PHILADELPHIA — After the 76ers rookie was praised as the second coming of LeBron James with increasing frequency through the first six weeks of the season, James’ teammate, Jae Crowder, helped make sure those comparisons were shelved — at least for a night, anyway — in the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ 113-91 win over Philadelphia on Monday.
“I wanted to guard him a little differently than how I’ve been watching other teams guard so far off him and let him get a head of steam and go downhill,” Crowder said after Simmons finished with 10 points on 5-for-11 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and three steals in 36 minutes before leaving early with a sprained right ankle. “I feel pretty good. It was a good challenge.”
Other teams’ strategy to play off of Simmons to allow the defender a chance at recovery once exploited by Simmons’ quick first step seems sound — especially considering it doesn’t mean being burned by open jump shots beyond the perimeter as Simmons is 0-for-7 on 3-pointers — however Crowder’s adjustment to, well, crowd the Sixers’ 6-foot-10 point guard was effective.
Simmons left the game midway through the fourth quarter after turning his ankle on the offensive end and did not return. X-rays taken after the game were negative, and he will be reevaluated by 76ers team doctors on Tuesday.
Ironically, the ankle injury was perhaps the most similarity he showed with James (30 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists) on the night, as the four-time MVP has rolled his ankles several times this season, including a severe left ankle sprain that caused him to miss nearly all of training camp.
Still, while James said at shootaround that the game was “not about me vs. Ben … It’s about the Cavs vs. the 76ers,” he was gracious about the parallels being drawn between him and the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft afterwards.
“I’m honored that a young, gifted kid like himself would even allow me to be in his life and mentor him and be like a big brother to him,” said James who shares an agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, with Simmons. “I’m honored by him and I’d continue to do that as long as he wants me to.”
Simmons came into the night leading all rookies in scoring (18.5 points), rebounding (9.1) and assists (7.7). As impressive as those numbers are, they still have a ways to go to match the 28.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8.5 assists James is putting up in his 15th season.
Sixers coach Brett Brown tried to shield his star rookie from the James talk, calling it “reckless” to mention Simmons in the same breath as greats like James or Magic Johnson after just 18 games as a pro.
“I get it. I understand it. But Ben hasn’t done and we haven’t done anything yet,” Brown said. “And personally, I have been privileged. Sort of my NBA life has been (James’). I’ve seen LeBron from Day 1. And you’ve seen him grow. He’s amazing. He is amazing. On the court, how he handles his responsibility on that stage. Off the court, I think he’s got an element of grace, how he handles himself and carries the NBA logo with a tremendous amount of pride. I’ve seen him internationally with the gold medal stuff and had the United States clearly in our, his best interests. So, you say, compare him to LeBron, ask me later. A few years from now.”
Simmons echoed the his coach and said James would have every right to bristle at the comparison.
“I’d be annoyed too if somebody was comparing me to a rookie,” Simmons said. “You shouldn’t compare me to somebody like that. Not yet.”
He also called James a Hall of Famer and possibly the best ever, a title that Sixers guard J.J. Redick bestowed on James earlier Monday without any caveats.
While Crowder kept Simmons in check, the Sixers’ other star prospect Joel Embiid went off with 30 points and 11 rebounds, however in a particularly tough sequence in the fourth quarter was blocked on one end by Dwyane Wade and then had James drop in a 23-foot jumper over his outstretched arms on the other. After the shot went in, James flashed a grin at Embiid. The big man dropped his head at first before looking back at James with a smile as he walked to the bench with the Sixers down 17 with 6:45 remaining in the fourth quarter and the win all but sealed up for the Cavs.
“There’s a lot of stuff we got to get better at,” Embiid said. “I hate losing but I think that’s actually good. We got our a– kicked and we’ll go back learn. We can’t take any days off, we can’t play comfortable. We just have to keep working hard and get better.”