The Philadelphia 76ers can't look at Ben Simmons as if he's LeBron James quite yet, and not just because he's already on the roster and doesn't need to be recruited through a back-and-forth billboard saga.
The positionless rookie doesn't yet possess the same takeover instincts as a scorer, and he's unable to impact a game with his jumper. The chase-down blocks and physics-defying highlights haven't been there during his inaugural season, as he's instead quietly racked up game-changing plays and gaudy stat lines.
But during a 108-97 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena, the Sixers should still have gotten a sense they were watching both the present and the future as Simmons went head-to-head with the four-time NBA MVP and earned the coveted seal of approval:
James may have made more noise on the floor with his 30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, but the first-year standout proved himself against his elder, recording 18 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, two steals and a block while shooting 8-of-14 from the field. He showed what he could do as a rookie, while Philadelphia watched a member of the opposition and dreamed of what he might become.
Though Simmons isn't James' spitting image, he does remain a simulacrum. The pieces are there. The skills are present. The well-rounded contributions aid his team's nightly efforts. And though the goals are accomplished in different manners, the statistical production is similar.
During a first-quarter offensive battle, Simmons got off to a quick start as a passer, throwing caution to the wind with downcourt heaves to open shooters prowling the perimeter in transition. These aren't easy passes, and you can't be blamed for seeing a bit of James in the unique make-the-right-play-while-overcoming-risk mentality:
Ditto for Simmons' impact on the glass and as a switching defensive menace. It's on the preventing end that he's most similar to his Cleveland counterpart—more the younger version who exerted constant effort on the less glamorous side than the current 33-year-old iteration who's prone to taking the occasional possession off.
The LSU product prowls the half-court set with a constant eye on jumping passing lanes and stealing the ball for a transition opportunity. More importantly, he's damn good at doing exactly that, displaying quick instincts and always making the most of his lanky arms once he moves into the right spot and becomes an obstructing presence:
Joel Embiid remains the Sixers' best defender, but Simmons is key to the team's No. 4 placement in points allowed per 100 possessions, which falls 3.3 points when he's on the floor. His ability to cover speedy point guards and switch to powerful post presences unlocks the entire scheme, compelling his teammates into a switch-happy attitude that allows them to seamlessly jump from one adversary to another.
Open shots rarely exist against this suffocating Philadelphia unit, and it's tough to avoid taking notice of the young Australian rookie while he flits from one spot to the next in the blink of an eye.
He might remind you of someone. I'll let you guess who that may be.
This archetype isn't common.
The NBA has produced plenty of Michael Jordan wannabees, though none have matched the 6'6" Chicago Bulls legend's overwhelming prowess. Kobe Bryant came closest, and Dwyane Wade did a reasonable imitation, proving that similarly sized 2-guards could still post up and thrive on the offensive end without reliable three-point shots. We're seeing Stephen Curry clones pop up in college, with Trae Young primed to soon enter the Association as a top pick. The prototype Kevin Garnett crafted turned into Anthony Davis. The list goes on.
But finding the do-everything forward who can impact the proceedings in virtually every area? We haven't witnessed the James mold since the original (Giannis Antetokounmpo's limited jumper and unreal strides push him down a slightly different path), and Simmons is the closest yet. The tape provides overwhelming evidence, and the statistical comparison is somehow even more telling.
Heading into Thursday night's affair, Simmons was averaging 16.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.9 blocks while shooting 53.2 percent from the field. Only Russell Westbrook and—you guessed it—James join him in the 16/7/7 club this year, and we're not even factoring in the ostensible point guard's work on defense or shooting efficiency, which largely stems from his prolific work around the basket.
So let's expand the criteria. Now, players must also swipe the ball away once per contest and shoot at least 50 percent from the field, and we're looking at all qualified players throughout the Association's archives. The full list is as follows:
- Larry Bird
- LeBron James (five times)
- Magic Johnson (five times)
- Michael Jordan
- Ben Simmons
That's it. Seriously. A potential Rookie of the Year and four of the 10 best players in the sport's history.
That's an overwhelmingly positive development. But Philadelphia should be even more encouraged, and not just because Simmons is already scoring efficiently and in volume. James has stealthily served as one of the greatest point-producers in NBA history, even if that portion of his game often takes a back seat to other conversations. The first-year Sixer might follow a similar path, but that's still not exactly what we're talking about.
James had four entries in that aforementioned club prior to this season, but none came before his 2009-10 campaign with the Cavaliers. That was his age-25 season, and he'd already submitted six full go-arounds prior to those Herculean efforts.
This point can't be driven home enough: Simmons is putting up these all-encompassing heroics as a rookie.
During his debut with the Cavaliers, James averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 41.7 percent from the field. He was a bit more advanced as a scorer, but the rest of his game was either at a similar level or lagging behind Simmons' abilities—understandable, since James was a prep-to-pro prospect who didn't have the luxury of a collegiate season and de facto redshirt year in the NBA.
But we still have to compare one rookie to another, and the advanced metrics are in the former Tiger's favor.
James racked up 5.1 win shares as a first-year stud. Simmons is already at 5.5 with a quarter of the season remaining. James finished 2003-04 with a score of 118.12 in NBA Math's total points added (TPA), which sits at No. 65 among all freshmen in NBA history, placing him between Kerry Kittles and Clark Kellogg. Heading into Philadelphia's victory over the Cavs, Simmons was already at 145.83 TPA, sandwiched between Karl-Anthony Towns and Bill Walton for No. 52 on the all-time rookie leaderboard.
At this rate (and assuming he plays in every remaining contest), he's on pace to finish within the top 30.
This isn't to suggest Simmons is on a different level than his predecessor, though he is providing even more value while going to work for a team that will likely feature in the Eastern Conference playoffs. It is, however, an indication that he's tracking toward unabashed excellence.
For Simmons to have a career like James', everything has to go right. But "everything" includes the beginning, and the 21-year-old has that under control.
Whether or not the billboard strategy works, Philadelphia has a player who's trending down a James-esque path already under its purview. That's more than any other organization can claim, and Simmons is only getting started.
Just imagine what will happen if (when?) he develops a jumper.