Ben Simmons and the heavy burden of unfulfilled promise | NBA

When Australia launch their Fiba World Cup campaign against Finland on Friday, 10 years since Ben Simmons’s last two appearances with the Boomers, they will at last be led by a tall point guard with freakish ball handling skills who’s been hailed as a “generational talent”. But it will be Josh Giddey – 6ft 8in, 20 years old, fresh from two stellar opening seasons with Oklahoma City, and the youngest player in NBA history to score a triple double – running the Boomers’ offense. Simmons – 6ft 10in, 27, beset by repeated physical and mental setbacks, and the most fined NBA player of all time – will miss the World Cup to recover from a nerve impingement in his back.

Giddey represents the future of Australian basketball. Simmons was the future once, but increasingly it seems he is the past – a past that promised so much and delivered only in fits and starts. In his five full (or full-ish) seasons in the NBA, Simmons has shown all the versatility and durability that was expected of him when he emerged with Louisiana State University: but as a meme rather than as a player. There have been, to be fair, glimpses of the talent that saw the 76ers make him the No 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft: the falcon-like court vision, the power under the boards, that godly passing range and rolling, liquid comfort with the ball in hand. But Simmons has missed two full seasons: the first in 2016-17 thanks to injury, and the second, in 2021-22, owing to a combination of injury and the breakdown of his relationship with 76ers management. Since he was traded to the Nets in early 2022, Simmons has spent most of his time in the treatment room, surrounded by accusations that he is simply too weak for the NBA, a quitter. He earned $35m last season but started on the bench towards the end of 2022-23 before being shut down due to injury.

Indeed, the five-year, $177m contract Simmons signed in 2019 has made him fabulously rich and famously hated, and for many basketball fans he now represents the archetype of a certain type of modern NBA star: the player more interested in posting big numbers on his bank balance rather than on his stats sheet.

“Nobody is worse than Ben Simmons,” professional sports ranter Stephen A Smith declared in April 2022 after Simmons withdrew from a playoff series against the Boston Celtics with a back injury. “Ben Simmons might also be the weakest, most pathetic, excuse for a professional athlete we have ever seen in not just American history but the history of sports. I can’t think of a professional athlete that has come across more pathetic than this man.”

As even the briefest review of social media will confirm, this is far from a rogue or minority opinion. In less than a decade, Simmons has gone from being “the best player in the world” (as Shaquille O’Neal described him after Simmons signed for LSU in 2015) to “a disgrace” (Smith again).

It’s not often that you can pinpoint the exact date when a promising young career went off the rails, but in Simmons’s case the task is easy: 20 June 2021. In the dying minutes of the final quarter of the deciding game of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, Simmons was presented with a wide-open dunk that would have put Philadelphia level with the Atlanta Hawks. Earlier in his career, when he was on his way to Rookie of the Year and successive All-Star selections, Simmons would have accepted the invitation with glee; the highlights reels of those years are replete with dunks of all varieties, through traffic and on the break, each bucket dispatched with comfortably thunderous confidence.

By this point, however, repeated public discussion of Simmons’s inability to evolve his game to the point where he was a consistent, all-court shooting threat had left him with a serious case of the yips: his scoring, like his confidence, plummeted. Presented with an open basket, Simmons shaped to dunk then passed the ball off his fingertips to a marked teammate. The 76ers drew a foul, then went on to lose the game – and the series. For a fanbase that had been instructed, through repeated playoff failures, to “trust the process” and have faith in the partnership of Simmons and center Joel Embiid to fire Philadelphia to glory, the vision of the Australian’s pointless pass was all too much. Instantly, the golden boy was transformed – from a potential great into the most derided athlete in America.

Ben Simmons has spent long periods of time sidelined with injury during his NBA career
Ben Simmons has spent long periods of time sidelined with injury during his NBA career. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

Across his four fullest seasons Simmons has averaged around 15 points per game while shooting above 50% from the field – a perfectly respectable return. His work from the free-throw line, while not stellar, is hardly a disgrace. But it’s from the perimeter that his stagnation has been most apparent: in his entire NBA career to date, Simmons has attempted just 36 three-pointers, and landed only five of them (in comparison Brandon Ingram, the No 2 pick in the 2016 draft, has attempted 1,535 three-pointers). As Simmons looks forward to the season ahead with Brooklyn, it’s still not entirely clear how he plans to evolve: as a consistent shooting threat or as a player who must be protected from offensive responsibilities at all cost. “Ben never has to take a shot for the Nets,” former Nets coach Steve Nash once said – and it’s not clear whether it was meant as a good thing for anyone involved.

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Simmons has spoken eloquently of his struggles with mental health, how depression and the weight of expectation have cramped his development. But no matter how openly he speaks about these issues, his name remains shrouded in accusations of cowardice and indifference. Nowhere is this more painfully apparent than in his thin record of appearance for the Boomers. It’s often claimed that Simmons, who has repeatedly promised to represent Australia at big tournaments only to pull out at the last minute, still nurtures a grudge from 2014, when he entered the Boomers camp before the World Cup but was dropped from the final roster. Giddey, by contrast, was cut from the Boomers squad ahead of the 2020 Olympics, where Australia went on to earn a bronze medal, but has persisted to earn selection with the national setup in this World Cup. Whatever the truth, Boomers coach Brian Goorjian has made it clear that Simmons will be welcomed back into the Australian squad whenever he is ready. “If you’re Ben Simmons, and if you play like Ben Simmons on this team, with that culture, you’re gonna take us to somewhere the team’s never been,” Goorjian told ESPN earlier this month. “That’s my goal in all of this.”

There should be regrets all round at the decline of a player so buttered with talent because when he’s in form, Simmons is compulsively watchable, the closest thing basketball has to a big-screen attraction from cinema’s golden age – a kind of Marlon Brando of the offensive transition. He flows to the rim like flood water waltzing down a river, a fusion of grace, unhurried speed, and inevitable, awesome power. In his early career, Simmons was most often compared to LeBron James and Magic Johnson, and there was hope that he might develop into the NBA’s ultimate monster, a point guard with the physical presence of a “big”. But the best analogies for Simmons’s peculiar combination of elegance and strength probably come from other sports. Gliding toward the basket with molten cool, Simmons at his very best recalls the sweatless poise of Zinedine Zidane, the unsplashy authority of Ian Thorpe in the final straight, or West Indies cricketing great Michael Holding, floating towards the crease with silently murderous intent. At the beginning of his career Simmons appeared to justify ambitious analogies of this variety. He emerged as a kind of mold-breaker, the type of genre-crossing genius who could remake our collective sense of what’s possible on the basketball court. But as the years tick by, it’s starting to seem as if he may not quite fit any of the sport’s traditional roles: he’s too weak a shooter to be trusted as a guard, but too talented a passer to be left to lurk in the paint. What, exactly, does Ben Simmons want to be: a luxury assist-machine, a non-scoring pivot, a specialist rebounder?

It’s possible, of course, that he wants to be none of these things and instead simply collect the gigantic salary that his similarly scaled talent has earned him. Despite the hatred Simmons attracts, there’s still an air of expectation that hovers around him, a sense of promise yet to be fulfilled. Ben Simmons: potential all-time great, mercurial genius, or a talent too brittle and particular for the big time? All the options are still open as Simmons enters the final two years of his current contract. At 27, he’s still short of the age when most professional basketballers reach their peak. There’s still time. But time for what?