Column: If Ben Simmons is the question, Who’s ‘The Answer’?
If Ben Simmons is the question, who’s The Answer?
Allen Iverson, of course.
No. 1 picks are always an expensive roll of the dice. Teams that make those selections are, by design, in need of real help, and fast. Expectations are high and patience is in short supply. Though 20 years separate the 76ers’ latest top pick and their last one, Simmons could learn a lot studying the arc of Iverson’s career.
In many ways, they couldn’t be more different. Simmons is a smooth, 6-foot-10 passer in the Magic Johnson mold, and a more accomplished scorer down in the post at this stage of his career. Iverson was a 6-0 dynamo unlike just about every other scoring guard the NBA had seen.
The knock against Simmons has been that he’s too passive, that a guy with his skills should take over games on a whim, and that he didn’t do it often or forcefully enough in his one season at LSU, playing in a weak SEC. He was a reluctant prodigy, the Australian-born son of a pretty good American basketball player named Dave Simmons, and according to a story making the rounds on draft night, so shy about playing against older kids at first that his mother, Julie, used to offer young Ben cash rewards to join pickup games.
Fair or not, the narrative stuck.
“There’s just something about the way Simmons has handled himself, or been handled by his camp, that gives me a little bit cause for pause,” Stu Jackson, the former coach, general manager and current analyst, told SI.com recently. “Just in terms of whether mentally and personally he’s ready to make this jump to the NBA level.”
The knock against Iverson coming out in 1996 after two years at Georgetown was just the opposite. He was too selfish, always making ill-advised pushes to take over games himself. He was brash, with a check-marked past.
But Iverson had the goods. He didn’t make Philadelphia a contender immediately, but he didn’t back down from many personal challenges along the way — and Philly fans loved him for it. He punctuated his individual duel with Michael Jordan during his rookie year with a crossover dribble still making highlight reels. He was the NBA rookie of the year, and in quick succession, its leading scorer, a perennial All-Star, a tough out in his only NBA Finals appearance and even an Olympian.
His ascension was hardly smooth, though. Many of the problems were of Iverson’s making. His insistence on calling his own number in too many tight spots led one-time 76er and TV analyst Charles Barkley to rename him “Me, Myself and Iverson.” And Iverson’s often-replayed and misunderstood rant on practice — “We’re talking about practice. Practice!” — likely draws as many views as that ankle-breaker against MJ.
It wasn’t until he played on a 2004 Olympic squad packed with pampered stars and bad attitudes that Iverson changed his games. That version of the “Dream Team” underperformed its way to the bronze with Iverson kicking and screaming. The lesson about pulling a team along in your wake was one that Iverson learned too late.
So when he turned up on draft night in Philly — with part of a crowd estimated at 4,000 locals; the biggest gathering since Iverson’s draft night — he was asked what advice he had for Simmons.
“Be ready for the ups and downs,” Iverson began. “I’m the perfect example. Failed, got back up. Failed, got back up.”
The challenge for Simmons is to pick and choose carefully through that legacy. The 76ers are a curious mix of potential — recent draft choices Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel — and placeholders in search of a real star willing to take charge. Simmons could be that guy. The question is whether he’ll be able to combine some of the fire of the early Iverson and temper it with the hard-earned maturity he displayed toward the end of his playing days.
76ers coach Brett Brown thinks he knows the answer. He knows Dave Simmons from their days in Australia’s National Basketball League and Ben from his days as coach of the Australian men’s national team.
Simmons is “being 19, 20 years old. I know how he ticks. I know his family,” Brown told a Philadelphia radio show. “And from a competitive standpoint and a growth perspective, I mean we all get it. They’re just teenagers.”
But on draft night, Simmons already vowed to be a quick study.
“You put me in any situation,” he said defiantly, “and I’ll make the most of it.”
If the youngster ever loses his way in Philly, however, the Answer won’t be hard to find, not in the city of Brotherly Love.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and http://twitter.com/JimLitke