Ben Simmons has gotten off to a spectacular start to his career. Spectacular enough, in fact, that he’s putting himself in some pretty elite company when you compare what he’s doing to what other NBA rookies have done before.
Before moving on, I want to clarify what it means to compare things. Think of the phrase “that’s comparing apples and oranges.” And that’s because apples and oranges are essentially different things, but they are both round, delicious, sugary fruits. There are ways they compare to one another; you just compare them with one another. The point of this article does not compare Simmons with any of the great players he’s putting himself on the same page with; it’s merely to demonstrate the similarities between his rookie seasons and theirs.
That’s significant because the list of names is pretty much elite. He’s not necessarily going to be a Hall of Famer, but he sure looks like a round, delicious, sugary fruit based on the early returns. So to speak
Let’s start with his overall numbers. He’s averaging 18.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 7.4 assists. Here are the players who have averaged 15/7/7 in their first years, per Basketball-Reference.com:
Well now, that’s a compelling pair of names. Granted, Robertson’s numbers were significantly better overall, but remember, we’re looking at comparing “to,” not “with,” here.
Of course, that’s just random numbers, right? You could slap up a random assortment of stats and get a lot of wild lists. So what about advanced stats? Simmons is one of just 37 rookies to post a Player Efficiency Rating over 20, which is impressive, but not jaw-dropping. PER though, doesn’t really adequately demonstrate Simmons’ value, because it tends to undervalue assists.
When you look at players whose PER is over 20 based on how many points per game they produce (either through scoring or passing), Simmons is once again there with the all-time greats. Here are the 14 rookies who generated 30 points per game via passing or scoring while posting a PER above 20:
A little caveat on this: Paul and Simmons have the advantage of having the actual value of their assists counted. A few players (Magic Johnson and Larry Bird) may have had a slight bump if we could factor that in, but we can’t, and threes were so scarce then, it wouldn’t make a big impact.
That said, there are only three players ahead of Simmons, and they are Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Michael Jordan. That’s even more impressive than the list of names behind him, like Bird and Johnson and Paul and … well, every other player in the history of the NBA.
If you throw in rebounds, you have an equally impressive list of names:
Two things jump out about this list. First, every single name on the list belongs to a Hall of Famer, with the exception of Blake Griffin, who is still playing. Second, of the players who are ahead of him on the list, the most recent is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose rookie season was in 1969-70. It’s been nearly 50 years since we’ve seen someone generate scoring and rebounding like this in their rookie year. (Though Jordan wasn’t too far behind.)
Also, let’s bear in mind that Simmons has just played 17 games — the latest of which he exited early due to injury. Here is how he compared (based on Game Score) with players, going back to 1983-84 in their first 16 games as a pro:
Once again, Simmons is on a unique level. Jordan and David Robinson are the only two that stand ahead of him, and he’s tied with Shaquille O’Neal.
There is another aspect to this list, though, as we have our first real inkling of an outlier. Michael-Carter Williams is high up, and his career has certainly taken a turn for the worst since he won Rookie of the Year (and we don’t have to tell Sixers fans about that). Still, everyone else on the list who is Hall of Fame-eligible is in the Hall already, and the ones who aren’t (Grant Hill and Chris Paul) probably will be.
Another interesting note: Simmons’ 17th game was the first time he didn’t contribute at least 25 points through scoring or assists. While I don’t have the exact data to every player in history, I’ve been able to do filter out most names through the Basketball-Reference.com Game Finder. I can’t confirm any player has done that, but I’ve been able to exclude most, through the inexact process of looking for players who have had either five assists or 10 points in each of their first 16 games, and then going through what’s available of the game logs. The only two players I can’t exclude are Magic and Kareem … though I can’t confirm them either.
In doing all that, he’s also leading all point guards in Real Plus-Minus at ESPN. Without going into some of the problems with RPM, it’s still a pretty impressive feat. He’s 14th overall in the NBA; the next-best rookie is Jayson Tatum at No. 40.
Simmons is not only putting up offensive numbers that rival some for the greatest in history, he’s doing it while making a case for the All-Defensive Team too. Here is the list of players who have made the All-Defensive Team as rookies.
Three things really stand out when you look at all of this. One is the relative absence of obscure names. Other than MCW and Bol, everyone on these lists is already or will be in the Hall of Fame. That weeds out a lot of the “it’s early” type arguments. Even this early in his career, he’s in rare company. The second thing is the absence of great names — such as LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, for instance. The third thing is the variety of names which range from the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon to Michael Jordan to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. This points to his incredible versatility.
He still has a career ahead of him — and to be honest, he still has the other 80 percent of his first season in front of him — so we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. But as a guy who has just trotted out onto the floor and made an immediate impact, he’s doing something very few others have done. And when you consider he’s doing it on both sides of the court, perhaps what none other has done.
If he plays like this his whole rookie season and avoids injury, it might be the case that there will have been no rookie season in history that compared to his.