Jump Ball Sports
No country for young Ben
Ben Simmons has just inked a USD170m NBA contract extension, is arguably Australia’s brightest international sports star, and yet remains a relative misfit both here and in the US.
Born and raised in Australia before departing for US high school basketball, Simmons occupies an enigmatic basketball no man’s land located somewhere over the Pacific.
That he stands on the brink of achieving the type of success that promises to bring the walls of his seclusion crashing down only adds to his intrigue.
Simmons’ clumsy withdrawal from upcoming Boomers duties was symptomatic of the awkwardness that has come to cloak the Philadelphia 76ers star.
The initial news that Simmons would not be joining the Boomers at the FIBA World Cup - which represented a back-flip on his previous personalised social media video announcing his participation - was impersonally broken to Australia via a tweet from famed US ESPN NBA identity, Adrian Wojnarowski.
While Simmons followed up a few days later with a statement citing his NBA commitments and plans to still participate in the Boomers’ exhibition games on home soil, it felt hollow.
Hollowness then turned to annoyance when he later pulled out of the exhibition games altogether.
The whole messy episode spoke to a lack of rapport between player and country.
For Australia doesn’t really know Benjamin David Simmons.
Sure the average local sports fan could perhaps tell you that he is the son of former NBL star US import, Dave Simmons, and that Simmons junior is a former no.1 NBA draft pick and plies his trade with the 76ers in the NBA.
But having played basketball in the US since early 2013 and never having meaningfully represented the senior Boomers team nor featured prominently in Australian mainstream media, there is a lack of attachment to Simmons for local fans. A missing bond that would have served to normalise communications and soften the blow of Simmons’ U-turn.
Particularly given the decision to pull out was an eminently sensible one.
For until he establishes himself as a bona fide NBA superstar, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics represents the only justifiable national team distraction Simmons can entertain.
And Simmons’ PR issues have not been confined to local shores, as his adopted American home has struggled to get a handle on the Australian product.
College basketball provided a formal introduction of Simmons to the US hoops scene, and it proved rocky.
His decision to sign with US football (not basketball) powerhouse, Louisiana State University - seemingly motivated by his godfather, David Patrick being an assistant coach on the team - was considered dubious.
That Simmons was unable to guide LSU to the NCAA tournament and encountered academic eligibility issues during his only season with the Tigers only heightened scepticism.
In the lead-up to the 2016 NBA draft - in which Simmons would ultimately be selected first overall - Simmons’ attitude was called into question by sections of the NBA community.
There was a perception of occasional passivity about Simmons’ game amidst LSU’s struggles. NBA analyst Stu Jackson told SI.com, “I saw a player that didn’t necessarily persevere as well as I would have liked through not having a very good season.”
Away from the court, retired NBA star Tracy McGrady made a thinly veiled reference on ESPN’s ‘The Jump’ program to Simmons - without actually naming him - not paying due respect to NBA greats he was sharing a suite with at the NBA finals.
While there is an undoubted aloofness about Simmons, one wonders whether being a foreigner also informed many such misgivings.
In discussing the criticism levelled at Simmons on radio in Philadelphia, Brett Brown, former Boomers and current 76ers coach referenced Simmons “coming from overseas and then being slapped on to the United States stage...”
And then there’s the jump shot, or the lack thereof. Statistics abound, but it’s safe to say Simmons very, very rarely shoots the basketball, instead using his size and freakish athletic ability to finish at the rim.
This deficiency has become a point of obsession in the NBA, with some even suggesting Simmons shoots with the wrong hand.
His position within the 76ers set-up is another wrinkle.
While his teammate, Joel Embiid enjoys favourite son status in Philadelphia, Simmons shares a sometime testy relationship with the 76ers’ uber-passionate fan base as they impatiently await the fulfilment of the Australian’s enormous potential.
Rumours have also long swirled as to the health of Simmons and Embiid’s relationship, as the two young stars have been forced to share top dog status in Philadelphia.
Belying his reserved persona, Simmons has also found himself embroiled in a number of NBA ‘beefs’. An NBA Rookie of the Year spat with Utah Jazz guard, Donovan Mitchell was followed by a seemingly needless running battle with then Brooklyn Nets’ veteran Jared Dudley during last season’s play-offs.
Rounding out the Simmons riddle is his former dalliance with model and celebrity, Kendall Jenner. A gossip column romance seemingly at odds with Simmons' low-key off-court profile.
But if Simmons is prisoner to a confused perception, success for club and country is key to setting him free. For nothing breeds popularity like winning, and Simmons is expertly placed to achieve it.
If Simmons can play messiah and lead an NBA-loaded Boomers squad to the promised land of a first Olympic medal in Tokyo next year, Australian sports icon status will be assured. Suddenly, Simmons will become “our Ben” and will be loudly celebrated for capping the resurgence of men’s basketball in this country.
The opportunity that presents with the 76ers is no less compelling.
In a league made even by Kawhi Leonard’s decision to spurn LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, the Al Horford-infused 76ers loom as legitimate championship contenders.
Deliver an NBA title to sports mad Philadelphia - the city’s first since 1983 - and any question marks stateside over Simmons the basketballer or person will be buried deep beneath the victory confetti.
And now we wait. Our gift from the basketball gods on the verge of finally being torn open.
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