Ben Simmons exists as a polarizing figure in the NBA community, at once both mesmerizing and uniquely flawed. The Australian native-turned-basketball wunderkind has received a baptism by fire unlike any of his peers. Praised for his virtuoso playmaking and criticized for his erratic decision making. Both celebrated and picked apart by his local fan base. A microcosm of the patience vs. expectations debate that takes place across the sporting world.
One week, he is the prince that was promised, the all-around mega talent that his name demands. The next, he is a 22-year-old kid that isn’t ready for the bright lights shining down on his red, white, and blue jersey. Where is the middle ground, the rational conversation that so often slips through the cracks?
In truth, there can be no middle ground—at least not in full. This is because Simmons is a product of accelerated team expectations steamrolling individual progression. Even LeBron James, the most microscopically analyzed athlete in the history of sports, can’t quite relate. Sure, there were massive individual expectations the moment LeBron put on a Cavaliers uniform (and even before that). The next great one...A basketball savant tasked with ushering the NBA into its post-Jordan future. But immediate team expectations? The King didn’t have those.
In the vast majority of cases, highly touted NBA rookies are afforded a grace period after being thrust into the professional limelight. They take their inevitable lumps as their bodies and minds adjust to the speed and physicality of a game dominated by grown men—some of whom are nearly twice their age. Their teams—which usually employ a host of young, inexperienced talent—struggle against better, more cohesively assembled competition. In this way, highly touted NBA rookies take part in a team-wide growing period. They aren’t left in the dust because their franchise isn’t quite ready to ditch its training wheels.
While, yes, these rookies are substantial investments for the organization that selects them on draft night, each investment needs time to materialize. This is a process that most franchises and their respective fan bases, especially the lottery entrenched ones, have no issue being patient with.
And they should, in theory, be patient. There is a reason that terms like ‘homegrown talent’ are mentioned ad nauseam when discussing the pre-Durant Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry is a homegrown talent. Klay Thompson is a homegrown talent. Draymond Green is a homegrown talent. It took this trio of All-NBA studs years of incremental improvement to summit the NBA mountaintop. Their franchise fostered them in an environment where mistakes could occur and expectations were grounded in pragmatism. Their fan base understood this. The coaching staff, front office, and ownership group understood this.
Since 2014-15, the Golden State Warriors have been championed as the league’s model franchise. Still, their dynastic heights were not reached the moment Curry left Davidson for the Bay Area in 2009. In his rookie season, the Warriors went 29-53. In his sophomore season, they went 26-56. The year after that, they went 36-46. Like most lottery picks, he joined a rebuilding franchise. It would not be until Curry’s 4th season that the Warriors joined the playoff party.
Ben Simmons, a homegrown talent in his own right, had a far different introduction to the league. Not only did his team make the playoffs in the first season he suited up (he missed the previous season with a Jones fracture), but they were projected to contend for an NBA Finals berth by the time April rolled around. Pair that with a local fan base that had just endured the most publicized rebuild in NBA history, and its fair to say expectations were enormous.
When the Sixers flamed out of the Eastern Conference Semifinals a few weeks later, eyes turned to the team’s star rookie. Simmons had been flummoxed by the Boston Celtics’ defensive strategy, one which dared him to take jump shots every time he brought the ball past half court, the majority of the series. In front of a national audience, the 21-year-old Aussie’s Achilles Heel was glaringly magnetized.
The hot takes came roaring in—The Sixers will never succeed if Simmons refuses to take outside shots...Simmons might never fix his biggest flaw...He’s shooting with the wrong hand! Rather than pump the breaks and acknowledge that Simmons, like any young player, needed time to work out the kinks in his game and expand his repertoire, members of the media and hoards of impatient fans slammed their feet on the gas pedal.
This is not to say Simmons is unfortunate. Ask his contemporaries, many of whom can only dream of postseason glory (or the postseason at all), whether they’d prefer title expectations over lottery balls. They’d all pick the former.
In an alternate timeline, Simmons would have been drafted by a small market franchise in the midst of a rebuild and evaded the scorching limelight while he quietly honed his craft behind slightly cracked doors. There would have been no heightened stakes, the kind that will pounce on the first signs of failure. There would have been no media hysteria, the kind that lives and breathes in big market metropolitan areas like Philadelphia. And there would have been no reason to write this article.
