Dear reader, I’d like to let you in on a little bit of a secret: the Sixers are good. They’ve become one of the elite defensive teams in the NBA and turned Joel Embiid into an MVP candidate. And part of the reason they’re good is that since Doc Rivers became the head coach at the beginning of the season, there’s been a slight change in the way Ben Simmons, Philly’s 24-year old, three time All Star, plays. His points per game are down to this month, but he’s locked in on defense even more than before, and vocally making the case that he should win Defensive Player of the Year.
Since he was drafted number one in 2016 after years of deliberate tanking under the Sam Hinkie regime, Simmons’s game has been a major point of contention for Sixers fans and in the NBA more broadly. In a fast-paced game that is ever-increasingly built around spreading the floor and launching threes with abandon, Simmons’ style is based on scoring around the rim, elite defense and passing. He rarely takes jumpshots, and almost never shoots threes, infuriating fans and analysts who want him to expand his repertoire.
On the other hand, Simmons is a unique talent: At 6’11”, he’s able to guard any position on the floor, handle the ball with a confidence that’s rare at his size, find open shooters anywhere on the floor and pick up the toughest defensive matchup against any given team. Players as big as him would never have played point guard before; instead, they’d be relegated to the frontcourt, where their skills would be hidden.
Like many stars in today’s NBA, Simmons also considers himself a businessman with a wide range of interests and investments outside of basketball. He’s a visible Nike athlete, has started a partnership with the Australia wine brand Penfolds, and was recently named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list. He also invested in the esports collective Faze Clan, which Bronny James and other popular players have also joined.
Simmons sat down with GQ to talk about wine, his favorite John Elliot sweats, why he refuses to dress like Kyle Kuzma and why he pays no attention to the haters who swear they know basketball better than him.
GQ: So where can I get some good wine at? I heard you’re a big wine drinker.
Ben Simmons: Penfolds, that’s the spot.
What kind specifically?
So, I’m a big Merlot fan. When we finished the deal with Penfolds they sent through the California collection and we did a wine tasting two months ago. It was really cool. That was my first experience having a wine tasting over zoom and trying it out. It was pretty amazing, the varieties they had. My personal favorite was the Quantum.
What if I’m a rose drinker? What kind of rose am I supposed to rock with?
[Simmons shakes his head]
What?! You’re out on the rose?!
I don’t know, man. I’m not a big fan. It’s either a red or it’s some water.
So obviously, you’ve developed a sense of personal style on the sidelines and tunnels, with retro Nikes and other pieces of apparel. If you were going to give me a few essentials right now what would they be? How do I get fresh like you?
I always go for comfort. I’m always looking for that. For pants in terms of that, I like a nice sweat. John Elliott usually has a lot of comfortable sweatpants. On the other side, I usually have on jackets or hoodies, but always a comfortable t-shirt. That would be John Elliott, again. Balenciaga is what I’m wearing now. I’m a fan of those and the cuts they have on certain t-shirts, because usually they fit bigger. And shoes: I’m a Nike guy. I’m wearing Jordans right now, Jordan 1’s. SBs. It’s endless with Nike. There’s so many shoes that come out every day.
If I wanted to play video games, right, I’m a Call of Duty guy —
Okay, but are you though?
I actually am though! I’m not like you, or Devin Booker, or some of these college kids. But I could rock with a little Call of Duty. I’m not great, but I know what I’m doing. How would you set me up if I wanted to be better at the game?
I would just have to play with you. I’ve got a bunch of friends and everyone is on different levels. And I think it’s the more you play, the more you know. That’s with anything.
Then what made you want to invest in Faze?
For me, I always try to align myself with brands that have the same values as me. I’ve been following Faze since I was 12, 13 years old, when they just started. And I’ve watched them grow and continue to keep that family spirit among them. It’s always family first with them, that’s what I found to be the special part about Faze. They’ve stuck it out for a long time and built this thing into a different machine. And they just continue to put out great content and be aligned with great other companies along the way.
What is it now that so many players are more visibly attached to gaming? Is it just how the new generation of athletes operate or is it something else?
It’s something I’ve always done growing up. That’s just the gaming world. It’s more acceptable now because people are making money from this. And no one’s scared of making money. When you’re able to do that and enjoy something you love? It’s completely different. It’s a different aspect. Everyone’s just more accepted in this world now through gaming and everyone knows now what everyone’s playing: Fortnite, Call of Duty, whatever it is. It’s just more acceptable.
Well, there have been fans and pundits who say that athletes, like they did to David Price in Boston, were too focused on gaming and it messed with their pro responsibilities. Does the possibility that someone could say you’re not focused on basketball because you’re playing too many video games bother you at all?
They also aren’t in my life. They’re not in my world. They don’t know when I’m playing video games. That’s just people guessing, at the end of the day. So I’m not gonna take anybody guessing or anything like that over what I know I’m doing with my life. That’s a little weird to be saying about somebody else’s life if you don’t even know them.
