When Sam Hinkie initiated the Philadelphia 76ers’ rebuild back in June of 2013, trading Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel along with the pick that would eventually become Dario Saric, it created a hole at point guard. Hinkie quickly addressed it by selecting Michael Carter-Williams with the 11th pick. A season of gaudy counting stats combined with YMCA-level shooting efficiency would earn Carter-Williams Rookie of the Year honors, and Hinkie smelled blood. He capitalized on Carter-Williams’ inflated value and flipped him for a Lakers’ future first round pick - a remnant from the Steve Nash trade of July 2012. The trade was heavily criticized as a “kicking the can down the road” move, an egregious demonstration of Hinkie’s ill-regard for the sanctity of the game and yet another unabashed tanking move.
Fast forward to the present. Sam Hinkie has been run out of town on a rail with the letters C-O-L-A-N-G-E-L-O etched in it, just in time to see the orchard he worked so hard to cultivate finally bear fruit. If the goal was to position the team to have the best odds of winning the No. 1 pick, to nab a talent capable of lifting the franchise out of its self-imposed cellar inhabitance, like it or not Process haters, it happened. Its name is Ben Simmons, and he is the 76ers’ point guard of the future.
One thing was demonstrably evident throughout Summer League, Ben Simmons’ passing is a transcendent skill. To maximize this otherworldly ability, it is essential that he be the primary initiator on offense. Brett Brown has seemingly already figured this out, as Simmons has been given the ball on most possessions. When you watch him play, it’s like the game is unfolding before him in slow motion. He’ll see the pass, make the decision to pass, but not until looking the other way to deceive the defense, and in some cases, the cameraman. At that point, he doesn’t have to look back at his man, because he knows exactly where the ball needs to go. He sees without seeing.
The combination of power forward size (6’10’’, 240 lbs) with the aforementioned passing wizardry have led to some outrageous player comparisons, with Magic Johnson and LeBron James among the most outlandish, and Lamar Odom as perhaps the most uninspiring. But for as many point forward parallels there are, make no mistake, Ben Simmons is a point guard on offense. The players that surround him need to be able to play without the ball, catch and shoot, and defend at their position. Oh, and please, of all things, convert on the gifts that he bestows upon you.
Simmons will be the reason the NBA starts recording unconverted assists. There’s nothing like feeling the thrill of witnessing one of these beautiful passes only to have it immediately stripped away from you due to incompleteness. You want Simmons to get those assists because it’s justified. He deserves credit for generating a wide-open look for his teammate. He’s the type of player that makes players better by making their shots easier.
In addition to demonstrating an ability to pick apart defenses in the half court, the grab-and-go transition offense is something to behold. Simmons averaged nearly 12 rebounds a game at LSU, and displayed enough at Summer League to indicate this skill will carry over to the next level. Brown should want Simmons to emphasize transition basketball as much as possible, and the combination of newly added shooters and their incumbent stars of track of field (Noel, Grant, Holmes) will undoubtedly result in some electrifying highlights this coming season.
Bryan Colangelo has very quietly conducted some savvy free agent pickups in accordance with playing Simmons at the point: Jerryd Bayless (three years, $27 million) and Gerald Henderson (two years, $18 million). But perhaps his best move was not executing the rumored draft night trade of Nerlens Noel, Robert Covington (another good fit next to Simmons), the No. 24, and the No. 26 pick. That would have been quite the haul for Kris Dunn, who no doubt has a sparkling career ahead of him, assuming he can steal the job from infamous ball thief Ricky Rubio. But the 76ers didn’t need to trade up to No. 3 or No. 5 to get a point guard, because they got one at No. 1.
Colangelo also didn’t screw up bringing Dario Saric into the fold, although it strongly helped that Saric is a man of integrity, committing to his “I’m coming over in two years” promise. The presence of Saric produces some interesting overlap, but there could be lineups where Simmons and Saric can coexist, especially if Saric’s shooting can carry over to the NBA. Players that are 6’10” and also gifted passers are like unicorns, not of the rarely spotted Porzingis breed of course, but atypical mixes of size and skill. The Sixers having two of these players is a luxury, not a burden.
One thing is certain, the 76ers are going to be vastly different now. Not immediately in terms of wins and losses, but what has certainly been a questionable core for the past three seasons can finally claim a foundational piece. And for their plethora of bigs, they can look forward to getting a large helping of beautiful bunnies this season.