You'll never believe the oblong ball behind Ben Simmons' genius

FROM ACROSS THE team's practice gym at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Ben Simmons spots it: the familiar Sherrin ball of his childhood. The red leather. Oblong with six cross-seams machine-stitched across the top. The silhouette of a kangaroo leaping across its surface.

It's an object he'd devoted hours of his early life learning to control, to manipulate, to master -- the official ball of Australian rules football, or "footy," as it's known in the local vernacular.

It's media day before the start of last season, and Simmons' Philadelphia 76ers teammate Joel Embiid has procured the ball. He'd retrieved it from the office of the team's director of performance research and development, David Martin, who spent years in Australia working with the nation's most elite footballers. Embiid loves ball sports, picks them up like a prodigy, so the Sherrin tantalizes him like a new toy. Simmons' fellow rookie stands flipping it back and forth in his enormous hands.

"What do you do with it?" Embiid asks, at once both curious and mischievous, holding the ball as if it's an ancient talisman that has been washed up on the banks of the Schuylkill River.

"Give it here," Simmons says.

Embiid passes him the ball, and Simmons proceeds to put on a clinic.

"He's good," Martin says. "It's been a while since he played competitively, but you could easily see that he had great aptitude as an Australian rules footballer."

Dribbling an oval ball whose general shape isn't much of a departure from an American football isn't easy, but Simmons bounces the Sherrin against the hardwood with the same ease as when he dribbles a regulation, 22-ounce Spalding. He holds the ball over his thigh, kicks it with his right foot, repeats the sequence with his left. He demonstrates the art of the hand pass, punching the ball underhand in Embiid's direction, volleyball-style, as if he were a teammate advancing downfield. His positioning on the ball is perfect, his hand passes sharp. When Embiid sends errant kicks and passes his way, Simmons gobbles them up.

"He was tooling around the gym with this thing," says Bryan Colangelo, the Sixers' president of basketball operations. "He had amazing control. It was stunning to see how comfortable he was."

Like many elite athletes, Simmons grew up playing multiple sports. As a kid in Melbourne, Australia, the country's football hotbed, Simmons was a standout both in basketball and Aussie rules football. Always the tallest and most athletic boy on his team, he held down the position of ruckman, whose closest analogue in basketball would be center, if basketball were still played in the age of Russell and Chamberlain.

While playing with his Australian junior team until the age of 14, Beverley Hills Junior Football Club -- a juggernaut with future pros -- Simmons won the Best and Fairest award, the equivalent of MVP, in the Yarra Junior Football League.

"He was a gun," says professional Aussie footballer Christian Petracca, who played both football and basketball with Simmons as a junior. "He was an absolute freak. He could jump. He could run. He could kick. He honestly would've been a top-five draft pick had he stuck with football."

Amateurs typically enter the Australian Football League draft at age 17 or 18 -- although the AFL operates some state-level leagues for juniors -- but by that time, Simmons had given up Aussie rules for basketball. Since he entered the NBA as the No. 1 draft pick in 2016, the 6-foot-10 Simmons has come to personify the NBA's versatile, who-cares-what-his-position-is, modern-day supernova.

At the insistence of Sixers coach Brett Brown -- the NBA's honorary Australian, having coached there for the better part of three decades, both in the professional leagues and as the head coach of the national team -- Simmons has assumed the role of Sixers' starting point guard.

And, by the way? It's going really well. Simmons, who didn't play last season because of foot injury, is running away from the rest of the Rookie of the Year field despite rarely attempting a shot outside the paint. This at a moment when the league all but requires shooting proficiency from its point guards. His is a unique game, borne out of aggressive athleticism and a fluidity of movement, a dash of Russell Westbrook with a Melbourne lilt and six extra inches.

And here's the twist: Much of its origin resides in an Aussie sport.

TO THE AMERICAN eye, Australian rules football can be inscrutable. The oval field of play is enormous -- between 150 and 200 yards in length, and between 120 and 170 yards in width, though there are no fixed dimensions. On the paddock, a roving scrum of players seems to be running with the ball without any discernible formations, passing it arbitrarily and kicking it toward the goal impulsively.

But at its essence, Aussie rules is a traditional ball-and-goal sport. A team composed of 18 players seeks to advance the ball downfield by running with the ball, "hand passing" it by punching it to another player or kicking it. (A petition at Change.org has been drawn up to allow Simmons to hand pass in the NBA).

A player on the run must bounce the ball every 15 meters to maintain possession. Defenders can tackle offensive players. Goals are scored by kicking the ball through the goals, which look not unlike the uprights in American football.

And although the individual skills don't mirror basketball -- kicking, hand passing, running with the ball and tackling are explicitly forbidden in hoops -- the instincts required to excel in either sport translate to the other to a surprising degree.

