Absence of Simmons spotlight boosts Tatum's shot at rookie award
Jayson Tatum has been put forward as a contender to Ben Simmons' seemingly inevitable roll to being named NBA Rookie of the Year. On the evidence of Thursday's meeting between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics at the O2 Arena in London, Simmons is in for a serious challenge.
After seeing his debut season in the league wiped out by a foot injury, Simmons has proved worth the wait for Sixers fans this campaign. The 21-year-old Australian is averaging 16.9 points, 7.5 assists and 8.4 rebounds – if he maintains those numbers for the remainder of the season, he will statistically be the best rookie since the legendary Oscar Robertson in 1960-1961.
Simmons came up third among the Eastern Conference guards after the second returns of fans' All-Star voting for next month's game, and speaking in London earlier this week he suggested that making the cut would put him out of sight for the rookie award.
The confident point guard said: "I want to be an All-Star so if I'm an All-Star then I know I'm Rookie of the Year, I already know I'm the best rookie in the league."
Standing at six foot, 10 inches, Simmons cuts an imposing figure in the backcourt and he looked nigh-on unstoppable in the early stages in London. In a direct match-up with Tatum in the opening quarter, he spun away from his man, crossed the paint and hooked in for two.
But Boston possess the highest rated defense in the league and Simmons was unable to maintain his free-scoring start – the lack of a jump shot proving detrimental as the Celtics roared back from 22 points behind to claim an 114-103 victory. Along with his free throw, it is the main area the Australian needs to improve.
Sixers head coach Brett Brown acknowledged the fact after the game: "Ben can be anything he wants to be.
"We all get excited. His growth is going to be his free throw, his growth is going to be his rise-up jump-shot, maybe eventually to a three. It will make his offensive game more complete because his skill package along with his athleticism, it's very unique, very special."
Simmons excels when driving into the paint at speed, drawing defenders towards him and creating space for his team-mates. When that does not work, though, he regularly comes up short.
However, with Tatum there are fewer glaring deficiencies in his game.
The third overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, forward Tatum is third in the NBA in terms of three-point field goal percentage. Defensively, he became the second player to record three steals and six blocks in a game by the age of 20 against the Brooklyn Nets on January 6.
He appears a more reserved figure on court and goes about his business away from the glaring spotlight that Simmons has to deal with. His game-time has been boosted by the season-ending injury sustained by Gordon Hayward, but he has proved himself a useful component in Brad Stevens' line-up.
The 19-year-old endured a quiet start in London but posted 11 points off five-on-nine shooting from the floor in the third quarter alone to help inspire the Celtics' rousing comeback.
Tatum benefits from being backed up by two All-Stars in the exceptional Kyrie Irving and veteran big man Al Horford, something Simmons is unable to rely upon.
Second-year forward Jaylen Brown outlined why he and Tatum deserve recognition: "Because we've got the best record in the East and I think we're a major part of it."
It's hard to argue with that logic, and if Tatum continues to progress and develop away from the spotlight this season he has every chance of battling Simmons for top honours.