Well-credentialed Howard has lofty praise for Simmons' defense originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
Dwight Howard knows the season isn’t anywhere near over after 33 games, and that the complexion of the NBA could be much different in a few months.
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He also knows what it takes to win Defensive Player of the Year, having earned that award three consecutive times during his heyday with the Magic. As things stand, he thinks Ben Simmons is worthy.
“I’m very happy to see how well Ben has been playing on defense,” Howard said following the Sixers’ 111-97 win Thursday night over the Mavericks. “It’s been amazing. He’s picking up guards, he’s playing bigs, he’s playing one through five. A couple games ago, he was playing against Rudy Gobert, and now he’s playing against Luka (Doncic). He’s taken the idea that I can play anybody, that I can check anybody on defense. I believe he’s the best defensive player in the league right now. He’s doing an amazing job.”
The subject of Simmons’ Defensive Player of the Year campaign naturally resurfaces whenever he matches up against a star like Doncic, who had 19 points on 6-for-13 shooting and seven turnovers at Wells Fargo Center, with minimal freedom to play his game when guarded by Simmons. The 24-year-old All-Star has been consistent in saying it’s the one individual award that matters to him.
“Just being me, doing what I do,” Simmons said of his defense on Doncic. “I like taking those challenges — I’ve said this over and over again. Just tell me who to guard.”
Earlier this month, during a Sixers trip on the West Coast that was loaded with talented scoring guards, head coach Doc Rivers was asked about Simmons tending to shut down the opposition’s best player late in games. By way of explanation, Rivers tossed in a baseball analogy.
“ … He is such a unique defender,” Rivers said. “Most of the great defenders guard their position, and they do a great job there. Ben is a chameleon. Ben guards literally one through five, and we’re not scared to put him on one through five on needed possessions. The key for us is trying to keep him out of foul trouble early.
“Some games we have no choice — we have to start him on the best guy. Some games we don’t and we can afford to wait. He’s an interesting guy. He’s a lot like a starting pitcher and a relief pitcher at the same time where you throw him in to shut the team down.”
Foul trouble was not part of Simmons’ night Thursday, and the Sixers’ large lead meant the closer could kick up his feet in the bullpen for the entire fourth quarter.
It appeared Simmons had been called for his first foul of the game when he stripped Doncic on a second-quarter drive. Simmons was so adamant he’d gotten all ball, however, immediately running toward the other end of the court and insisting it was a legal play, that Rivers used and won a coach’s challenge. Simmons finished with no fouls for the first time this season.
Remarkably, he still played a physical, aggressive brand of defense on Doncic, who’s become known for his ability to methodically manipulate the opposition. Whether jostling his man 35 feet from the rim or lurking off of the ball for steal opportunities, Simmons has a knack for disrupting game plans. He’s impossible to ignore defensively and, to use a favorite phrase of his, now seemingly “locked in” at all times. Simmons has very few casual closeouts or easily yielded layups these days.
“I’m just glad that he is really realizing how great he is, the greatness that he has on his life,” Howard said. “I just want to continue to pour into his life, continue to speak greatness on him. He’s an amazing player. I love watching him play defense. His energy and his effort has been top of the line. I just want him to continue to do that and stay humble and hungry. The sky’s the limit for Ben.
“Like I said at the beginning of the season, LeBron James. He has that. He has everything — he has it. I’m really proud to see his growth from the beginning of the season until now. He’s an All-Star and he’s going to continue to play great and lead this team.”
Simmons expects the same from himself. Though the 2019-20 Sixers actually had a slightly superior record of 23-10 through 33 games, he thinks all the components have mixed better this year.
“I’ve been around a bunch of talented players,” he said. “I think collectively, we all are on the same page overall — because you can have a lot of talent and it not work. … I think this is the best chemistry we’ve had. I think this is the best year Joel (Embiid’s) come in mentally. Same for me — my (mentality’s) been great. And we know where we want to be. Doc’s holding us accountable, everybody. I think overall, it’s just been a great year so far.”