Top pick Ben Simmons looking less likely to play for Sixers this season

Will Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons play together this season? (AP)

The life-affirming play of Joel Embiid and a surprisingly solid 21-34 record have eclipsed one clear negative for the Philadelphia 76ers — Ben Simmons, the top pick in June’s draft and a potential superstar, has not played a single game for the team this season. While the absence of Simmons has not been felt especially strongly in the team’s on-court performance (relative to expectations, at least), going through more than two-thirds of the season without him has held back some of their long-term plans. Thankfully, recent reports have indicated that the impressive point forward would play in his first game shortly after the All-Star break, at which point he could begin to show how he could fit with Embiid, several other promising young players, and future first-round picks to build a contender.

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It now looks like Simmons and the Sixers will have to wait longer for that much-anticipated debut. In fact, it might not happen until the 2017-18 season. From Bob Cooney for Philly.com:

Last week, coach Brett Brown stated that for Simmons to be ready for game activity, the first overall pick would have to play more than five 5-on-5 games. Asked pregame at the Spectrum Center whether Simmons would start playing some more and get to the 5-on-5 area, Brown didn’t hesitate with his answer about the rookie who fractured his foot on the last day of training camp on Sept. 30.

“I don’t think so,” Brown said. “I feel like he’s moving forward, but to say that we believe he’s going to be ready for 5-on-5 during the All-Star break would be misleading. I don’t see that.

“He is moving forward but it’s at a very slow pace, our pace. I think when we all get back and he’s around the team again, because it’s not an ideal situation to manufacture 5-on-5 during a break, then we can better craft and construct to allow the return to play to be more responsible.”

After Wednesday’s game in Boston, the team won’t play again until Feb. 24. That will leave the team with 26 remaining games in the season, which includes a West Coast trip and another six-game streak away from home. It would be hard to imagine Simmons getting in any practicing when the team is on the road, so it’s getting obvious that the time for him to make his debut is shrinking rather quickly.

It makes sense that the Sixers would not want to rush Simmons into the lineup. Philadelphia is firmly in rebuilding mode despite Embiid’s claims that they can make the playoffs, which means that there’s no reason to rush him back if there are doubts about his health. Simmons doesn’t turn 21 until July, and Embiid has proven that staying on the bench for as many as two years doesn’t have to sap a high-impact player of his immense potential. He’ll still be a potential superstar if he debuts next season.

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Nevertheless, keeping Simmons on the shelf would cause a lot of headaches for the Sixers and potentially lead them into some bad decisions this summer. On one level, it would be good to see how Simmons fits into an NBA lineup, especially with Embiid as a first option. The Sixers have said that Simmons will play point guard upon his debut, but it’s unclear how a 6-foot-10, 240-pound player would make that role work defensively. If the idea is to play Simmons as a point forward, then he has to find a role in the thick of the Sixers’ frontcourt glut, a situation that has led to questions and minor controversies throughout this season.

It would also behoove the Sixers to figure out how Simmons and Embiid play together, a challenging task due to both the former’s foot rehab and the latter’s recently announced “minor” meniscus tear. There are no glaring reasons why the pairing wouldn’t work, but Embiid has thrived this season in part because he can do whatever he wants in an offense with no other similarly talented players. Would he feel restricted with Simmons, who lacks a jumper, needing to operate in particular areas of the court? That and other questions make it unsurprising that Cooney says general manager Bryan Colangelo has stated his desire to see the two together before this offseason.

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Colangelo probably feels that way because he stands to have two top-10 picks in this June’s draft (or one, if he doesn’t get the Los Angeles Lakers’ top-three protected pick). This draft looks to be loaded with high-value point guards like UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Washington’s Markelle Fultz, and North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr. The Sixers need all the backcourt help they can get and would be probably be happy with any of those players, but would questions about Simmons’s ideal position steer them in another direction? Would they pass up a favored prospect for a cleaner fit, such as Kansas wing Josh Jackson or Kentucky shooter Malik Monk? (To be fair, both of those players could also be stars. This draft could feature the best top-10 in years.)

There are no easy answers in the draft, where supposed can’t-miss prospects regularly fall wide of the mark, and Colangelo could easily screw up the Sixers’ picks with every knowable data point at his disposable. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that the safe decision with Simmons does not come without risks. Resting him for all of this season could turn a crucial summer into a period of real uncertainty.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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