I understand that, because I’m a Philly guy. And I’ve seen everything my city has had to say about you. So, let’s dispel some myths. The thing I’ve loved about you in your career is that when someone says something about you, you shoot right back at them. Like that announcer for the Washington Wizards who said you were “the most overrated player in the NBA.”
The thing with people is that they think they know something soooo well. And this guy thinks he knows basketball sooo well. And that may be because he watches the games but does he really know the game? Did he grow up playing the game? Has he been in different situations, has he run the point guard position, has he played at this level? Like, everybody wants to feel like they know the game. And that’s just not the case. Draymond [Green] says it all the time. That’s not the case. Not everybody knows everything about something or as much as they think they know.
And for me? I can’t worry about that. Because, right now, we’re first [in the Eastern Conference]. If I was doing something completely wrong, I don’t think we’d be in this position. Right now, we’re sitting first. And hopefully gonna end first this season. As long as I keep my mind straight and focus on the things I need to do for my team, and teammates, then we’re fine.
There’s a tension between the press, fans online and actual athletes who play the game. Do you find it frustrating that you see so many people outside of your team and your bubble who confidently want to tell you about yourself?
When I first came into the league, I read a lot more of it. But I’m at the stage now where I try to ignore everybody. I don’t go on Twitter. I don’t read too much into what people are saying about me. I don’t watch ESPN. I don’t watch SportsCenter, none of that. They’ll tell you, if someone puts ESPN in my house it’s going straight off.
Yeah, I swear.
There’s no SportsCenter, unless it’s a game going on or something like that. There’s no Stephen A., there’s none of that.
[An Australian man in the background begins yelling: “That’s confirmed! This is confirmation!”]
Yeah, turn that off. Turn that shit off [laughs]. That’s just how I am. It’s gone from people watching and enjoying sports and a couple of people talking, to you’re in Vegas and you see the tickers on the bottom of the screen explaining all these comments and what this guy or that guy did. Less is more, sometimes.
So, then how do you course correct? Because what you’re talking about is common in sports. How do you fix it if you aren’t playing as well as you need to?
You have certain people in your world. I’ve got the Sixers organization. I’ve got my family. I’ve got my agents. I’ve got college coaches. I’ve got high school coaches. Just because I’m not listening to the dude on the TV and these guys on the radio doesn’t mean I don’t have people. And who’s to say they’re correct? Most of these guys off these shows have jobs where they’ve never played the game at a high level. How do they know, really, what they’re talking about? Or is it just their opinions at the end of the day?
It always feels as though people are yelling these things. It’s not a conversation. But I feel like when I talk to athletes about their games, in certain settings, they’re willing to talk. Are you open to critiques about hoops or are you someone who wants all of it to be shut out?
It depends on who I’m talking to. I mean, we talk about it all the time in the locker room. Guys are telling me “Ben you need to do this.” And I’m like “Alright, bet. I got you.” That’s the great thing about having good people in your circle, they’re able to tell you and talk to you and help you with different things about your life.
Who’s the person on the team now, whether it be Doc Rivers, Sam Cassell or Joel Embiid, who’s that person for you?
Doc Rivers, of course. Sam Cassell, Joel and I would say Dwight.
Dwight Howard? How is he in that role?
He’s great. He expects me to come out and do my thing every night and he knows I’m capable of that. He’s been somebody who’s been pushing me every game and letting me know how special I can be on the floor and what I mean to this team and that’s been great. Then Joel, of course. He’s telling me to be aggressive every game. I know that gets the team going when I’m out there being aggressive that gets everybody going.
What is aggressive basketball to you? Because, in some respects, I think some people would be like, “Ben Simmons needs to cross the half-court and go directly to the rim because he’s one of the best athletes in the world.” But a lot of times you go right to the rim and then look to pass around the arc.
Yeah [laughs]. That’s what people don’t get. That’s another part of the game. Some guys would not be able to get shots off or get open shots if there weren’t certain players on the floor. The way I look at my game is: if you are going to guard me, one on one, I’m going to go at this guy every time. But the majority of the time, teams try to load up against me because they know I can get to the rim whenever I want. When teams do that, I’m finding my guys. All they gotta do is pull the trigger. And I trust my guys to do that.
The one thing you’ve been saying to the press consistently this year is: “I’m the Defensive Player of the Year!” What has sparked that in you? Because we don’t often hear you make a claim like that so frequently.
It’s the same with people all around me. I tell them all the time, “Yo! I’m Defensive Player of the Year.” I’m not even questioning it right now. I know I am. That’s a fact. And numbers, certain stats, are cool with certain players. But, at the end of the day, you know….The example would be last night. I was supposed to guard [Kevin Durant]. We match up well size wise. KD’s out. The next person I’m guarding is Kyrie [Irving]. Like, who’s doing that? It’s not many players who are doing that. And to be doing it at a high level like that? I don’t think there’s anybody else really doing that. I mean, Kawhi [Leonard] when he was really playing defense like that, of course. But, it’s not too many guys.
Didn’t Kyrie have, like, 37 last night though?
