Home » Breaking down Ben Simmons’ dramatic decline… and what comes next for Australian NBA star

Breaking down Ben Simmons’ dramatic decline… and what comes next for Australian NBA star

To truly understand how just far Ben Simmons has fallen, you have to go back to the start. Back to when a fresh-faced Simmons had his name called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers with the first overall pick in 2016.

There is no greater honour. And no greater burden. No way of so quickly lifting you up, and then tearing you down.

“It honestly feels like all this pressure just has hopped off me,” Simmons said when asked what it felt like to hear his name called after all of the build-up to the draft.

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Ben Simmons poses with Commissioner Adam Silver after being drafted first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

In reality, the pressure was only just starting to build, spelled out in big block letters on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s sports section the day after Simmons was selected.

‘Big Ben’s Time’ it read, along with three columns on the Australian’s arrival in ‘The City of Brotherly Love’.

Mike Sielski, for example, noted how then-Sixers coach Brett Brown was “unafraid to wield names such as LeBron and Magic when speaking about the player Simmons might become”.

Bob Ford, meanwhile, had a warning of sorts, one that spoke to the earlier point that the lead-up to the draft was just an early glimpse into the kind of pressure Simmons was now facing.

“Simmons went from amateur status to a professional contract that will pay him between $5 million and $6 million in his rookie season alone,” Ford wrote.

“Something comes along with the fame and money and the memory of being the first one to shake hands with the commissioner on draft night. Expectations.”

Expectations like the “task of turning around the Sixers’ losing ways”, as staff writer Keith Pompey put it flatly in the headline of his column, with Simmons joining a Philadelphia team that had not finished higher than 14th in the Eastern Conference since the 2012-13 season.

There were high expectations for Ben Simmons. (Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

This special edition of the Inquirer even included an online extra from Philadelphia’s former first overall pick Allen Iverson, which came with a simple message of advice for Simmons:

“Play every game like it’s your last”.

Simmons was a unique prospect, described by one NBA executive as a “Hall of Fame talent that doesn’t come along every day” in an interview with foxsports.com.au in early 2018.

Meanwhile, along with being comfortable throwing out names like LeBron and Magic, Brown told The Sunday Telegraph in 2017 that when we looked back at Simmons’ career, “we’ll say he’s the best to ever come out of Australia”.

“I know it’s a bold statement, but it’s true and one I believe,” added Brown, and that was only 30 games into the then-21-year-old’s career.

All of this is to stress that the position Simmons currently finds himself in, limited to just 15 games after another injury-interrupted season and at a career crossroads, is made even more jarring when reminded of just how high expectations were for him entering the league.

Not just entering the league either.

Ben Simmons impressed early in his career. Jamie Squire/Getty Images/AFPSource: AFP

After his rookie year Simmons was already putting his name in the history books, joining Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Russell Westbrook as the only player to average at least 15 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and 1.5 steals per game in a season.

Already esteemed company for Simmons without even mentioning the fact he was the only one to do it as a rookie and on the back of a redshirt season due to injury.

“He could be the next marquee player, a leader in the sport,” Australian basketball legend Andrew Gaze told ABC News of Simmons after his first season in the league.

“Ben Simmons’ ceiling and realistic potential is to be the greatest in the world.”

Now the question isn’t whether Simmons can be the greatest in the league but whether he will even be in the league come this time next season.

As Simmons prepares to enter the final year of the $170 million ($A260m) contract extension he signed with the Sixers back in 2019, foxsports.com.au breaks down just what went wrong for the Australian over the past few years and what his future in the NBA looks like from here.

To do that, foxsports.com.au spoke with Brooklyn and Philadelphia beat writers Erik Slater and Noah Levick along with NBA legend Gary Payton, a second overall pick himself.

They dissected the uncertainty surrounding Simmons’ future in the league along with how they will remember the Australian if this is the last time we see him on an NBA court.


But first, we start at Brooklyn, where Simmons was traded to in February 2022 as part of a blockbuster deal that ended a seven-month standoff and sent James Harden to Philadelphia.

At the time when Simmons was dealt he had not suited up for an NBA game since June the year prior, when Philadelphia crashed out of the playoffs at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks.

Simmons sat out the start of the 2021-22 season with the Sixers, citing mental health concerns, before a back injury limited his availability for the Nets and later saw the Australian shut down in March last year.

Still, the 27-year-old played 42 games for the Nets last season and based on the way he was talking last summer, there was a genuine reason to be optimistic things would be different.

