Young King Better Than Rookie King: How Good Is Ben Simmons?
Ben Simmons has drawn comparisons to LeBron James.
The Sixers rookie sensation has the size, vision and all-around court brilliance of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar. Even Simmons’ calm demeanor has led to comparisons with the best player in basketball today.
James himself sees the similarities. In fact, James has said on record that Simmons has the opportunity to be better than him and that he ( Simmons ) is next in line. As reported by SI’s Lee Jenkins:
“You have an opportunity,” James told Simmons early on, “to be better than me. But you can’t skip steps. You have to do the work.” Those words helped sustain [Simmons] when he stumbled at LSU and helped fuel him as he rehabbed in Philadelphia. “Is this really going to happen?” he asked himself. He knew, even if others wavered, that it would. Because LeBron said so, and for a prospect of Simmons’s vintage, no endorsement means more. “Part of his greatness,” Simmons says, “is that he wants others to be just as great.”
King James further praised Simmons in an Instagram post after the Sixers beat the Cavs 108-97 last Thursday:
“I told y’all a while back that my young King was next in line! Getting better and better every night out! Tonight another example of that. Fun to watch and compete against you again and #TheProcess@joelembiid. Remember lil bro settle for nothing less than GREATNESS!!! @bensimmons”
But is Simmons really worthy of this royal comparison? Is he as good or will he even be better than LeBron James? Let’s compare Ben Simmons to the rookie LeBron James:
As a rookie, LeBron James averaged 20.9 points per game. King James has never averaged below 20 points in his entire NBA career. Ben Simmons meanwhile is currently averaging 16.5 points per game, the second best among NBA rookies. But if you call James the better scorer right off the bat, then you may be incorrect.
Not only did James average more minutes per game as a rookie ( 39.5 versus 34.7 ), he also took more shots per game than Simmons is currently taking for the Sixers ( 18.9 vs 13.0 ). The reason behind this is that James immediately became the top scoring option in Cleveland when he arrived. Joel Embiid is the main offensive weapon in Philly. The Process leads the Sixers in field goal attempts at 17.0 per game while Simmons is just second in shots taken per game.
But likewise, we’re not saying that Simmons is the better scorer than James as a rookie. Sure, Simmons’ current .535 field goal percentage is better than James’ .417 shooting clip as a rookie, but the rookie James had the better range and took a wide range of shots than Simmons is taking.
James took a total of 217 three pointers as a rookie and made 63. The .290 3P clip isn’t that good. But Simmons is not better. He’s taken just 10 three pointers in 61 games and has not made a single one so far. 44.1% of Simmons’ shots come from three feet or closer while LeBron James had 21.1% of his rookie shots from above 16 feet to below the three point line. So while Simmons is shooting better as a rookie, most of his shots come from around the basket. This means that he is offensively limited at this stage of his career. James meanwhile, already showed his offensive versatility at age 19. Remember that Simmons is already 21 years old.
The better scorer as a rookie? Hands down, it’s LeBron James. And oh by the way. Don’t forget that Simmons is also miserable at the foul line at just .574. Rookie LeBron was already good at .754 from the line.
Ben Simmons leads all NBA rookies in assists at 7.5 per game. Rookie LeBron James averaged 5.9 dimes per game. Simmons also had the better Assist Percentage, or the estimate of teammate field goals assisted when on the floor. Simmons’ 34.9% is slightly better than James’ 27.8% as a rookie.
Again, it’s not safe to say right away that Simmons is the better passer as a rookie. That’s because the Aussie has been the Sixers’ starting point guard in every game he’s played. LeBron James meanwhile, played alongside point guards Jeff McInnis, DaJuan Wagner and Kevin Ollie during his rookie season. The Cavs had a total of 24 different starting lineups during James’ rookie season and Bron wasn’t the starting PG in all of them.
But while James didn’t play point guard in every game as a rookie, he was the chief playmaker in Cleveland as a rookie. King James had the highest usage among the 2003-04 Cavs at 28.2%. That means most of the team’s plays ran through him. However, James wasn’t primarily a passer, as Simmons is. He was also the Cavs’ main scorer. Hence while he had the ball more times ( and used more plays ) than Simmons ( whose usage is 23.0% ) , LeBron was there to score first and pass second. Simmons meanwhile is the opposite. He makes plays for his teammates first.
5.9 assists per game is impressive for a non-point guard. But given that LeBron was still the Cavs’ main playmaker, we think that Ben Simmons is the better passer as a rookie.
At 5.5 rebounds per game as a rookie, LeBron James was just an average rebounder for his position. At 6-8, James had the size of the power forward. Yet he played small forward most of the times with Carlos Boozer as the Cavs’ primary power forward during his rookie season. Ben Simmons is 6-10 and in this generation, that’s also a power forward’s height. But he plays point guard and has to play alongside three frontcourt players in Embiid, Dario Saric and Robert Covington most of the time. Despite that, Simmons is the team’s second best rebounder at 7.7 rebounds per game.
Breaking down their rookie rebounding average, LeBron James averaged 4.2 defensive rebounds and 1.3 offensive boards per game. Ben Simmons averages are 5.9 defensive boards and 1.8 offensive caroms per outing. That means he doesn’t just have the better overall rebounding numbers than the rookie King James. He was also better rebounder at both ends of the floor.
