PHILADELPHIA, PA – Within a matter of moments, it became pretty obvious what the headline from the 76ers’ pre-season opener would be:
In first career NBA exhibition game, Ben Simmons shines.
Nine seconds into Wednesday’s tilt at The Center, the 2016 No. 1 pick got the Sixers on the board with a driving layup. The team’s next five scoring sequences went as follows:
• 10:54 1st Q – Simmons layup (4-2)
• 9:57 1st Q – Redick 3fg, Simmons assist (7-2)
• 9:43 1st Q – Simmons rebound, Holmes jumper, Simmons assist (9-2)
• 8:18 1st Q – Covington 3fg, Simmons assist (12-8)
• 7:29 1st Q – Fultz layup, Simmons assist (14-13)
Yes, Simmons, out all last season with injury, wasted little time indeed announcing his arrival, doing so in impactful, hope-inspiring fashion. Starting as the Sixers’ primary ball-handler, he had a role in producing all of the club’s first 14 points.
By night’s end, Simmons finished 6 points, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists in 21 minutes of action. The Sixers lost to the Memphis Grizzlies, 110-89, but that was hardly the story.
“I think the tempo was good,” said Simmons, who generated five of his dimes in the opening quarter. “Overall, I just got to work on different plays and sets, read the defense, and see what’s open.”
In addition to Simmons, Jahlil Okafor stood out. Using his slimmed down frame, the third-year center was quick on his feet offensively, and active defensively. He posted 13 points, 6 boards, and 2 blocks in 18 minutes off the bench.
Markelle Fultz, meanwhile, accounted for 4 points in his pre-season debut. Robert Covington provided a steady showing, with 13 points, 5 rebounds, and a pair of steals.
It was undeniably Simmons, though, with his dominant start to Wednesday’s affair, who put a charge into the sizable pre-season crowd (the paid attendance was listed as 18,102, for a pre-season game?).
What would be the best starting point to sum up the Australian’s efforts? Perhaps the post-game remarks of the opposing team’s head coach.
“Oh my god,” said David Fizdale, now in his second season with Memphis.
Before joining the Grizzlies, Fizdale served eight years as a Miami Heat assistant, working with guys named James, Wade, and Bosh. You’d think the man has a pretty good eye for identifying elite ability.
“I don’t want to see that for the next 15 years,” Fizdale continued on about Simmons. “That kid, they’re not talking about him enough. The way he moves with the ball, his ability to see the floor, the way he can get places on the floor. Once he gets confidence in his shot where you really have to close out all the way to the [3-point line], wow. He is a big-time talent.”
Simmons’ own coach, Brett Brown, provided some pretty positive feedback himself on the 21-year old’s outing as well. Several factors left lasting impressions.
“I mean his breakaway speed, his ability to get to the rim,” Brown said, when asked to evaluate Simmons’ first organized game of any kind since summer league 2016. “The pace of which he plays, I love. His ability to see things, find corners when defensive players just nudge him over, he can find stuff well.”
That Simmons managed to immediately influence Wednesday’s contest in the ways that Brown outlined above further convinced the fifth-year head coach that Simmons could very well be a rookie of a different breed. After all, the LSU product, despite not playing a season ago, was still able to tap into the culture, rhythms, knowledge, and resources of an NBA franchise.
Fultz, on the other hand, only 19 years of age and fresh out of college, went into Wednesday’s match-up (and enters this season, for that matter) coming from an entirely different place
“I look at Ben Simmons, and I look at Markelle, and I’m reminded of the year that Ben had with us, and it helps,” Brown said. “The familiarity of the NBA, the familiarity of the program, I don’t see Ben like I see Markelle in relation to they both haven’t played any NBA games at all. Ben, you could see, was sort of an advanced rookie.”
While Fultz was involved in a handful of noteworthy moments Wednesday, including several first-quarter helpers, and a powerful fourth-period slam, he also spent stretches of the game trying to find his way. When on the court with Simmons, Fultz played off the ball. When Simmons went to the bench, Fultz then was given chances to run the point.
Defensively, the 2017 top pick was assigned to members of Memphis’ backcourt.
“It was kind of like I thought it was going to be,” Fultz said of his first pre-season game. His mindset going in revolved around “having fun, and giving it my all.”
“I thought I did a good job with that,” he said.
Fultz left the arena Wednesday feeling good about the on-floor rapport he established with Simmons, too.
“I thought our chemistry was actually pretty good,” said Fultz. “You saw the first play of the game, I think I got an assist to him when he was cutting backdoor. That’s our first time playing together in games in the NBA, so it’s just going to grow from there. We’ve only even had a few weeks of practice, so for the first game, I thought it was pretty good, and it’s only going to go uphill from here.”
Brown seemed to agree with Fultz’s take.
“I thought there were some good signs,” Brown said.
The Sixers went into halftime Wednesday trailing 56-55, but Memphis seized control in the third quarter by outscoring its hosts, 34-18.
The Grizzlies were paced by Brandan Wright’s 16 points and 8 rebounds. They won the rebounding battle by 17, and held the Sixers to 34.8 percent shooting from the field.
A lot of truth to this tweet there was.
The Sixers will play their second pre-season game at The Center in the span of three days, hosting the Boston Celtics Friday at 7:00 PM EST. The contest will mark the squad’s final appearance in South Philadelphia before its October 20th home opener, also versus the C’s. Boston, of course, underwent a considerable make over this summer on the heels of a run to the Eastern Conference Finals, adding Gordon Hayward via free agency, and then trading Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland for Kyrie Irving.