Mike D’Antoni lowered his head and let out a slight chuckle.
The Houston Rockets coach sees his share of dynamic basketball when he watches James Harden every night. However, Ben Simmons — the rookie point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers — has still been impressive enough to send D’Antoni into a moment of nostalgia on Sunday when asked.
“He’s got a chance to be a walking triple double,” D’Antoni said. “He’s got a chance to be very good for a long time.”
Three weeks into the NBA season, the league is taking notice of Simmons, who will face the Jazz for the first time in his career on Tuesday at Vivint Smart Home Arena. His rookie season has been some time in the making, after he missed all of last season with a foot injury. But Simmons is more than making up for lost time.
The 6-foot-10 guard has been the best rookie in the league. There’s a decent argument to be made that he’s been one of the best overall players in the NBA. He’s averaging 18 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game. He’s already notched two triple-doubles in his first 10 games. His 21.2 PER would be the highest ever for a Sixers rookie. For a franchise that has endured consistent failure, Simmons’ play is lending hope for the present and promise for the future.
“I thought I’d be playing better, honestly,” Simmons said. “I need to pick it up. It’s awesome being in the NBA. I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I love what I do. I’m just grateful to be here, and I just have to keep working.”
Meet Ben Simmons
• He is the third Australia-born player to be a number one pick in the NBA Draft. Former Utah star Andrew Bogut and Kyrie Irving are the other two.
• Is good friends with Jazz guard Dante Exum. The two are both from Australia and have known each other since childhood.
• He missed all of last season with a broken foot.
• He recorded his first career triple-double in his fourth career NBA game.
• Simmons says he wants to represent Australia in the 2020 Olympics.
Simmons is arguably the best all-around rookie to enter the league since LeBron James in 2003.
It seems sacrilegious to compare anyone to James, but there are similarities. James averaged 21 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists a game as a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And, like James, Simmons entered the NBA as a natural small forward with the passing and ball-handling acumen of a point guard. Like James, Simmons has taken little time in acclimating himself to the league. He looks comfortable as a rookie playing among grown men.
There are some warts. Simmons is not much of a shooter, and has yet to make his first career 3-pointer. He’s also shooting less than 60 percent from the free-throw line, which needs to improve. But Simmons is already a great player in the open floor, where his speed and vision are difficult to contain. He figures to be a challenge for the Jazz to handle in the post and on the perimeter.
Prominent players past and present are taking notice. In a recent interview with Australian press, retired great Kobe Bryant described Simmons as “phenomenal”. It’s a compliment Simmons said he takes in stride, while recognizing his game has a lot of improving to do.
“It’s awesome to hear,” Simmons said. “From one of the greatest to ever play, that means a lot. So I’ve got a long way to go. It just means that I’ll stay in the gym.”
Simmons and the 76ers will face a Utah Jazz team reeling from consecutive defeats to the Toronto Raptors (home) and Houston Rockets (road).
For the Jazz, Sunday’s defeat in Houston was the worst loss of the season, a 137-110 beating that featured James Harden erupting for 56 points on 19-of-25 shooting from the field. The Jazz didn’t play well defensively against the Raptors. They played worse against the Rockets, one of the best offensive teams in basketball to begin with.
“I was disappointed with our group and our performance,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the Houston loss. “We just didn’t play tough enough.”
The upcoming week is important for the Jazz, who are 5-5 heading into Tuesday’s game. They have four home games before leaving next week for their first extended road trip of the season. They’d like to take advantage of their time at Vivint while they can.
For the Jazz, that starts defensively. They haven’t been as good as advertised in that area, especially in the last week.
“We’ve got to get back to who we are,” Jazz guard Rodney Hood said. “We have a big week coming up.”
Sixers at Jazz
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Tuesday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 5-5, Sixers 5-4
Season series • First meeting
About the Sixers • This marks the first stop of a five game road trip. … Philly center Joel Embid (rest) will not play. The Sixers other center, Jahlil Okafor has asked for a trade after the team declined his fourth-year option last week. Okafor was the third pick of the 2015 NBA Draft. … Former Los Angeles Clippers guard J.J. Redick is now with the Sixers. … Philadelphia has won four straight games. …Sixers guard Markelle Fultz, the top pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, will miss Tuesday’s game with a shoulder injury.
About the Jazz •They surrendered a season high 137 points to the Houston Rockets on Sunday. … The Jazz will attempt to squash a two-game losing streak. …Utah is one of three NBA teams that hasn’t yet won a road game. … The Jazz will play four home games in the next seven days. After that, they depart for their first eastern road trip of the season. … Center Rudy Gobert was held to a season low five rebounds against Houston.