When one of our (several) number one picks returned to the city in August, the buzz was reminiscent of Wu-Tang’s killa bees in ’97. Ben Simmons, now injury-free and ready to deliver the most anticipated rookie year in recent memory, was in town. Out of nowhere, he popped up and dropped 34 points off the bench in a suburban Monday night league. When a blurry clip of the action made its way to the ‘net, it didn’t matter that it appeared to have been shot on a Nokia 5110; the clip sparked an inferno of shares and comments that had basketball fans across the world swept up in the blaze.
Locals lucky enough to snap a pic with Simmons had similarly struck social gold. Their photos were basically Bitcoin, but the currency was only redeemable in flexing on your friends.
The enthusiasm for Simmons’ visit was intense, and after our interview, the questions from my friends and acquaintances were flying faster than Simmons on the open floor. “What’s he like?”, “I heard he’s cocky”, “I heard he’s a diva”, “I tried to get a pic and he snubbed me”. The truth is, he’s just a guy from Melbourne who put in the work and is about to start reaping the rewards.
Simmons was in town for his inaugural Ben Simmons Basketball Camp; a chance for almost 200 Australian kids to learn from a bonafide star. Basketball fans in Australia will likely see the prospect of Simmons putting the next gen up on game as another win for our ever-improving odds of one day capturing Olympic basketball gold. As he so often does on the hardwood however, Simmons sees it from a whole other angle. “Whatever they choose to do in life, the camp will help them,” he says. “Pushing them and showing them different things they need in whatever they want to do in life.”
Using the lessons learned on the court to develop the discipline and persistence required for success later in life is something Simmons is familiar with. His on-court education began at age 4, taking him to competitions from Canberra to Lake Macquarie and Newcastle in NSW and right across suburban Melbourne; where he played in Keilor, Knox, Box Hill and Dandenong.
Let him tell it, and it was Melbourne that shaped his game. “It's hard to explain, but once you get over to the States you really realise it. I'm relaxed in my environment, my zone. But at the same time, I'm intense when it comes to playing. I hate to lose. That shapes up who I am,” he says, before clarifying the impact his hometown has had on his game. “Especially footy. Playing footy helped me a lot. Just being tough and not really trying to take shit from anybody.”
It didn’t take long for the work Ben and his father David put in to pay off. The old cliche tells us you get out what you put in, and the time spent seeking out the best coaches to shape Ben’s game or driving across the city to the best competitions has yielded the desired results. Without a single NBA game under his belt, Simmons is often compared to Magic Johnson and LeBron James. Simmons hears the chatter but shrugs it off. “There's always somebody you can compare somebody to, whether it was Kobe to MJ, LeBron to Magic, everyone has a comparison,” he tells me. “I play differently to LeBron and Magic. There might be similar things that I do, but I'm my own player. And that just comes with time; once you start playing it reveals who you are.”
While the comparisons with LeBron don’t phase Simmons, it’s no secret that King James has an influence on the rookie’s game, taking time to offer priceless advice when he can. “Whenever we meet up and work out it would just be certain tips or ways to move my feet,” explains Simmons. “It's not just 'work hard', anybody can say that. It's once he’s there, I'm doing something and he can help me out; ‘pivot this way, put your foot down first’, different things he can help with.”
Time in the gym with a 4-time NBA MVP is invaluable, but only makes up part of the work Simmons has put in during the off-season. He spent his time in Melbourne with two coaches, spending an hour each morning getting shots up, before playing some 5-on-5 and finally working on preparing his body for the grind of his first NBA season. “It's not just lifting weights,” he explains. “It'll be flexibility, conditioning, lifting, but just strengthening certain muscles that I need to have quick reaction times with.”
The work has Simmons in peak shape. “I was 249 [pounds] before the [2016-17] season started,” Simmons explains. “Then had the year off, and got back to my weight that I felt comfortable at which is around 230-235. I feel like I'm still strong but at that weight I'm able to get up and down the floor quickly.”
A 6’10” forward willingly losing 15 pounds in the offseason is a break from the norm – but that’s exactly what got Simmons this far. He’s not the archetypal power forward; braun and bravado and ready to bang in the paint. He’s a lighter, quicker point-forward with a lethal passing game. The prototype for the future of the league.
Analysing Simmons’ path to the NBA, from the suburbs of Melbourne to Mont Verde academy in Florida, to LSU and finally the Philadelphia 76ers, the question of nature versus nurture comes to mind. Was Ben Simmons simply blessed with the right DNA and a few lucky breaks, or is his success the result of hard work; the work of his family, his father, his team and of course, his own hard work spent honing his craft over the years? I asked Simmons what the major key to his success has been so far. He is as sure of his answer as he is of himself.
“It's just being uncomfortable and doing things you don't necessarily want to do but will pay off in the future.”
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