He doesn’t need that timeline, nor does he appear to want it. Philadelphia should be grateful that their All-Star sophomore prefers the high pressure environment.
This steadfast desire for NBA success and superstardom was apparent even before Adam Silver called his name 1st overall in the 2016 draft. The moment Simmons took his first begrudged step on LSU’s campus—video crew in tow—he wanted the world to know he was a professional athlete in waiting. Unlike any other prospect during the one-and-done era, he appeared to be offended by the notion of amateurism. Simmons perceived college as a roadblock instead of a traditional step. In a way, it was refreshingly candid. NBA lottery talent passes through the collegiate ranks every August and disappears before anyone can say April Fools. Simmons had no intentions of fooling anyone. He had his eyes set on June. Unfortunately, a broken foot suffered before the start of the 2016-17 season sidelined the 1st overall pick for the year, meaning his much anticipated NBA debut would have to wait.
Had Simmons not broken his foot, his introduction to the league would have come with far lower stakes than what he experienced twelve months later. The Sixers were coming off their worst season in 43 years and would have needed to incorporate three rookies (Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Dario Sario) into the rotation. Simmons would have undoubtedly improved that team, but they’d have still been a far cry from finals contenders. This never happened, and instead, he was forced to navigate the NBA landscape for the first time on a 52-win team.
Simmons dazzled in his rookie season, racking up triple doubles en route to Rookie of the Year honors. He was the catalyst that sparked one of the most electrifying transition offenses in the NBA, and alongside Embiid, helped usher in a new era of Sixers basketball. After a season-long delay, the NBA success he had always desired was now a reality.
Still, like any young player, he had his flaws, and because of the team’s rapid ascent into NBA prominence, these flaws were placed directly in front of the Hubble Space Telescope for the universe to see. His jump shot, or lack thereof, was a constant topic on Philly sports talk radio, message boards, social media, and national talk shows. Every time he had a sub-par performance against an elite team, the Ben Simmons concern trolling was soon to follow. For as much praise as he received, the criticism was even more pronounced.
The criticism hasn’t died down much in Simmons’ sophomore season. His jump shot is still largely MIA, and it will continue to be a talking point until he addresses the issue. The Sixers have pushed their chips in with the acquisitions of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, meaning expectations are even greater than last season. Simmons still has a long way to go in rounding out his game, but the titled window is already open. The Sixers have not fielded a team with this much talent since Moses came to town—and a lot of the fans weren’t even alive then. Come playoff time, eyes will be on the first-time All-Star. It’s up to Simmons to respond, or it’ll be another season that ends in disappointment and ensuing criticism.
In many ways, Simmons and Philadelphia are a perfect match—though it may not initially appear that way. The City of Brotherly Love has long admired hard-nosed athletes that sport a chip on their shoulder (Brian Dawkins and Allen Iverson, for instance). But above all else, Philadelphians demand a lot from their stars. When things go awry, how will the player respond? Will they wither underneath a barrage of scrutiny? Or will they take it in stride and prepare for the next day?
In his first two seasons, Simmons has taken his criticism in stride. He appears unfazed when fielding demanding questions from the media. Though not nearly as vocal as Embiid, he lets his thick skin do the talking. After Philly’s disappointing 2018 playoff exit, Simmons didn’t harp on his failures, or make excuses. Instead, he talked about rings with his Cameroonian teammate.
The Sixers have propped open their championship window sooner than even the most optimistic fans could have imagined. Because of this, Simmons will never be afforded the patience he deserves. This is the price of team success for a young player. His flaws will be analyzed through a microscope and his failures will be front page news.
If you’re going to grow up in front of the Philadelphia fans and media, you better prepare to take some lumps—especially when there are expectations involved. Not everyone is going to love you. Some are going to want to trade you. Simmons will need to continue developing his game on the fly as he helps lead his team through the Eastern Conference gauntlet waiting on the other side of the 1st round this postseason and beyond. If the first two seasons of his career are any indication, he appears to be up to the task.