It’s the dog days of summer. Heat and humidity suffocate and slow life down in the Philadelphia area. Thirst, sweat and the temptation of vacations to the shore abound. To make matters worse, for those who look to sports for inspiration, excitement, or entertainment, the void that currently exists in the local scene can seem equally oppressive (no offense to all the Phillies faithful out there).
Enter the NBA Summer League. To the objective outsider, the concept of spending any amount of time watching borderline NBA talent grace half-empty gyms sounds desperate. The idea of watching more than one full game, pathetic. The notion of obsessing over these performances and using such meaningless scrimmages to project the futures of players or teams, nothing short of absurd.
And yet, that is what I, and countless other devoted disciples of ex-GM Sam Hinkie’s “process”, have spent the last couple of weeks doing. Herein lies the beauty of the Summer League: it morphs fans and NBA executives alike into 6-year-olds during late Christmas morning: marveling for the first time over their shiny new toys, taken out of the packaging for the very first time.
There has been no more coveted rookie in recent memory than No. 25 for the Sixers, Ben Simmons. Since his senior year of high school, Simmons has been surrounded by an unimaginable level of hype, mentioned in the same breath as the greatest player on the planet, LeBron James. However, stowed away in the mediocrity of the LSU program that failed to make the NCAA Tournament, he has been, in a way, a hidden commodity. He skipped the NBA Draft Combine and instead voted to workout privately in Phoenix, leaving fans to gawk at his alluring highlight tapes. So for many of the Sixers faithful, the Summer League was the first opportunity to see if Simmons was as-advertised.
And, boy, did he not disappoint. Sure shortcomings were there. The shooting stroke was inconsistent (though not fundamentally flawed), the work ethic sometimes left something to be desired, decision-making was questionable, and naturally, immaturity shone through at times.
All in all, however, his performance was incredibly impressive, rewarded recently with the First Team All Summer League honors. His unorthodox stat-line speaks to just how unorthodox of a player he is (12.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists per game), but they certainly fall short in telling the whole impression that the young Australian native made during his time in Vegas.
First and foremost, the game seemed effortless to him. Speaking on strictly intangibles, Simmons certainly fit right in on an NBA floor. His six-foot-10-inch frame was not the wiry, immature body of a typical 19-year-old. The 20 plus pounds of muscle that he added after his college campaign were evident, and he seemed to have little difficulty adjusting to the speed and strength of the NBA game. One of the striking features of watching him play is simply to see him move on the floor. For his size, his grace and smoothness is truly remarkable, and does (though I am extremely careful at divulging in this comparison), evoke the image of another freak athlete who currently plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Though he was consistently knocked for his lack of scoring, there was a tangible sense that it was simply a matter of personal choice: that he could have scored if he wanted to (as shown by his 18-point performance vs. the Bulls), but he was simply too enthralled by his own passing wizardry.
Because despite some thunderous dunks or excellent scoring performances by other Summer League participants, Simmons stole the show with passes that could take a viewer’s breath away. They came in all shapes and sizes: looking away, behind the back, rocketed the length of the court, weaved between defenders on the bounce, deftly touched on to a fellow big man. These situations are where we really got to see his full arsenal of talents, size, athleticism and intellect. And for some, to see him grab a rebound and lead a break was to see the beloved leader of the “Showtime” Lakers, Magic Johnson.
Such innate vision and ability is a lethal combination, especially when paired with the other young talent that the Sixers now have on their roster. Some were on full display over the past few weeks as well, including the wiry Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, another first round selection by the Sixers, who wowed with his athleticism and solid three-point shooting stroke. Or the gutty Brandon Paul, who proved that his three professional years in Spain and the NBA Development League have led to big improvements on his time as a slashing guard at the University of Illinois. Not to mention the likes of Okafor, Embiid, Noel and the newly-acquired Dario Saric, who were not even featured on the team’s Summer League roster. What’s most encouraging, therefore, is that the skill set that Simmons put on display might also be exactly what the Sixers may need after all: Brett Brown’s insinuations that he may use his prospect as a point guard down the line could make room for the rest of the front court talent that the team has amassed.
So yes, it feels like the dog days of summer for many of us. And for Sixers fans, this feeling has been all-too familiar over the past few years. But after years of floundering in some of the worst seasons in not only team history, but arguably in all of NBA history, the talent on the floor at the Summer League has shown that these days may be numbered.
Let the Ben Simmons era begin.