Joel Embiid was rightly the talk of basketball Thursday for his transcendent performance Wednesday night against the Lakers, for a box-score line – 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, seven blocked shots – that defies belief. But more and more, Ben Simmons is the 76ers player who could truly change the NBA, and his power to be a revolutionary figure is born of his mouth and mind and branding strategy as much as it is his swift and supple game.
Through 14 games, Simmons is coasting to the league's Rookie of the Year Award, leading all first-year players in points (17.8), rebounds (9.2), and assists (7.7), drawing comparisons to Magic Johnson, and leaving Lonzo Ball looking overmatched, overhyped, and overwhelmed Wednesday night.
He's been so good so fast that his rise has obscured the campaign he's been waging for more than two years. From the Showtime documentary that made manifest his increasing disillusionment during his season at LSU to a recent interview with power broker and LeBron James confidant Maverick Carter, Simmons has become a new and noisy voice railing against the hypocrisy of the NCAA and the restrictiveness of the NBA's age limit.
As far as Simmons was concerned, even his aborted 2016-17 season with the Sixers, and even all those months he spent rehabbing that fractured bone in his right foot and waiting for it to heal, were more productive than the pretending he did at LSU. Growing up in Australia, pushing himself as far as he could there against his limited competition, he would have preferred to test himself against the best of the best in the United States and to start earning market-value compensation for it. He would not have preferred to go to LSU and stare at NCAA-sanctioned billboards in Baton Rouge that used his jersey number but not his name – 25 IS COMING – to tout his arrival and expectant greatness.
"I think I would have learned a lot more being around professional athletes," he told Carter on Uninterrupted.com last week. "Looking at it now, I don't know what I really even learned, financially or just by being a person, at LSU. I think I learned a lot more this whole year, being in Philly and being a pro, than I did at LSU. …
"I'd have class, go lift, go to practice, and 'Oh, Ben, you've got to stay and do media and the photo shoot.' So I'd be kind of annoyed, like, 'What am I getting out of this?' "
If Simmons' stand, however sincere, has the feel of careful orchestration, that's understandable. He is represented by Klutch Sports, the agency founded and headed by another member of James' inner circle, Rich Paul. And Simmons' sister Emily, who, he told Carter, gave him the idea for the documentary, has worked at Klutch for three years. Perhaps part of Simmons' brand – a brand that reportedly got him a five-year, $20-million shoe deal with Nike – is that he will serve as a counterculture critic of college basketball, but none of that makes his position wrong.
The NBA's requirement that a player turn 19 before he's eligible to enter the league – the catalyst for the "one-and-done" trend in college basketball – was silly and patronizing when then-commissioner David Stern instituted it in 2005, and it's silly and patronizing now. For the sake of protecting his product, Stern wanted to protect 18-year-olds who weren't ready for the pros and the franchises who might draft them from making dumb decisions. It was inherently unfair to a prospect in Simmons' shoes: one who was ready to earn a living at 18, no matter Stern's attempts to save him from himself. And the better Simmons plays this season, the more outspoken he is about this issue, the more people will wonder why he had to waste that year, and the more pressure will build on Stern's successor, Adam Silver, to try to change the rule. In fact, Simmons can keep pushing Silver toward a position that Silver is inclined to take, anyway.
"It's on the table," Silver, during a June 26 appearance on The Dan Patrick Show, said of lowering the league's minimum age back to 18. "I would add to the mix our developmental league, which is now known as the G League going forward. I think that creates an opportunity as well, and maybe that becomes an alternative. …
"He's a bright young man, and he was saying, 'I'm only here because I'm being forced to defer going to the NBA for a year.' The NCAA tournament didn't seem all that important to him, and it may ultimately have been a lost year in his development because he's not fully engaged in school, and he's not fully engaged in basketball."
No one would argue that the basketball Simmons played in Australia was of higher caliber than what he encountered in the Southeastern Conference — not even Sixers coach Brett Brown, who coached in Australia for 17 years. "I feel like it was a positive," Brown said. "I don't really see many negatives."
But Simmons isn't arguing that his time at LSU hurt him. He's arguing that it was pointless, that it was relevant to his future only in that it delayed him for a year from reaching his full financial potential. He had to watch others cash in on his presence while he couldn't, and he told Carter that he wasn't about to stop speaking out against a system that denied him the freedom to chart his own course and career.
"I want to do it while I'm playing," Ben Simmons said. "I don't think I want to leave it until I'm done."