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Ben Simmons’s NBA career is off to a better start than the one LeBron James had

Sixers guard Ben Simmons seems to have the rookie of the year award nailed down. (Nell Redmond/Associated Press)
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Ben Simmons continues to make his mark on the NBA. On Tuesday night against the Brooklyn Nets, the 21-year-old Philadelphia 76ers rookie scored 15 points with 12 rebounds and six assists, joining Oscar Robertson (1960-61) as the only players in NBA history to record at least 1,200 points, 600 assists and 600 rebounds in a rookie season.

His 2017-18 performance to date even caught the eye of 76ers legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who called Simmons a “[o]nce in a decade, maybe once in a lifetime-type player.”

That’s a bold statement considering LeBron James, a once-in-a-lifetime-type player in his own right, is still in the league and playing at an MVP level. Yet Erving might be on to something. After all, Simmons’s debut compares favorably to that of James’s rookie campaign of 2003-04. Heck, James told Simmons he had an opportunity “to be better” than James himself, and Simmons is fulfilling that prophecy.

James scored 28 points per 100 possessions in 2003-04 as a 19-year-old, adding 7.3 rebounds and 7.9 assists and ending the season with what is now a career-low 49 true shooting percentage. Simmons is averaging 22.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 11.6 assists per 100 possessions during the 2017-18 campaign. His true shooting percentage (55.4 percent) is also higher than James’s, which is somewhat surprising considering Simmons is a terrible shooter.

Simmons also makes up for a lack of shooting prowess by being one of the league’s better facilitators with the ball. His 16.8 potential assists are the fourth-most in the league behind Russell Westbrook, James and John Wall and he assists on more than a third of Philadelphia’s baskets (38 percent) compared to 28 percent by James during his rookie year. Part of that, of course, is playing a different role: Simmons is the team’s point guard 74 percent of the time, whereas James functioned as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ shooting guard a majority of the time. Positional data only goes back to 2005-06, but from that point to 2009-10, his final season in Cleveland before bolting to the Miami Heat, James played as a shooting guard at least 79 percent of the time.

Simmons’s passing, and ability to get to the rim, is ultimately what makes his rookie season more valuable than the one James had 14 years ago, at least according to several all-in-one metrics that measure overall value on the court. For example, Simmons’s Player Efficiency Rating, or PER, is higher (19.8) than the one James produced in 2003-04 (18.3), as is his total win shares (8.5 to 5.1), box plus-minus (4.4 to 1.9), a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team, and value over a replacement player (11.3 wins compared with 8.4). Simmons’s average game score, created by John Hollinger, vice president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, to give a rough measure of a player’s productivity for a single game, is also better than the one produced by James in his rookie season. Simmons also has 11 triple-doubles as a rookie; James had zero.

Player Rookie season Average game score Triple-doubles
Ben Simmons 2017-18 15.8 11
LeBron James 2003-04 14.5 0

As a purveyor of advanced analytics, it’s hard for me to anoint any player as “the next great one” after less than a full NBA season, but it’s hard to argue against the fact that Simmons is off to a great start and is at least on track to inherit the mantle of being a once-in-a-lifetime-type player.

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