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NEW YORK — After three years in the darkest depths of the NBA's basement during a protracted rebuilding effort that resulted in a staggering number of losses and the resignation of general manager Sam Hinkie, the Philadelphia 76ers finally landed the No. 1 overall pick. This, the argument goes, is why you Trust The Process — because it gives you the best chance of drafting a potentially franchise-altering talent like Ben Simmons.
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As was widely expected in the days leading up to the 2016 NBA draft, the 76ers opened up Thursday's festivities at Brooklyn's Barclays Center by tabbing Simmons, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound playmaking forward out of LSU, with Philly's first top overall selection since newly minted Hall of Famer Allen Iverson in 1996.
Congratulations @BenSimmons25. I know you'll make all of us Philly fans proud!!
— Allen Iverson (@alleniverson) June 23, 2016
— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) June 23, 2016
Simmons' selection was largely expected, but that doesn't mean the man himself wasn't feeling the adrenaline as his dream became reality.
"It feels amazing, honestly," he told reporters in his post-draft press conference. "I can't even -- my legs were shaking when I was on stage."
Given the significant struggles the Sixers have faced in recent years, you'd forgive Simmons if he felt a bit of trepidation knowing the size of the mountain he's got to climb to help get Philadephia back into playoff contention. To hear him tell it, though, the feeling he had after donning that Sixers cap wasn't one of anxiety; it was one of relief.
"Honestly, it feels like all this pressure just has dropped off me," he said. "I can relax now that I know where I'm going to be. More importantly, I know where I'm headed and where I'm going to start working, and what I need to work on for the team."
While some NBA talent evaluators and decision-makers reportedly rated Duke swingman Brandon Ingram as a better overall prospect, reports circulated earlier this week that, after Simmons finally made his way to the Sixers' facility for an in-person meeting and workout, the 76ers informed the 19-year-old native of Australia that he'd be their top choice.
“He’s got an NBA body and he’s got some skills that are NBA skills, definable NBA skills,” 76ers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said before Thursday's draft, according to Reuters. “When you put that size and skill together, it’s generally a pretty good package.”
The son of Dave Simmons, a South Bronx-born big man who had a lengthy pro career in Australia's National Basketball League — where he was coached for a time by Brett Brown, who now runs the show for the Sixers — Simmons began turning heads and generating attention as a teenager. As a 15-year-old, he earned a spot on the Australian national team for the FIBA Under-17 World Championship, helping the squad earn a silver medal after bowing out to a U.S. squad led by, among others, tournament MVP Jahlil Okafor, whom the Sixers drafted with the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft.
Simmons moved to Florida in January of 2013 to attend prep power Montverde Academy, where he continued to flourish and generate buzz as a versatile talent capable of changing games as a scorer and playmaker while also using his size to make an impact on the boards and on the defensive end. He was named the 2014-15 Gatorade Boys' High School Player of the Year, following in the footsteps of fellow future No. 1 picks like LeBron James, Chris Webber, Dwight Howard, Greg Oden, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the last two winners of the NBA's Rookie of the Year award.
One of the nation's top-ranked recruits in the class of 2015, Simmons chose to play his college ball at LSU, becoming the program's most highly toutest prospect since the days of Randy Livingston and Shaquille O'Neal. Simmons displayed his estimable talents during his time at LSU, even earning a shoutout from President Barack Obama during a Baton Rouge political rally for his often-sterling play. He averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game — making him the first Southeastern Conference player ever to finish in the top five in all three categories — en route to a consensus First-Team All-America selection.
On the whole, though, the Tigers underwhelmed, getting off to a slow start and struggling to get the most out of a roster that featured not only Simmons, but also fellow five-star freshman Antonio Blakeney, pro prospect Tim Quarterman and former Arizona transfer Craig Victor. Despite a late-winter surge that got them to the doorstep of the NCAA tournament, ultimately falling short of March Madness and opting out of postseason play entirely, bringing a disappointing end to Simmons' one-year collegiate career.
"Everything is not going to be perfect," he said when asked what he learned from his disappointing year at LSU. "You've got to learn to fight through adversity, the struggles or whatever happens during the season, but you've got to play through it, keep working, and things change. Players get hurt, but you've just got to play through it."
Despite LSU's struggles, many draftniks still expected Simmons to be the first name announced at the 2016 draft. Back in March, though, Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress noted that some NBA decision-makers found enough cause for concern in LSU's listless late-season performance, and Simmons' role in it, to generate questions about his drive, defensive commitment and shooting form, the sum total of which led some teams to drop him down below Duke's Ingram — a 6-foot-9, 200-pound wing who is 14 months younger and has a significantly longer wingspan than Simmons, and who shot 41 percent from the college 3-point line — on some teams' draft boards.
Simmons himself acknowledged that he has plenty to work on as he steps up to the next level.
"Everything," he said. "From eating right to getting my body right for 82 games to dribbling to shooting. Just everything. Ball-handling. I think everything really needs to be worked on because you're going to that next level where guys have been in the league for 10-plus years, so they have a lot of experience."
More recently, though, Givony slid Simmons back up into the top spot in his mock draft for The Vertical: "Simmons is the player the Sixers want at No. 1, at least that’s what Vertical sources have said Philadelphia has told other teams around the league." The player they want was described this spring by Yahoo Sports national college basketball writer Jeff Eisenberg as one "whose combination of athleticism, ball handling, rebounding and court vision compares very favorably to Lamar Odom at similar stages of their careers." That sounds like a pretty cool player, and one who might finally give Philly the ball-handler they've been lacking in recent years.
"They know I can play the point forward position and I'm comfortable bringing the ball up, so I think that's one of those things we'll talk about and discuss a lot," he said.
What kind of on-court match a ball-handling combo forward might make alongside incumbent Philly big men Okafor and Nerlens Noel, as well as the just-cleared-to-scrimmage 2014 first-rounder Joel Embiid (who could finally make his Sixers debut this fall) and fellow 2014 pick Dario Saric (who might finally opt out of his contract with Turkish club Anadolu Efes to make his Sixers debut this fall) remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen, of course, which of them Simmons will actually have to fit alongside; neither Embiid nor Saric are sure things to suit up in Sixers red, white and blue yet, and both Okafor and Noel have found themselves embroiled in trade talks this week.
Whatever else changes about the 76ers' roster moving forward, Simmons will be expected to serve as the primary factor in turning around a franchise that has strung together three straight sub-20-win seasons, hasn't won 50 games since 2000, and hasn't won an NBA championship since 1983. It's a Herculean challenge that dwarfs anything he faced in Louisiana, but the 19-year-old phenom believes he's equal to the task.
"I think everything that I went through has helped mold me into the player that I am now," Simmons said before Thursday's draft, according to the Associated Press. "But I think I'm ready."
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