There was reason to believe things would be different. Mike Lawrie/Getty Images/AFPSource: AFP

Here Simmons was, off yet another injury-shortened season, confidently declaring he would “dominate people” again and wanted to be “better than an All-Star”.

“I would definitely say that his confidence and just the entire aura surrounding him [is different],” Slater, a reporter from Clutch Points and host of Bleav in Nets, told foxsports.com.au at the time.

Simmons went on to tell the YES Network that it was “the best” he had felt physically while mentally he also seemed to be locked in, ready to make up for lost time.

His first game of the season against Cleveland seemed to back it up as Simmons finished with nine assists, 10 rebounds and four points in a solid opening showing from the three-time All-Star.

Unfortunately for Nets fans it was just one of 15 games for Simmons, who was in March this year shut down yet again for the remainder of the season to undergo back surgery for the second time in three years.

For Slater, the fact Brooklyn entered the season relying on Simmons to be such a key part of its offensive identity was “pretty damning”.

This season did not go to plan for Simmons. Sarah Stier/Getty Images/AFPSource: AFP

“If you’re looking at it from that perspective of the way that the Nets are trying to build their roster and game plan a lot of stuff around Simmons, given his extensive injury history, the way that this has played out is pretty damning,” he told foxsports.com.au.

“It’s not a good look for the front office or the coaching staff because they came into the season wanting Ben to be a focal point of what they were trying to do offensively, which was push the pace, be one of the more efficient and higher volume teams in transition on the year.

“They did not want to play in the halfcourt as much and playing Ben at starting point guard and prioritising him over a guy like Spencer Dinwiddie and also not building up adequate point guard depth behind him.

“They signed Dennis Smith Jr. but he struggles offensively and their decision to curtail some of their rotations and have Ben be a focal point of the offence, it’s difficult to find alternatives to that given he’s making $37 million ($A57m).

“It’s such a large chunk of their salary cap but them leaning into that has blown up in their faces this year.”

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Even former Nets coach Jacque Vaughn, who was fired in late February, conceded that the Nets were “two different teams” without Simmons — such was the level of adjustment Brooklyn had to make when the Australian was unavailable.

“We were top six in transition with Ben, bottom five without Ben,” Vaughn said ahead of a game against the Magic in November.

“Better executing in the half-court without Ben, not with Ben. So it’s two different teams.”

The decision to build the offence around Simmons’ strengths was reportedly a source of frustration for “multiple players”, including Spencer Dinwiddie and Mikal Bridges, in Brooklyn’s locker room according to NBA insider Shams Charania.

Ultimately, that plan backfired given Simmons’ struggles to stay healthy and seemed to contribute to Vaughn’s demise.

“It’s kind of difficult to envision how they could have viewed Ben as a sustainable piece this season,” Slater added.

“It seems like maybe it was just that they didn’t feel they had any other choice. But regardless, him being on the roster and being that much of a focal point of the team’s offence entering this year, given his extensive injury history, is a pretty glaring indictment of the coaching staff and more importantly, the front office.”


So with that in mind, what does Simmons’ future look like at the Nets and in the league in general beyond this season?

Well, Simmons is signed for the 2024-25 season and is due to earn $40.3 million ($A61.7m), which makes the prospect of a buyout unlikely given it has little appeal for the Australian.

After all, given his injury history and declining production it is hard to see Simmons getting anywhere close to that figure at another team so he may as well pocket that kind of money while he still can.

As for a trade, Simmons’ $40.3 million ($A 61.7m) contract is expiring next season which could make him appealing for any teams that are looking to get off long-term money on their books.

In return, the Nets would likely get a host of role players.

What comes next for Ben Simmons? Dustin Satloff/Getty Images/AFPSource: AFP

“It wouldn’t be anything too valuable I would think but at least some guys who could be on the floor and give you something,” Slater said.

Whether that is the kind of return Brooklyn is after will depend on whether the franchise has a realistic chance of landing a big name in free agency instead, as Slater explained.

“They’re projected to have a tonne of cap space in 2025 when Ben’s contract comes off the books. So, if they’re projecting that there’s going to be free agents and other players that they have interest in and that would have interest in coming to Brooklyn in that 2025 class, I would view them as just letting Ben’s contract expire,” he said.

“If they don’t think that [in] that 2025 class a lot of guys are going to end up hitting free agency or they’re not going to have a shot at them, I could see them maybe trying to move Ben and trying to look for a team that’s looking to get off long-term salary and take back those players and maybe use them as salary fillers to trade for a bigger piece down the line.”

