‘He has a deep-rooted desire to be one of the greats’
IT'S hard to hide anything when you're in the limelight as an NBA star.
Especially when you're dating the highest-paid model on the planet. But Aussie export Ben Simmons has a trait he doesn't want you to know just yet.
The Philadelphia 76ers point guard is happy for the sporting world to admire his athletic, 208cm frame, transcendent basketball skills and close friendship with LeBron James.
The 22-year-old has also embraced the A-list lifestyle.
He cruises around Philadelphia in a Ferrari, sports a sharp fashion sense and enjoys a fledgling relationship with superstar model Kendall Jenner - who is becoming a courtside regular at the Wells Fargo Center in south Philly.
But all that is a distraction to what makes this rare talent tick - what drives Simmons daily when the cameras aren't on.
"He has a deep-rooted desire to be great; to be one of the greatest players … ever," Sixers teammate JJ Redick says.
"You can't create that out of nowhere. It has to come from within and it's going to take him a long way."
Simmons gave Aussie basketball fans a dose of his seemingly infinite potential last season.
In his debut NBA campaign, Simmons racked up 38 double-doubles, 12 triple-doubles and obliterated first-year records held by basketball royalty David Robertson and Magic Johnson while claiming NBA Rookie of The Year honours.
Simmons led the once cellar-dwelling Sixers to a first playoffs berth in six years, making it to the Eastern conference semi-finals.
The Melbourne-born, Newcastle-raised prodigy made it clear he has extraordinary physical gifts and a basketball IQ well beyond his years.
But seasoned sharpshooter Redick, who made his name with Orlando Magic and the LA Clippers before linking with Philadelphia, says God-given ability is just one weapon in Simmons' arsenal.
"The thing with really talented players is - and I don't want to name names here - but some guys are really talented however they don't necessarily love basketball, or love competing, or want to be great," Redick said.
"Ben has all those things; he loves to play, he loves to compete, and he needs to win.
"It comes from something inside of him; you can't tell somebody to be that way. He just is."
At the beginning of the current season, Simmons unknowingly gave an insight into his mission to go down in the NBA history books.
After a humiliating loss to Boston Celtics in the NBA season opener, the 76ers hopped on their chartered flight back to Philadelphia and landed back around midnight.
Simmons then drove straight to the Sixers' training facility where he practised shooting until 2am, after his jump shot soured an otherwise solid individual performance against the Celtics.
The Sixers won their next game on the back of a Simmons triple-double.
Burning the midnight oil revealed Simmons has developed a unique habit similar to Roger Federer, Tiger Woods and Floyd Mayweather - sporting champions known to get a rush out of training while their competitors are asleep, or resting.
Simmons, though, was tight-lipped when asked about the practice session.
"I want to be the best; that's about it," Simmons said.
Sixers teammate TJ McConnell had a different take on it.
"The vibe I get is, he gets his workouts in when people are only waking up," McConnell said.
"So he's up early, or staying up late, working out. Nobody is around to see it which, I think, is more genuine because he's not doing just so the coaches see it."
Plain and simple, Simmons hates losing.
"I don't think he gets enough credit for how competitive he is," Redick said.
"He has grown a ton in the past year in terms of maturity, poise and skills.
"He works so hard on his body and on his game."
There is one question on the minds of excited fans who have made Simmons' No. 25 the highest-selling NBA jersey in Australia: is he going to back it up?
The short answer is absolutely.
Last week, Simmons posted a triple-double (22 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists) to lead the 76ers to an away win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It was Simmons' 15th career triple-double in his 111th game, joining Hall of Fame member Robertson as the only two NBA players to ever post at least 15 triple-doubles in that few games.
He added another triple-double during the Sixers' home win over the New York Knicks days later.
Making Simmons' sophomore season all the more impressive is the fact Sixers coach Brett Brown has regularly rotated guard duties between Simmons and Markelle Fultz, that Philadelphia acquired four-time All Star Jimmy Butler in November and given star centre Joel Embiid has stepped up his offence.
On this trajectory, Simmons is likely to become the first Australian to earn NBA All-Star selection.
He is unlikely to be a starter as the East conference is loaded with superstar guards.
But Simmons' statistical output (averaging 15.9 points, nine rebounds and 7.9 assists per game), his popularity and the fact he is no longer a rookie should get him over the line.
For coach Brown, there is no limit on Simmons' potential.
"No, I don't think so," Brown says.
"He can be whatever he wants to be. His heart, and his athleticism, they are a hell of a combination.
"He's got what it takes to be great."
Brown has known Simmons since he was born, having coached Simmons' father, Dave, in the NBL in the late 1980s and '90s when Brown was an assistant at the Melbourne Tigers.
Since choosing Simmons with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft, Brown has been astounded by the development of the former US high school and college hoops star.
"His growth as a person, his growth as a leader and the fact he is committed to winning … that's what impresses me most," former Australian Boomers coach Brown says.
"Now, he's making better decisions on his passes, he's doing a better job defensively and he's starting to understand what to say to NBA referees.
"But what I really feel he is starting to understand is that this is his and Joel's city; it's their team.
"They have a responsibility as leaders and Ben is doing a wonderful job."
Simmons' opponents certainly respect his talent but as a second-year player they may not necessarily fear him - yet.
Sixers teammate and fellow Aussie Jonah Bolden claims that will change very soon.
Sydney native Bolden grew up playing against Simmons, decades after their fathers also faced off for rival Melbourne franchises in the NBL.
"From day one, he's shown he's the alpha male in this team and in this league," Bolden says.
"I've known him for so long and it's always been clear what he can do."
Queensland native Aron Baynes has played with his fair share of superstars, having won the NBA title with San Antonio Spurs in 2014 prior to landing his current role as a versatile big man with the Celtics.
Like Bolden, Baynes insists we haven't even seen the best of Simmons.
"He's great; everyone is talking about him and rightly so," says Baynes.
"It's a great thing for Australian basketball; he's only going to keep improving so it's going to be fun to watch."
Matthew Dellavedova, who won an NBA Championship alongside LeBron at Cleveland, agrees with countryman Baynes that Simmons could be transcendent for Australian basketball.
"He has unbelievable potential and he's an unreal player … I'm excited to see what he can do but," Dellavedova says.
"I hope basketball can continue to grow because of it."
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