WASHINGTON, D.C. — They had a 6'10" rookie running the point and a 7-foot cult leader cavorting to the crowd any time one of his feathery mid-range jumpers ripped through the net.
These are images the Philadelphia 76ers had been waiting years to see. There have been losses and injuries and more losses and more injuries and missed lottery selections and strange trades. Also, losses and injuries.
And then, finally, Wednesday night arrived, bringing with it the start of a new season.
For the Sixers, the time had come to stop talking about what could be and instead focus on what is, which, it turns out, looks like a team that should quickly morph into one of the league’s most beloved and talented groups.
And so ignore, for a moment, the 120-115 road loss to the Washington Wizards in D.C.’s Capital One Arena, and all the poor defense and lazy rotations and sloppy end-of-game passes. That's small-picture stuff. Focus, instead, on the future that Wednesday night teased.
After all, sometimes, even in professional sports, results don’t tell the full story.
"It felt like I was playing [NBA]2K honestly," Ben Simmons, the aforementioned 6'10" point guard, told reporters after the game. "Just looking at [Joel] Embiid out there with the lights on his jersey. I was like, 'Man, I’m actually here.' It's fun. I'm enjoying it. Lot of games left."
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This was Simmons' NBA debut. Picked No. 1 overall in 2016, he was forced to spend his first NBA season watching from the sidelines due to a foot injury—meaning he had every reason to be nervous Wednesday night. Or anxious. Or jumpy. Or tense. Or any emotion not typically felt while sitting on a couch playing video games.
And yet: "It was just normal," Simmons said of his debut. "I’ve been doing this my whole life. It’s just better players now and better competition."
He racked up 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, and he turned the ball over just once in 34 minutes of action, even while running the show at the point. Every one of his 15 field-goal attempts came inside the paint.
"I knew Ben was really good, but if he keeps that up, he’s going to be really special," Sixers guard T.J. McConnell told Bleacher Report postgame. "He plays at his own pace, he didn’t force anything, ran the show—he played like he’s been in the league for six to seven years."
For most teams, this sort of performance from a No. 1 pick would be cause for a parade. The Sixers, though, aren't most teams. They haven't been built like most teams, and they don't aspire to reach the heights that most teams do. They have loftier goals. That was the whole point of this, um, process.
And so even on a night when he played the point with a level of poise we've almost never seen from a man his size, Simmons wasn’t even the star of the evening—not when Joel Embiid was there, soaring through the air (albeit for missed dunks) and physically looking like a man among boys all while urging on a crowd stuffed with loyal Sixers fans to continue chanting his mantra of "Trust the process."
Because that’s the thing with Embiid—he’s got once-in-a-generation talent (he finished Wednesday night with 18 points and 13 rebounds in 27 minutes) as well as an entertainer’s instincts.
We’ve seen stars before, but not many have the wit to so cleverly roast future Hall of Famers or the gall to publicly court a pop star like Rihanna or the honesty to curse in anger when learning of a minutes restriction being placed on him. And the thing is, he can violate all those silly standards we, for some reason, hold our athletes to and still remain lovable.
"No, I’ve never seen anything like that, I don’t think any of us have," Philadelphia guard Jerryd Bayless told Bleacher Report. "Not only is he special on the court, he’s a…I don’t even know what to call him, what the word is.
"I guess the best comparison I can think of is Shaq."
Which just might be Embiid’s ceiling, both on and off the floor. Only Embiid now has social media in his arsenal and a running mate in Simmons who looks like he’s going to become a star faster than many thought.
That doesn't mean the road forward is going to be a smooth one. More losses and lessons are on the way, and perhaps injuries, too.
But after years of living in the shadows, the Sixers have become a team ready to leap into the spotlight.
As NBA fans, we're all better for it.