LAS VEGAS — The size of the crowd was astonishing: 16,208? For a summer-league game? Los Angeles is a quick 4 ½-hour drive from the scorched Strip, but Lakers fans couldn’t be this interested in watching D’Angelo Russell’s rise from last season’s rubble or No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram’s second game in purple and gold.
Some were. Many more weren’t. It has been years since the 76ers were a draw. That’s what happens when you gut your team and embark on one of the most polarizing rebuilding projects in NBA history. Yet the Thomas & Mack Center was abuzz July 9 with fans eager to get a first look at Philadelphia’s reward for a third straight abysmal season: No. 1 pick Ben Simmons.
Simmons didn’t disappoint — he posted eight points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. In four games in Vegas, Simmons averaged 12.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists. He earned praise from his peers (“Mini LeBron,” Bulls rookie Denzel Valentine dubbed him.) and was called a “special talent” by his coach, Sixers assistant Lloyd Pierce. He dazzled the crowd that came to see him and impressed the collection of NBA coaches and executives there to dissect him.
“He’s super impressive,” said an Eastern Conference executive. “He’s going to make everyone on his team better.”
Added a Western Conference scout: “Great size, great vision, makes sharp passes. What’s not to like?”
A question rival executives kicked around last week: Was it all worth it? The 76ers went 47-199 over the last three seasons. The GM got fired. Attendance bottomed out. The NBA tried to change the draft-lottery system because of them. Yet Philadelphia is now in an enviable position. Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel are promising big men. Center Joel Embiid is progressing in his recovery from a second foot surgery; the Sixers are optimistic the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft will be ready for the start of training camp. Dario Saric, drafted 12th overall in 2014, will be there, too. And Philadelphia has Simmons, a 6-foot-10, 239-pound point forward with superstar potential.
“I hated what they did,” said a Western Conference GM. “But you can’t deny what they have.”
Simmons is the tent pole. Sixers coach Brett Brown raised eyebrows this month when he suggested Simmons could play point guard. Brown has stuck by it, telling The Vertical that he envisions Simmons spending a lot of time on the floor as a shoot-first point guard. Part of that may be necessity; Jerryd Bayless is the only established NBA playmaker on the roster. But part of it is because Simmons has the skills to support it.
Now, Philadelphia must support Simmons. It begins with GM Bryan Colangelo. Simmons needs to be surrounded by shooters; Philadelphia was an abysmal three-point shooting team last season. Colangelo has acknowledged the need to alleviate the logjam in the frontcourt, and collecting floor spacers to flank Simmons is a priority. So, too, should be adding veterans. Dotting the roster with players who have won will help Simmons learn to win as well.
Player development falls to Brown. Simmons is skilled, but the underhanded shovel passes he dished out in Vegas will get picked off by NBA defenders, and the lanes opened up by Europe-bound summer leaguers will close quickly at the next level. Simmons didn’t defend anybody this month, and his erratic jump shot will keep defenders daring him to shoot it.
Simmons will have to be willing to embrace fundamental changes. A jump shot, Spurs assistant coach Chip Engelland said, is very personal. In 2011, Engelland noted that Kawhi Leonard’s release point was too high. He showed Leonard photos of Kobe Bryant’s release, and encouraged him to tweak his to match it. Five years later, Leonard is the third-most-accurate three-point shooter in the NBA. Simmons doesn’t have to be that good, but if Brown’s staff — which includes shooting coach Eugene Burroughs — identifies a problem, Simmons, like Leonard, must be willing to fix it.
Brown will have to ride out plenty of mistakes, too. Simmons averaged nearly four turnovers per game in summer league; that number may swell even more next season. It’s expected — James averaged 3.5 turnovers in his first season, and has never dipped below three. Simmons figures to have the ball in his hands more than James did. Brown is committed to the point forward experiment, and assistant coach Jim O’Brien maximized Antoine Walker in Boston playing a similar role, but there could be some ugly turnover nights in Simmons’ future.
These are problems, but good ones. The Sixers have Simmons, whose talent makes the James comparison a fair one. James never became a great three-point shooter, just good enough to make defenses respect him. His skills did the rest. Simmons can follow a similar path. With a little polish, Philadelphia will have the franchise player for which it has been starving — and the centerpieces of a supporting cast ready to be molded around him.
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