It's likely not a coincidence that, in recent years, there's a growing list of athletes from Australia who excelled at both sports: Simmons, Patty Mills and Dante Exum.

"So many things on the court for me to translate," says Utah Jazz wing Joe Ingles, who, like many schoolboys in Melbourne, grew up playing Aussie rules. "In [Aussie rules football], you're not afraid of contact. You're going to drive into a crowd with your eyes up and your face up. You don't go up for a rebound against other people half-assed because in AFL, you'll get hurt."

Half-assery won't suffice when employing the power to break through a massive scrum of opponents, which Aussie rules players rarely go 30 seconds without encountering at full force.

"The game is physical with a lot of contact," says Andrew Bogut, yet another of the NBA's Melbourne natives who grew up playing Aussie rules. "You're constantly wrestling to create space. You're looking to get short bursts off of contact."

In Aussie rules, the area between the shoulder and the elbow is the focal point of that contact. And in fact, in his two short months in the NBA, Simmons has wielded his upper arm like a weapon the way a good footballer would.

Houston's Trevor Ariza is one of the NBA's savviest veteran wing defenders, but in a late-October win in Houston -- only the seventh game of Simmons' career -- he repeatedly bludgeoned Ariza with his shoulder to successfully create space for himself while going for 24 points on 15 field goal attempts, 9 assists and 7 rebounds.

Indeed, to watch an hour or so of AFL highlights, then review clips from Simmons' early body of work as an NBA point guard, the parallels reveal themselves nearly constantly.

WHEN YOU ASK Brown about how Simmons' Aussie rules pedigree informs the way the rookie plays basketball, he wants to first talk about ... Australian cattle dogs. A "blue heeler," as an Australian cattle dog is often known, is a classic working breed commonly found on ranches, and Brown could watch them work all day.

"They can take 500 sheep, circle them up and take them from paddock to paddock to paddock," Brown says. "When they can't go around the circumference, they run over their backs of the sheep. It's spectacular."

When Brown sees Australian athletes in action, he sees a blue heeler at dusk, cajoling a herd to its proper place. "Shepherding" is actually a term in the Aussie rules vernacular referring to using your upper arm to bump or push an opponent below shoulder level to create space for a teammate.

"The AFL player has the ability to crawl up the back of an opponent just like [a blue heeler]," Brown says. "So, Ben, just like an AFL player ... when it's a 50-50 ball, he gets it."

Indeed, it's hard to unsee moments like Simmons in a scrum during the first quarter of a November home game against Portland, the Sixers pitching a 16-0 shutout to start the contest. Simmons drives up the middle with a big, sweeping, left-handed dribble, Evan Turner pokes the ball free, and now it's a tangle of arms and legs in pursuit of the loose ball just below the foul line.

Simmons is the longest and strongest man in the scrum, and he grabs the ball as if it were a red Sherrin, then immediately, almost as one motion with recovery, launches a pass through traffic to a cutting T.J. McConnell, who drives baseline and sinks the shot. All that distinguishes the play from an AFL possession is the little punch of the hand pass.

Most NBA attackers work in a crouch (think James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo). But from the second Simmons brings the ball across half court as the Sixers' starting point guard, he's notably upright, even more so than LeBron James, the NBA's most pronounced chin-up player (whom Simmons says would be a "beast" in Aussie rules).

Those attackers move from that crouch and into their drive with their head down, but for Simmons it's "head up," as the Aussie rules command goes -- leverage your upper body to push through contact.

"If your man is open, you try to draw a defender, then get rid of the ball. The ball has to move quickly or you're going to get tackled."
Ben Simmons, on Australian rules football

"[In Aussie rules football], your head is always up," says Simmons, who has just wrapped up a Sixers game-day shootaround at Santa Monica High School, hours before he would tally 22 points and 12 assists in a mid-November win over the Clippers.

Simmons is now toweling off, fresh off a series of dribble handoff drills, with Simmons and Embiid as focal points. Such planned choreography isn't commonplace in Aussie rules. There's no big, agile center waiting with the ball at an appointed spot on the floor. If you want something in Aussie rules, you have to find it. Says Simmons, at his locker: "You have to read the movement of the defenders. You have to have great vision."

To Simmons' point, in Aussie rules you can't get caught with possession of the ball when you're tackled. A player is required to get rid of the ball -- and to a teammate if he wants his team to maintain possession -- which means he's constantly scanning the field. Unless a player is in the open field, it's rarely a question of whether he'll be tackled, but when.

"If your man is open, you try to draw a defender, then get rid of the ball," Simmons says. "The ball has to move quickly or you're going to get tackled."