As for rebounding percentages, Simmons also has the better numbers at 12.0% versus 7.6%. So while we can argue that rebounding wasn’t James’ priority as a rookie, Simmons plays with three frontcourt men on his team and is still the 2nd best rebounder. Because of that, we’re gonna give the rebounding department to Ben Simmons.
Both players have nearly identical steals and blocks average. Rookie LeBron averaged 1.6 steals and 0.7 blocks per game. Ben Simmons is currently averaging 1.8 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. As for percentages, James had 2.2% steals percentage and 1.3% blocks percentage. Simmons’ advanced metrics were 2.4% steals percentage and 2.2% blocks percentage. There isn’t much difference here but still, Simmons had the slightly better numbers.
Likewise, Ben Simmons had the better defensive rating at 103 against LeBron James’ 104. Again, there isn’t much separation between the two but Simmons’ numbers are still better here. In 79 games played, the rookie LeBron James contributed a total of 2.9 defensive win shares. In 18 less games played, Ben Simmons has already amassed a total of 3.8 defensive win shares.
Neither rookie LeBron was nor Ben Simmons is a defensive stopper. And neither is there much separation between their defensive numbers. But if you look at figures, Ben Simmons still had the slightly better numbers. Edge? Slight edge to Ben Simmons.
Rookie of The Year
We know that Rookie LeBron James was selected to play in the Rookie Challenge on All-Star weekend and went on to become Rookie of the Year honors after being named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in every month of the 2003-04 NBA Season. He became the third player in NBA history to average 20-5-5 as a rookie.
On the other hand, Ben Simmons was selected to play in the 2018 Kickstart Rising Stars challenge in this year’s NBA All-Star weekend. He was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in three of the first four months of the 2017-18 NBA season, with Celtics’ freshman Jayson Tatum upending him in the month of December 2017. Still, he is expected to win the award in the last two months of the season, with Tatum slowly fading in Boston.
Simmons though has tough competition to win Rookie of the Year honors as Donovan Mitchell has been playing spectacular basketball in Utah. Some say Mitchell deserves the ROY award more than Simmons because while Simmons is putting up the better statistics, Mitchell is doing his thing as the new franchise player in Utah. How that race ends, remains to be seen though.
In terms of versatility, the rookie LeBron James was way better than Ben Simmons. When we talk versatility, we don’t only mean playing different positions and piling up more statistics. We’re also talking about their offensive arsenal.
Simmons plays has the better overall numbers, with James only having the edge in scoring. But young King James played multiple positions as a rookie. He played point guard, shooting guard, small forward and power forward. Simmons cannot play shooting guard because well, he can’t shoot ( for now ). Similarly, he can’t move up to the four spot because he’ll be beaten by stretch fours. He can’t stretch the floor with his lack of shooting.
While Simmons struggles playing in other positions because of his inability to shoot, he dominates as point guard because of his size. He can easily post up any opposing point guard or take them to the basket off the dribble because of his size. This is the reason why most of his shots come close. Simmons knows his limitations. He also plays to his strengths. That’s very smart.
Simmons has better numbers but James played more positions and had the much better offensive package. In terms of team success, the Cavs missed the playoffs during LeBron’s rookie season. Cleveland finished 2003-04 with a 35-47 record. The Cavs finished 9th in the East and 5th in the Central Division that year.
Meanwhile, the Sixers are 34-28 and are currently in 6th place in the Eastern Conference team standings. The Sixers can finish as high as #3 as they are just two games behind the Cavs right now but they can also end up as the 8th seed as they are just currently 2.5 games ahead of the Miami Heat. While we don’t know what their final position will be, it’s almost a given that the Sixers will make the playoffs. But while Simmons will likely see the postseason in his freshman year, he is playing with a better team.
LeBron James? He played with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Carlos Boozer, Kevin Ollie, Eric Williams, Ira Newble and Jeff McInnis ( we listed them down according to most minutes played ). James made his first playoff appearance in his third season. Although he had better teammates, his team wasn’t the kind of group that would win the NBA title.
Still, he took the Cavs to five straight playoff appearances including a trip to the NBA Finals in 2007 where they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. The lack of a good supporting cast drove LeBron away from Cleveland and to South Beach, where he won two titles with the Miami Heat playing alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
James returned to Cleveland to fulfill his promise of winning the team’s first NBA title. King James has played in seven consecutive NBA Finals, the most for any player not a member of the 60’s Celtics. While Simmons’ Sixers are a cinch to make the playoffs, they will have to go through the eye of the needle to go to win the title this year with the likes of Golden State, Houston, Boston and Cleveland as favorites. But with Embiid and Simmons continuing to improve by the day, who knows where the Sixers will be in three years. Just trust the process.
Except in scoring, Ben Simmons is having the better rookie season than LeBron James. The Sixers’ freshman is doing everything on the floor for his team and is piling up numbers. Simmons is also likely going to the playoffs this year, something that LeBron didn’t experience until his third season.
But while Simmons is having the better rookie season, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he will become the better player than LeBron James. After 15 season, James is putting up one MVP type season after another. In fact, you can make a claim that he is currently having his best year ever - at age 32. Remember that James is coming off an MVP performance at this year’s All-Star game.
Simmons’ missed his entire rookie season with an injury. He’s been healthy this year though but whether he can duplicate LeBron’s durability and longevity is another story. How he maintains this pace and improve it year after year is also another thing. But if the ‘young king’ puts in the work, as King James said, who knows.