Boston’s Jayson Tatum headlines the potential free agents in 2025, with Knicks guard Jalen Brunson and Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell the other leading options that make sense for Brooklyn both in terms of positional need and the timeline the Nets are operating on.

Jayson Tatum is the best free agent available in 2025. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

As for Simmons’ future in the NBA, he has every incentive in the world to get back on the court next season given it is a contract year.

At this point though it is hard to trust his body given how confident the 27-year-old was this summer.

“Despite that seven month rehab process and him saying that he feels so great, he wound up playing 27 less games this year than he did last year,” added Slater.

“So that’s a really damning sign for where his body’s at and it doesn’t really give you much confidence that he’ll be able to make it back from the injury.”


Considering that reality — the fact Simmons’ body has more than failed him in recent years — why has the discourse surrounding the Australian been so toxic?

It is hardly anything new for the league’s biggest names to generate the biggest headlines, but in the case of Simmons it at times seems to be more than that. It seems almost personal.

As if Simmons is the only professional athlete to not live up this potential. As if, more importantly, Simmons’ debilitating back issues and mental health concerns aren’t a good enough reason.

As if he is making some of it up, or at least at minimum exaggerating the extent to which it has limited his ability to get on the court in recent years.

You only have to read a column by Mike Sielski, who has covered Simmons since he was drafted for the Philadelphia Inquirer and wrote that it is “impossible to feel sorry” for the three-time All-Star because “he squandered his sympathy years ago”.

Of course, Philadelphia is a particularly ruthless city to be playing in if you are not performing well. And they don’t forget easily either.

Just ask a few of the fans who showed up for Simmons’ first appearance in Philadelphia since being traded to Brooklyn.

“He quit on the city,” Fatieem Grady told the Inquirer.

“I had to come and boo him myself,” Jason Castaldo added.

Matt Grieco, meanwhile, paid $450 for his ticket but said “it was worth it… just to boo Ben Simmons”.

But why this level of vitriol? Why the branding of his mental health concerns as an “exploitation of the country’s mental health crisis”, as Sielski put it in his column, or the need for Stephen A. Smith to publicly air his “disgust” with Simmons?

“Some of the commentary has definitely lacked an understanding of all that has taken us to this point,” Noah Levick, who covered Simmons during his time at the 76ers for NBC Sports Philadelphia, told foxsports.com.au.

And that, as Levick points out, goes back even earlier than most people realise. Back to the 2020 when then-Sixers coach Brett Brown witnessed what he said at the time was “as disturbing a memory as it relates to a player that I can think of”.

Why the hate for Simmons? (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

“I mean, for me, always when thinking of how we got here, I go back to the 2019-20 season. He’s an All-Star calibre player yet again and then he aggravates his back injury in late February in Milwaukee. He is out indefinitely,” Levick said.

“Then a couple weeks later, the season is paused because of COVID-19 and then we hear on a Zoom press conference with then head coach Brett Brown in May that he [Simmons] was vomiting primarily because of pain that night in Milwaukee. And Brett Brown called it “as disturbing a memory as it relates to a player that I can think of”.

“So to me, it’s easy to forget or overlook just the reality of in 2020 he suffered what at the time was a very concerning back injury and this back ailment has continued to plague him and seemingly continued to sap many of his athletic gifts and even sideline him and prevent him from playing in games.”

While the holdout at Philadelphia “absolutely clouded the way many people see” Simmons according to Levick, he added it would be wrong to place too much of a spotlight on that period of the Australian’s career.

“To me, regardless of how you feel about that particular major event in his career, it’s undeniable that for four years now, he’s been dealing with a serious back issue,” Levick said.

“… I do think it’s really, really difficult to try to find nuance in reflecting on his career and the holdout saga and his big strengths and big weaknesses as a player. But I think the bottom line is he’s experienced very serious physical problems and that is, to me, unavoidably and undeniably the dominant reason why we are where we are now with him.”

Ben Simmons has generated headlines since he entered the league. Sarah Stier/Getty Images/AFPSource: AFP

For Slater though, the scepticism is also a product of the question marks that surrounded Simmons entering the league.

“When you’re talking about the legitimacy of it and why people seem to question that, from my perspective, it would be the fact that before Ben started to have these serious back issues on record, his confidence was crumbling and his shot attempts and all those things were declining every season in Philadelphia and had continued to before the back injuries and those confidence issues,” he said.