Aussie rules exists in a state of chaos that even the most run-and-gun NBA game can't match. There are no sets to speak of, in which a player passes to an appointed teammate curling around a screen or rolling to the rim at a precise moment. In Aussie rules, the guy with the ball has to operate improvisationally, all the while knowing he's going to get mauled by some very large men.

And the carryover to the court is clear, once you look for it. "[Simmons] doesn't necessarily move into a space with a committed game plan," says Martin, who worked as a sports scientist in Australia for more than two decades. "He moves into space, letting the defender basically decide what he's going to do with the ball. If you come in close, I'll pass it. If you give me space, I'll shoot it. He seems very adept at always playing with options.

"You see this a lot in Australian rules football. 'I don't have to decide what to do with the ball. I'm just going to move, and you, as a defender, are going to help me decide what to do with the ball. If you play me one way, I'm going to go right and run by you. If you play me another way and you stop me, I'm just going to ditch the ball up. And if you play me another way, I can fake to move the ball because you'll bite and I'll just run around you.'"

Consider: Simmons ranks third in the league in interior passes -- passes that are delivered and received in the lane -- according to Second Spectrum. He has assembled a catalog of slick plays in traffic where he's often airborne before he has seemingly decided what to do with the ball.

There's a positively Aussie rules-ish sequence from a recent win over Detroit just before halftime. Off a long miss by Robert Covington that caroms off the heel of the rim, Simmons crawls up the back of Avery Bradley to snag a 50-50 ball like a ruckman. He bats the ball to himself and, in one swoop, ditches it with a backward scoop to Dario Saric as a couple of Pistons defenders close in to pin Simmons up against the sideline.

SIMMONS, OF COURSE, isn't the first pro basketball player to draw upon experience from another athletic pastime. Colangelo remembers from his days as the Phoenix Suns' general manager how Steve Nash credited many of his skills as a master prober to the vision and anticipation that soccer, his first love, demands.

"Talking to Steve, you began to understand how much that awareness and field of vision makes you an exceptional passer," Colangelo says. A good midfielder learns early on how to anticipate the next pass and where it is going. He constantly moves from one direction to another, and it's no surprise that Nash is one of the most adept probers at the point guard position in NBA history.

"Ben has a lot of that, and I think it may stem from playing Aussie rules football when he was younger," Colangelo says. "Aussie rules football is a big wide swath of turf that everyone is navigating, and you've got to get the ball out of your hands quickly on the move. You have to use power to get through certain elements of it."

But as much as Aussie rules influences Simmons' offensive game, his inner footballer might be most prominent on the other side of the ball, where in eight weeks he has established himself as a premier defender.

When Simmons defends -- he ranks first among point guards in defensive real plus-minus by an ungodly margin, and the Sixers are more than a point better defensively when he's on the floor -- he commonly employs a PG version of the hip-and-shoulder move, a staple of Aussie rules defense.

In a recent Sixers win over Washington, Markieff Morris, who thrives on contact, looks to post Simmons in the first quarter. As he receives the post entry pass on the left side at the foul line extended, Morris tries to back down Simmons with his left shoulder. Four careful dribbles, each with a corresponding bump into Simmons' chest, gets Morris to the edge of the paint but not much further. Morris' high-arching turnaround jumper barely clears Simmons' contested reach and lands short, grazing the lip of the rim.

One quarter later, in a game that saw hair on its chin from the first tip, Simmons gets a chance to bully the Wizards.

It's a broken half-court possession for Philadelphia after Covington gobbles up a long offensive rebound before reversing the ball around the perimeter and into the hands of Simmons on the right side. Simmons sees 6-11 Ian Mahinmi in front of him and steps on the pedal. This, once again, is the defender's hip-and-shoulder move, only here, Simmons is the offensive player.

Terms of art be damned, what Simmons does as he drives to the hole is hip-check Mahinmi while driving his shoulder into the Wizards center's chest. Mahinmi falls -- this is not a flop -- and gets whistled for the foul.

"The contact is similar," says Utah's Exum, who played Aussie rules with Simmons as a junior. "I remember watching Ben play football, and he was so good at that, just being able to deal with contact. He's always been such a physical player."

For Exum, his countrymen Ingles and Bogut, and honorable NBA Aussies Martin and Brown, it's this quality that marks Simmons as an Aussie footballer as much as any other -- the proclivity to shuttle the ball in traffic like a hand pass minus the fist, or the instinct to devour any loose ball in his midst.

"There's a toughness and a mentality," Brown says of the player he has helped shepherd to arguably the best rookie start since LeBron's. "Ben Simmons can rebound in traffic. Ben Simmons can run up your back and grab screamers. That's an AFL thing. That's Ben."