Yeah, but we won. His plus/minus was negative, too [it was -13].
What is the major difference with this team under Doc Rivers? Is it a system of accountability?
It’s everything. Everybody holding each other accountable. We have a group of guys that are willing to hang out with each other and be friends. When you have guys who are willing to hang out outside of basketball, that’s great. Everyone gets along. Our chemistry is great.
What’s the best dunk you’ve seen this year?
Anthony Edwards, against the Raptors.
I just got off the phone with him and he said it was Miles Bridges.
Really?! I don’t know, man. The way Anthony dunked it was like watching a high school kid destroy a low class team. That’s what it looked like.
Who is the best rapper in the NBA?
Dame. I’ve heard Lonzo but…Dame, I feel like he’s put a lot of effort into it.
Who’s the funniest person on the Sixers?
Probably Dwight. He’s just funny, man. He cracks me up. He’s always happy, always smiling, always got positive energy. That’s how he is. Everywhere he goes. He brings that.
Who’s your favorite matchup in the league?
Boston. They’ve had our number for a while and being able to win—what we got? Three up on them? You always wanna get back at a team that’s gotten you a few times.
What about a player?
I don’t really think there’s one player I like going against. But, I like playing against Luka [Doncic], guys like that. Guys that have all that buzz going on right now. Bron, KD, I’m looking forward to playing against Steph, hopefully he’s playing.
What is it about Luka and all the buzz around his name? Because the first time you played the Mavericks this season, you kinda had him in jail.
People are coming out to get your number. They want to be able to say they dominate you or whatever the case is with that. For me, I take pride in my defense. I want to let guys know I’m out there. Let them feel me. On defense. I’m a bigger guy, I like to take some hits like that on defense.
The playoffs are coming up and the Sixers might be the best team in the world. What are you looking forward to about the playoffs? It’s obviously been a trek to get over this hump for the last few years, what’s going to be a shift this season?
If we get that No. 1 seed, we keep our hopes up in terms of the energy. Knowing we’d have home court advantage would be big for us, especially if we get the fans all back. Our record at home has been pretty good, it’s always been good the last few years being able to be home. I think this is the year for us to do it, honestly
To do what? Y’all gonna win the championship?
Win the championship. I genuinely believe that. I feel like there’s been years where guys would’ve said it on the Sixers, but I don’t think we really believed it. But, I genuinely think this is the year.
How do you go about saying you’re going to win a championship without believing you’re going to win a championship? How does that work? How does that work?
Exactly. You’re trying to trick yourself. Guys would be like, “yeahhh we could win.” An example would be, and I won’t say the team, a guy said to me, “damn, we just tryin’ to make the playoffs.” If you don’t even believe you’re going to make the playoffs, how you gonna win a championship? I feel like we genuinely believe we are here to win a championship. That’s the only reason we come in. That’s why we wanna dominate games. We wanna be the best team.
Convince me y’all can beat Brooklyn. I believe you! But convince me.
Convince me in, like, five seconds.
We played ‘em last night…
Y’all fell down, down the stretch [The Sixers won 123-117, but lost a big lead in the fourth and had to put their starters back in]
[Simmons stares at me]
I mean, y’all won! Y’all definitely won! But—-
At the end of the day, what are you looking at?
I suppose wins.
Yessir! I believe you!
Like, you feel me? [Laughs] That’s like saying, “Yo! I had 100 points.” But did y’all win? Nah. At the end of the day, nobody’s going to look at that. Yeah, Brooklyn came back at the last minute. Well, the starters were sitting down for a minute. You could also say KD, James [Harden] weren’t playing. But that wasn’t the game we played last night. So.
Is that how you explain your approach to the season, Ben? Has that mindset changed in terms of your overall numbers? Is it just doing whatever it takes to get wins from now on?
It’s do whatever it takes. If we win a championship, that’s our goal, nobody’s worried about numbers. Nobody is worried about numbers. In past years guys have been worried about certain numbers and stats, things like that. But, if I’m able to make game-winning plays, diving on a loose ball, getting deflections, being where my teammates need me to be, I feel like that’s how you win championships. If you are an individual and you are worried about stats? You are in the wrong place. And that tends to be teams that aren’t doing that well.
What about the in between? Because an easy criticism of that is saying that you can want both. You’ve scored around 10 points a game this month. But, y’all are winning. What if you were scoring 18 and you were winning?
What if I’m scoring 20 and we’re losing? You can look at it both ways. You can look at it both ways, but we are winning. If we’re winning, you really can’t say anything. As long as I’m doing my job….
Okay, let’s close out by talking about fashion for a second. One of the newest things in fashion is, they say skinny suits are over. It’s bigger pants, bigger suits now. You into that?
Not like too oversized, not like lookin’ crazy.
What qualifies as looking crazy?
Like LeBron and his draft suits.
Well! Kyle Kuzma had on that jacket with the mirrors on it!
That’s Kuz, man. I mean, I wouldn’t look at anything he wears and be like “I wanna wear that.” I’m my own man.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.