn’t even take a shot outside of 10 feet. He was in attack mode all night long and got to the rim at will. He finished a neat and tidy 11 of 16 from the field.
While the development of Simmons’ perimeter game has been welcomed by his coach and his teammates, let’s not forget the skill set that made him the No. 1 overall pick.
“Who needs to be reminded? Not me. I see it every day,” Tobias Harris said. “Honestly, for me the jumper, if it’s there, it’s there. But he forces teams to really make a crowd every time he drives in the lane. That’s one of his best weapons on the floor, is forcing a crowd to come into the paint when he drives. Sometimes that’s equivalent to being a spacer on the floor. There’s going to be looks for him to get and knock down, and when he does get those opportunities, he’ll be able to show what he works on. Today you saw the impact he can make in the half court regardless of shooting a jumper or not.”
The Celtics have been a bit of a boogeyman for the Sixers the last couple seasons. Simmons has been particularly victimized by Boston his first two years in the league. The 24 points and nine assists were the highest marks he’s ever posted against the Celtics.
A big part of Boston’s plan in slowing Simmons was Horford. The 33-year-old was one of the rare players that had the size and feet to give Simmons problems. Now, Horford is on Simmons’ side.
And he can see where Simmons has improved.
“No question about it,” Horford said. “He really looked like he was enjoying it out there. He was having fun, just playing free and just making reads and it's great to see him play at that level.”
The fact that sometimes seems to get lost in any conversation about Simmons is his age. He’s 23 and this is just his third NBA season. He’s already earned Rookie of the Year and an All-Star appearance. He’s been the point guard of a team that’s won 50 games and playoff series in back-to-back seasons.
But still, everyone will keep coming back to the shot.
He gets it.
He’s just not letting it get to him.
“No, because there's a reason,” Simmons said. “I mean, I'm skilled, I'm gifted so I think I'm pretty good at what I do. I mean, there's things I got to get better at, everybody knows that in the room. It's shooting, but I'm working so it is what it is.”
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