“Entering the league when Ben was coming out of the draft one of the knocks on him was people questioned how much he loved the game, questioned his motor. So when you have all that out there, those questions entering the league, then you have that confidence starting to go down, he didn’t really develop any of the skills that people would have liked him to during his time in Philadelphia from an offensive perspective and then you get him sitting out an entire season.

“When you have all that stuff working out together, once his back issues start to crop up, people question the legitimacy of it.”

Of course, Slater was also having none of the critics who raise doubts over whether Simmons is actually injured. After all, he has undergone back surgery twice now.

“He’s not going in and having surgery for no reason,” Slater added.

Now, it is one thing to be sceptical about Simmons’ desire to represent his country. But it is another thing entirely to question legitimate injuries or mental health concerns that come with the pressure of living up to being a first overall pick.

Ben Simmons is interviewed after being drafted first overall. Mike Stobe/Getty Images/AFPSource: AFP

And that is where NBA legend Gary Payton lands in this conversation. Why has the discourse surrounding Simmons been so toxic?

“Because we’re talking about a top pick,” Payton, a former second overall pick, simply put it speaking with foxsports.com.au while in Australia to attend NBA and TAB’s free ‘Block Party’ event at Hotel Steyne on Manly Beach last week.

“Everybody will always be saying, ‘Is he a bust?’… We had a lot of expectations for him and it hasn’t panned out. What I think is that I wouldn’t listen or wouldn’t think about it.

“I would try to be thinking about what we can do now to get better… that’s what I would think about.

“… He is on social media too much to be where he listens too much. I think he should just go by himself and do his work at his game and show people his game… I think that gets in peoples’ heads when they start listening to things and they hear criticism and I just don’t like that.”


As easy as it is to focus on what Simmons is now, it is also important to reflect on what he once was.

Because as disappointing as the last few seasons have been, that doesn’t take away from what Simmons achieved in the early stages of his career.

Achievements that had Simmons’ name constantly mentioned among basketball royalty, including LeBron James — and his own teammates could see why.

“There’s really very few players, I’m trying to think if there’s anybody besides LeBron, that has had that combination of speed and size and athleticism and strength,” former Sixers guard J.J. Redick said in 2017.

“LeBron is, I think, the greatest player to ever play and that’s a tough comparison to make for someone who’s played 17 games. LeBron is obviously in a different category but I think it’s a valid comparison from where LeBron was early in his career to where Ben is now.”

In fact, Levick’s best memory from covering Simmons for NBC Philadelphia remains his epic duel with James in Philadelphia’s 132-130 win over Cleveland back in 2018.

The 76ers defeated the Cavaliers 132-130. Mitchell Leff/Getty Images/AFPSource: AFP

“LeBron, of course, has been a mentor to Simmons and just seeing them go toe-to-toe and then the Sixers ultimately edge out the Cavs in that game definitely left you with the impression that sure, Simmons was unlikely to become a player of LeBron’s calibre, but that he was entirely capable of being a perennial All-Star sort of guy,” Levick said.

Simmons had 27 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists in that game while James led the way for the Lakers with 44 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds.

Just a reminder of what could have been for Simmons. What could have been if he hadn’t got injured. What could have been if he didn’t pass up that wide-open dunk against the Hawks.

A split-second decision that summed up the next few seasons for Simmons, whose lack of aggression and hesitation around the rim only further limited his offensive game when paired with his lack of a consistent jump shot.

A sliding doors moment that spelled the end of Simmons’ career in Philadelphia, and perhaps the idea that he would ever rediscover the form that made the Australian one of the best two-way players in the league.

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“It is really one of the more unusual and interesting situations in the NBA for a player of that calibre. It’s not something you see really often,” Slater said of Simmons’ career trajectory.

“It’s unfortunate because Ben was one of the more exciting players in the NBA and it’s looking more and more unlikely he’s going to be able to reach that level again.”

Greg Oden, who was drafted first overall by the Trail Blazers in 2007 and found himself sidelined with a knee injury before he had even played a single NBA game, is often brought up in conversations on Simmons’ decline.

But Oden, who was restricted to just 105 games in his career, isn’t even a one-for-one comparison.

“I think it’s striking to me how dramatic and extreme the ups and downs have been for him,” Levick said.

“I guess when I think of young players suffering career-altering injuries, it’s often someone like Greg Oden, where the injury is so early and so significant that they’re never able to reach a peak level or an elite All-Star kind of level.

