Ben Simmons: Why the fuss is justified

Ben Simmons is creating quite a fuss.

He will be on 60 Minutes  on Sunday night, talking about growing up in Melbourne, how he played footy and won a best and fairest but followed his dad into basketball (incidentally, he was never going anywhere else although he did barrack for Essendon, if this is meant to be important).

Ben Simmons goes for the dunk.

He's helped the storied Philadelphia 76ers, NBA club of the incomparable Dr J Erving and Moses Malone and Allen Iversen and Charles Barkley, to rise into championship contention off the back of five dreadful seasons in which they did not even smell the play-offs.

Just two years ago, the Sixers won only 10 games in an 82-game regular season; this season, they won 52 games and then blitzed Miami Heat 4-1 in the first round of play-offs, setting up an eastern conference semi-final against either the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks.

Philadelphia have become the Cinderella story of the NBA with their all-world team headed by the Dandenong boy Simmons and Joel Embiid, their brilliant centre from Cameroon, and Croatia's Dario Saric and smooth-shooting Italian Marco Belinelli. Simmons, 21, will surely win rookie of the year honours and his numbers (15.8 points, eight rebounds, eight assists per game) are remarkable in the context of their breadth. He has 12 triple-doubles, second in NBA history by a rookie player, setting a string of records.

But it's not just bare numbers that make Simmons a phenomenon. It's more so that he is unique. At 208 centimetres (or 6'10" in the old language), he would typically be playing the power forward or No.4 spot at NBA level. But Simmons is a point guard, playing at the No.1 spot, carrying the ball and setting the offence for his team. He is ridiculously quick, an astonishing passer and creator and he hardly ever turns the ball over.

By definition, he is a freak player, albeit with one flaw: his lack of a consistent jump shot. Simmons has spent the first part of his life dunking on people and thus, never developed a longer-range shot of note. It is the one knock on his game but just as surely, he is working on it. Perhaps he will never be a big-scoring player like LeBron James but in any case, he can make his little running shots with both his preferred left and almost-as-good right hand and as a selfless team player, he is content to pass and create for others.

To Simmons, ball-carrying and distribution are instinctive. He always has been a guard, and his father, Dave Simmons, the former Melbourne Tigers NBL championship centre from the 1990s, remembers having trouble convincing his teammates at junior level that he ought to be carrying the basketball. They thought he should be playing centre at that height.

It brings to mind an old story about Earvin ''Magic'' Johnson, who played point guard for Los Angeles Lakers for 13 years at 206 centimetres (6'9") and who sits in the upper echelon of the greatest basketballers who have lived. In game five of the 1980 NBA finals, the Lakers lost their all-time great centre, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to an ankle sprain, a potentially devastating blow in the series against Philadelphia.

But when the Lakers' players boarded their private plane to travel to Philly for game six, they found Magic sitting in Jabbar's customary seat in the aircraft. Johnson jumped at the opening tap in games six, played every position including centre, and had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in the Lakers' win, his greatest-ever performance.

The story is worth retelling because in basketball, for a point guard to play at centre is like a rover playing as ruckman in AFL footy, and while there is only one Magic Johnson, he is the kind of name good judges use when they talk about Simmons.

Cleveland's James, who plays a similar all-court game is another, and interestingly, James and Simmons have developed a mentor relationship. They share a management company and wear the same shoes, although the Australian has a way to go to reach James' territory. "You have the opportunity to be better than me," James is said to have told him several years ago. "But you can't skip steps. You have to do the work."

Simmons certainly is or will be the greatest Australian basketballer ever, a title that has belonged – most likely – to Lauren Jackson, who won three WNBA most valuable player awards including on in a championship year. He has eclipsed Andrew Gaze, a legend of international basketball and especially the Olympics, who only momentarily dabbled in the NBA, and Luc Longley, who played in three NBA championships with Chicago Bulls as starting centre, but who had the comforting thought of having Michael Jordan in his team.

Moreover, Simmons might well be the greatest of all Australia's international sports men and women right now.

Think about it. Steve Smith of cricket fame is under suspension for his role in the game's ball-tampering catastrophe and who knows how well he will come back? The magnificent Sally Pearson is injury-ravaged and 31, while the gun rower Kim Brennan has stopped competing, at least for now. Nick Kyrgios has threatened to win a grand slam tennis crown but has not made it yet. Jason Day was the world's No.1 golfer a while back but has hit a plateau. The best swimmers – Mack Horton, Emily Seebohm, Mitch Larkin – are great but not on the invincible level, and their sport is nowhere near as widely practised as basketball.

Along those lines I rule out the footballers, like Dustin Martin, Lance Franklin and Cameron Smith of Storm fame, because their games are either not international or barely so (in the case of rugby league). Internationally,  two who jump out as candidates are Sam Kerr, of the Australian national soccer team, one of the best in the world in the planet's biggest sport, and Daniel Ricciardo, who has won six F1 grand prix races.

But I fancy it's Simmons, a dominating player already at the pinnacle of arguably the world's second-biggest sport.  And if he's not there yet, then just wait five minutes.


SAM KERR (soccer)

A dominant player in the US league and shortlisted for FIFA's best female player award last year.

JASON DAY (golf)

Was world No.1 as recently as February, 2017 and also won a major in 2015. Still a big-time player despite a quiet 2017.

SALLY PEARSON (athletics)

Olympic 100 metre hurdles champion and twice world champion at her preferred event.


Winner of four ATP titles, and ranked as high as 13th in the world, with more to come.

STEVE SMITH (cricket)

Our best since Bradman until his suspension this year.

BEN SIMMONS (basketball)

No.1 draft pick who has justified his ranking in a stellar first season in the NBA.

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