Let me start by being absolutely clear: A player's mental makeup is an enormous component impacting his current and future production, and it is imperative that all teams conduct careful, thorough interviews with their potential players to assess their interest and drive to play and learn the sport of basketball. If Bryan Colangelo finds that Ben Simmons only wants to play basketball for the fame and the money, that he has no interest in improving, and that he thinks his teammates are beneath him, he should avoid drafting Simmons and simply select Brandon Ingram.
Having said that, I don't think anyone has the slightest clue what Simmons thinks about basketball or how badly he "wants" to win.
For several months now, we've been treated to take after take deriding Simmons' reputed lack of drive, indifference towards winning, and insouciant leadership. If these were all qualities that we knew truly applied to Simmons, I'd be very concerned. But the reality is that we're lacking a great deal of information as it pertains to Simmons' disposition. Some high-profile media members have made harmful assertions, and those assertions have, in turn, been churned out and regurgitated as fact so frequently that they've largely been accepted as such without media members accepting accountability for their collective lack of knowledge about the inner workings of someone's brain.
In 2010, LeBron James and the Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in six games in the Conference Semifinals. In Game 5 of that series, James turned in one of his worst performances ever, scoring only 15 points on 3-14 shooting. Two days later, the Cavs were eliminated in Boston, with the entire team giving up, and LeBron receiving a torrent of criticism for "allowing" their submission. There are even YouTube videos committed to the infamous last two minutes of that game.
Bill Simmons, of course, followed up that performance by comparing him unfavorably to Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson, instead claiming that James lacked the drive to be one of the greatest players ever. He wrote at the time:
Jordan was a killer. Jordan didn't care if his teammates despised him. Jordan never, ever, not in a million years, would have allowed his team to quit in the final two minutes of Thursday night's game the way LeBron did. His teammates feared him, loathed him, revered him and played accordingly.
This game was seen as evidence that LeBron didn't have the competitive fire or the leadership to do what it takes to win an NBA championship. The media, by watching body language and reacting to James' own reactions, understood the machinations in his head that created this deficiency, they told us. He wasn't a leader. He didn't have drive. He didn't even care.
LeBron was 25 years old.
LeBron of course then went to Miami, and has gone on to play in or win the NBA Finals each of the last five seasons. He's inarguably one of the 10 greatest players of all time, and he could be seen as perhaps the second best ever, behind only Jordan. ESPN recently placed him third. All of which is to say, those autopsies were hogwash. Rather than the series loss pointing to a definitive lack of character in James, the simpler, more likely story is simply that the Cavs were beaten by a better team and that LeBron, exhausted after a season of super human efforts (30-7-9 on 60% TS and a 33% usage rate), was coming to terms with the reality that he couldn't possibly do any more, and that his teammates couldn't help him.
Ben Simmons is not LeBron. This is so obvious it shouldn't need to be stated, and I am in no way equating the talent of the two players. However, he has faced criticism so eerily analogous to the chorus of naysayers following that 2010 postseason that it's difficult not to see the parallels.
Following a tepid late season stretch and a horrible, season-ending loss to Texas A&M in which Simmons only scored 10 points on 4-11 shooting, he was pilloried across many major sites. Most famously DraftExpress's Jonathan Givony published a scathing piece on The Vertical entitled, "Why Ben Simmons Is Not the Top Prospect In the 2016 NBA Draft." His largest criticism was Simmons' demeanor and competitiveness:
Simmons' lack of competitiveness in some crucial games has raised questions about his character as a basketball player. While many top picks succumb to the NBA star lifestyle and emerge as average competitors, it's rare to see that at the collegiate level. From Blake Griffin to Michael Beasley to Carmelo Anthony, those elite college players were rarely questioned about their drive during their collegiate careers. Simmons has displayed an apathy for defense, contact and delivering winning plays in crucial moments.
Like LeBron, Simmons put up superhuman efforts this year, averaging 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists per game in 35 minutes, with 2 steals and a block to boot and a combined AST and USG rate north of 50%. He, too, had dragged the team as far as they could go-- especially after Keith Hornsby's injury-- and he realized the limitations that his teammates placed on their collective ceiling. Worse, if there has ever been a case in which a year of college basketball were a complete waste, this was it. Given all that, couldn't his late-season demeanor simply be an exhibition of his situational comprehension, as LeBron's was six years prior?
Simmons is 19 years old.
To me, assuming that Simmons will "succumb to the NBA star lifestyle" due to some body language and poor performances is reading an awful lot into attributes that are arcane and complicated even in the best of circumstances. Understanding people's character and personality is complex, even among close-knit friends with long-lasting relationships. Claiming insight into these qualities because a teenager was dispirited in a blowout to end a frustrating season seems inapt, and it shouldn't allow us to make overarching assumptions about a player's character and future development or to diminish his accomplishments. Sometimes it's okay to admit you don't know something.
It very well may be the case that Simmons only cares about fame and doesn't like basketball, but we shouldn't come to that conclusion based on our very small available evidence. Even more, it feels like that conclusion is based on very selective evidence that ignores some positive indicators. Simmons was the best player on two National Championship teams in high school, earning MVP honors in back-to-back years. If he's such a toxic leader, how was he able to achieve such comprehensive team success at a young age?
He is also among the most skilled big man prospects of the 21st Century, showcasing dribbling and passing skills that aren't merely byproducts of talented players showing minimal interest in an unsatisfying sport. These were skills that were cultivated over years, as were his multi-handedness and his understanding of his own limitations. The hours committed to developing these skills should be seen as positive indicators of his character as much as his disinterest in propping up a bad LSU team after 4 months should be seen as a negative indicator.
Maybe before we condemn him for behavior that can easily be explained, we should stop to consider how removed we all are from the situation, and acknowledge our lack of expertise and our lack of insight. Treating hearsay as fact and placing more emphasis on the few negative data points we have than on the many positive ones distorts the analysis of his game and is unfair to a talented player. Rather than projecting thoughts we believe to be true onto a canvas that remains largely blank, why don't we all admit how little we truly understand about his approach and his personality?
For that reason, I'm not putting much stock into reports about Simmons' lack of character. If the Sixers determine he's a risk due to attitude concerns after interviewing him, I'll trust their judgment, as they'll have enough information from which to judge. I do not, and so I shall refrain from doing so. Acting otherwise would be a disservice to my analysis and to Simmons' reputation.