“But I think Simmons is unique in that he was a three-time All-Star and in my mind those were deserving selections, so I guess that’s what jumps out to me, just that it is pretty hard for me to think of anyone comparable and the talent was absolutely eye-popping right out of the gate.”

So, without knowing exactly what the future holds, how will Simmons be remembered in the NBA?

How will Ben Simmons, once compared to LeBron James, be remembered?Source: Twitter

For Levick, while the passed-up dunk against the Hawks is a “defining” moment in Simmons’ story it won’t be the lasting memory of the Australian’s time in a Sixers uniform.

“The Hawks moment, yes it’ll be defining unless this script substantially turns. But I do think honestly, if the health hadn’t become so problematic, that might be a larger storyline in his career,” Levick said.

“For me now, it’s more than anything just sad that a player who displayed a lot of greatness and did a lot of positive things on an NBA court is unable to play. I know many people probably don’t see it that way.

“They see him as someone who was stubborn about not changing his game and someone who didn’t put in the necessary work to improve as a shooter and to adapt to what was wrong with his skill set or what have you.

“But I think at the moment, the big takeaway for me is when he was healthy, he was at least a number two star level sort of player for a championship contending team. And then boom, he’s not been healthy for quite a while.

“So I think that contrast, to me, is pretty severe and pretty brutal. I think for many the whole saga with the holdout and the mental health aspect of that is prominent and I understand that being kind of inherently fascinating and divisive and what have you, but I always go back to his availability in games.

“When that was intact, we saw greatness and it’s, I think, so harsh honestly that that has been taken away. At least from where I’m sitting, I’m really sympathetic to how difficult that must be. I do think he, at his best, was a really exciting player but we haven’t seen Ben Simmons at his best for years now.”

Ben Simmons showed promise early in his career. Mitchell Leff/Getty Images/AFSource: AFP

That in itself should be taken on as a “challenge” for Simmons according to Payton, who said the Australian can still be a “phenomenal basketball player” if he is able to stay healthy.

“He had big expectations as a top pick and then all of a sudden he’s got hurt… and they were telling him he can’t shoot… but I think if he gets himself back right and gets healthy, and work on the things he needs to work at, he can be a phenomenal basketball player,” the nine-time NBA All-Star said.

“So to me, I just think I would take it up as a challenge for Ben Simmons. I would take it as a challenge to come back and do what I have to do. It’s been a rough road for him but I think he can get out of it. He’s a great talent.”

As for Slater, who has had a front-row seat of sorts to the Simmons experience in recent years on the Brooklyn beat, the duality of the Australian’s career stands out.

“When I look back on Ben Simmons, the way that I would view him is a guy that had an incredible amount of talent,” Slater said.

“One of the more unique and rare talents that you’re ever going to see in basketball being 6’10”, having the defensive versatility, but more impressively, the offensive fluidity and dexterity that he had as a passer and as a guy that can handle the ball. So all of that made him so enticing entering the league. I’ll remember that.

Ben Simmons was a rare talent. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

“But then you’ll also remember him being a guy that ultimately didn’t seem like he developed in the areas that he could have to take the game to the next level and a guy who was never willing to press the issue and maybe be a little uncomfortable and try to develop those things, whether it be a jump shot or some other moves driving to the basket or things along those lines.

“A guy who didn’t show enough willingness to improve in those areas, which ultimately led to him, I feel like, going further and further into the shell of what he was comfortable doing and eventually led to some of the confidence issues and Philly fans getting on him more and more and more and the lack of 3-point shooting becoming more and more glaring, confidence at the free throw line just going down leading up to that Hawks series.”

Which brings us back to the start. Back to when Simmons was drafted and back to that front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s sports section. Back to the topic of expectations.

Ben Simmons celebrates after being drafted first overall. Mike Stobe/Getty Images/AFPSource: AFP

“Some young players handle that pressure well and some don’t,” Bob Ford wrote in his column after Simmons was taken with the first overall pick.

“Unfortunately it is impossible to know which category fits Simmons.”

Just under eight years later, however, it is pretty safe to say Simmons probably fits better in the latter category.

Although in his first few seasons in the league, before the injuries, Simmons seemed to be handling the pressure just fine.

Perhaps a fresh start, removed from the spotlight and the millions of dollars that come with it, may be the best thing for Simmons.

The pressure will always be there in some form or another. That is what comes with being a former first overall pick.

It is never really that simple, and Simmons’ career to this point has been anything but simple anyway. Nothing could be more true given the uncertain path that lies ahead.