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Ben Simmons: Fallen star to All-Star ‘drip’

The Sixers’ first-time All-Star admits a lot of pressure has now been lifted

OAKLAND, Calif. — Noticing a little pep in Ben Simmons’ step hours after he was named a first-time NBA All-Star, a Philadelphia 76ers locker room attendant said to him, “You got a different kind of swagger today.”

Without hesitation, Simmons responded, “Light drip,” in reference to his extra swag.

“I was excited,” Simmons told The Undefeated. “It’s been a while since I had a moment where I felt that I deserved it in terms of not just being an All-Star but solidifying myself in the league and letting people know I’m here.”

Simmons, who credits LeBron James and Australian NBA players Patty Mills and Andrew Bogut for mentoring him, is the first player from Australia to be named an NBA All-Star.

The pressure for Simmons to succeed on the hardwood arrived the moment he came over from Australia to join Florida’s Montverde Academy in January 2013.

In 2015, Simmons was ranked the No. 1 high school basketball player in the country by ESPN and named Naismith High School Basketball Player of the Year. The 6-foot-9 playmaker chose Louisiana State University over Kansas, and then-LSU coach Johnny Jones allowed him to play point guard. He averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists as a freshman.

“Watching him in college, I truly thought and felt he would be an All-Star and a future Hall of Famer,” said Jones, who now coaches Texas Southern.

After the Tigers fell short of making the NCAA tournament, Simmons entered the 2016 NBA draft, where the Sixers selected him with the No. 1 overall pick.

Simmons faced sky-high expectations after playing well in summer league following the draft.

“My goal was to prove that I was the No. 1 player,” Simmons said. “I did it in college. I did it in high school. And you start at the bottom once you come to the league.”

Sixers coach Brett Brown sang Simmons’ praises during training camp and was looking forward to pairing him with talented young center Joel Embiid. But those grand plans were scrapped after Simmons broke his right foot in a practice on Sept. 30, 2016. Five days later, he had surgery to repair an acute Jones fracture on the fifth metatarsal in his right foot and missed the entire 2016-17 season.

Simmons tried his best to stay positive during the layoff.

“The darkest day was the day I hurt myself,” Simmons said. “I had a lot of those days where I was just down just knowing how long I’d been wanting to play in the league, and then you get hurt. You get delayed by a year, a season. And then you have to go back through the summer and get ready again.”

Elton Brand, who was a Sixers forward at the time, was confident Simmons would overcome the injury.

“There was pressure being Ben Simmons and the No. 1 pick. Will he get to an All-Star level? I actually was on the court when he got hurt in training camp,” said Brand, who is now the Sixers’ general manager. “But the one thing I saw was his work ethic. He’s a worker, loves basketball and loves the game, so I knew he’d get through that tough time.”

But when the Sixers’ 2017 training camp arrived, Simmons was no longer the headliner. Embiid had grown into the Sixers’ star, and another No. 1 pick had arrived in Markelle Fultz. There were also questions about Simmons’ shooting ability.

In the 2017-18 NBA.com GM survey, only 14 percent believed Simmons could be the best player out of the rookie class in five years. He received 70 percent of that vote a year earlier before breaking his foot. Also, no GM predicted he would win the 2018 NBA Rookie of the Year award.

“There was noise in the marketplace about his shot. There was noise about his free throws. I’ve known the spirit of the Australian and the toughness and the make-ship. Ben Simmons was smart enough and strong enough just to go play the game,” said Brown, who coached in Australia for 17 years.

“Once I had that injury, a lot of people forgot about me,” said Simmons. “Another No. 1 pick comes in. You have to build yourself up again. And for me, I wanted to prove myself again.”

Simmons shut up his skeptics by averaging 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals during the 2017-18 season. He was named the 2018 NBA Rookie of the Year after a tight race with Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell despite taking criticism for not being a true rookie and struggling with his jumper.

During the past offseason, Simmons spent time working on his game with his brother, Liam Simmons, who resigned as an assistant basketball coach at the University of California, Riverside to work full time with Ben. Liam Simmons’ goal was to work on his brother’s patience, details and fundamentals.

“Once I had that injury, a lot of people forgot about me.” – Ben Simmons

“To Ben’s credit, he hasn’t wavered from the work from summer until now, and everything we do is focused on the long term,” Liam Simmons told The Undefeated. “Our saying is, ‘Let’s chop the tree every day. Let’s get better today.’ Some of the drills might feel mundane and basic, but we work enthusiastically with the understanding that in 12 months, three years, a career, all those days, all those little swings of the ax will add up and Ben will find himself in a great place.”

After a slow start this season, Simmons’ play picked up in November, December and January. He is averaging 16.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.1 assists and ranks second in the NBA in triple-doubles. He wasn’t voted in as an All-Star starter despite an extensive social media campaign, but the East coaches picked the 22-year-old as a reserve.

“Leading up to it, every game you want to keep playing well,” Simmons said.

A nervous Simmons was on the Sixers’ team bus heading to a road game against the Golden State Warriors when he went on FaceTime with one of his friends who was watching the All-Star reserve announcement on Jan. 31. It was then that he received his long-awaited All-Star nod.

The night of the announcement, Simmons had 26 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists as the Sixers beat the Warriors 113-104. Brown called it the best game of Simmons’ NBA career.

Simmons, who hopes to motivate the next generation of Australians who dream of playing in the NBA one day, acknowledged that a lot of pressure has finally been lifted.

“I kind of wanted it to be out of the way and not to be out there trying to prove myself,” Simmons said. “It’s easier for me to go out there and do my thing once I don’t have things like that on my shoulders.”

In other words, he’s got that light drip now.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.