By Connor Thomas
Take yourself back. It’s the summer of 2016, June to be exact, and the Philadelphia 76ers hold the number 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. Better yet, the consensus top prospect is a player being billed as the next LeBron James; he’s as proven as draft prospects come, and he can play point guard in a great complimentary role to Joel Embiid. Fast forward to the next summer. It’s now time for the 2017 NBA draft, but the story is the same. The Sixers have traded up with the Boston Celtics, and now hold the number 1 overall pick for the 2nd straight season. Another guard is available, but instead of the impressive height and vision that last year’s selection brought, this player comes out of the Pacific Northwest bringing great finesse and elite shot creation. You can create a thunder and lightning combination in the backcourt for a team with one of the best young big men in the NBA. The Process that Sam Hinkie started seems to have yielded 3 superstars and the best young core in the entire league.
Do you remember that feeling? It’s hard to now. We’re starting September of 2021, and the city of Philadelphia has long departed from the euphoria of those summers. What transpired in the past 5 years was something that Nostradamus wouldn’t have even predicted. It turned out that the shot creating guard selected 1st overall in 2017 didn’t have a shot at all. Whether the real culprit was a rogue shooting coach, or a rare nervous system disorder, or just an inability to cope with the pressures of the NBA, Markelle Fultz ended up becoming one of the biggest busts in league history. Fultz ended up spending only 2 seasons in Philadelphia, with shot hitches and strange medical updates along the way, before he was traded to the Orlando Magic for Jonathan Simmons, a 1st round pick, and a 2nd round pick. Regardless of the return – which ultimately netted you Tyrese Maxey and a pick that was part of acquiring Matisse Thybulle – it was a complete failure of a #1 overall pick, one that had the potential to cripple a franchise’s rebuild. But hey, you still had that guy you drafted in 2016, the transcendent “next greatest player in basketball”. Yeah, about that…
Ben Simmons was everything promised in the 2017-18 season after sitting out his rookie year with an injury. He was transcendent on both sides of the court, locking up Rookie of the Year and opening the door to a bright future for the Sixers. It was a rough end to the season, as a 2nd round playoff series ended in a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics, but the Sixers finally had a pair of superstars to build around. All Simmons needed to do was work on his shooting. Then, in 2018-19 as his defense improved, the critiques became that Simmons just needed to take shots in a game. For the first time, that issue was voiced from inside the team, as Jimmy Butler left the team with undertones of issues with Simmons and Coach Brett Brown. 2019-20 was a shortened season due to the raging pandemic, but the criticisms of Simmons did not stop. While Jimmy Butler took the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals, Ben was busy not shooting, leading to an eventual firing of Brown after the Celtics swept the Sixers out of the bubble. Now Brown had his own issues, but Ben was a major obstacle that he had to hurdle in the quest for playoff success. By the time this past season rolled around, the Simmons saga had already reached a fever pitch.
This year, in the 2020-21 season, Ben Simmons became the best defender in the NBA (yes, including Rudy Gobert). He got a new, proven coach in Doc Rivers. He also was the beneficiary of an MVP level season from Joel Embiid. And yet, the same problems persisted. In fact, the shooting issue got even worse as the season progressed, leading to a complete shut down in the playoffs. Simmons was afraid to even touch the ball in late game situations, either being subbed out in favor of someone who could make free throws, or just refusing to shoot the ball while on the court. In the pivotal game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, Simmons passed up a now infamous dunk opportunity with the game on the line, with no one between his 6’10” frame and the basket. It was a full mental collapse, one that led to a majority of the fan base to call for him to be traded this offseason. As those trade talks escalated, it became more and more apparent that the future of Ben Simmons didn’t exist in Philly. Then, yesterday, reports surfaced that Simmons had met with Sixers brass and stated that he would not report to training camp for the Sixers this year if he was not traded.
One number 1 pick forgot how to shoot a basketball. One never tried. And as soon as Simmons is traded, both will have left Philadelphia, just over 5 years from the date of the 2016 NBA Draft, without even a 2nd round playoff win to show for it. The Markelle Fultz saga was confusing, but the Ben Simmons situation is just sad. Unlike Fultz, Simmons had the ability. He just refused to use it, for whatever reason. Whether it was pride, fear of public perception, or a long play to get out to California, Simmons resistance to improving his offensive game has cost the Sixers another number 1 overall pick. When the ping pong balls gave the Sixers the opportunity to draft him back in 2016, even the most negative opinions were nowhere close to predicting this level of failure, and yet here we are. The Sixers have been sunk by the complete collapse of two number 1 overall picks. Now all that’s left to do is pick up the pieces.