In Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals, the rookie Magic Johnson played the game of his life to off-set the loss of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar due to injury. He started at center for the Los Angeles Lakers and filled the other positions to clinch the title against Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers. The charismatic point guard from Michigan State scattered his dominance all over the floor to tally 42 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists, earning him Finals MVP honors.
This impressive performance gained the adulation of Sixers head coach Billy Cunningham who even exclaimed that they should have won the crown if Johnson stayed one more year in college. On the other hand, the rise of the uncanny 6’ 9” point guard is in full motion while basketball fans often marvel about the unique combination of speed, agility, ball handling, and impeccable court vision that he possesses.
Close to 40 years later, a 76ers rookie is drawing stark comparisons to the Laker hall-of-famer. Though he sat out what should have been his first season, Ben Simmons is showing that he’s ready to take his spot among the league’s marquee players. The way he is doing such is strikingly similar to how the now-President of Basketball Operations blasted into the scene in 1979.
Their height is an obvious advantage for they usually go up against point guards who are giving up five or six inches to them. Despite being built like a forward, both the Magic Man and the Wizard of Aus possess a deceptive first step that enables them to blow past defenders. They’ve shown presence of mind in reacting to what the defense gives them that their possessions often end up in a made field goal or an assist. As if a reincarnation was completed, the two share the same weakness too: perimeter shooting.
But while the main facilitator of the Showtime Lakers won a title in his maiden season, Simmons fell short after losing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Boston Celtics. Still, experts and basketball followers expressed adulation for the former LSU Tiger especially on how he carried the team during Joel Embiid’s absence. Fox Sports personality Colin Cowherd even named him as the face of the NBA for the next decade.
They both broke the point guard mould and dominated by stamping their brilliance all over the court. In fact, Simmons even passed Johnson for second-most triple-doubles by a rookie. Thus, we wonder who had a better rookie campaign. Let the numbers speak for itself.
They have fairly even numbers in the regular season. While Johnson scored more points, Simmons played in more games and tallied more rebounds and assists. Their playing time is comparable and their defensive prowess is shown by their high average in steals. Both of them utilize their long wing span to disrupt passing lanes to swipe some take-aways.
However, the gap widens a bit in comparing their first postseasons.
Johnson nearly averaged a triple-double for the entire playoffs while playing more minutes than Simmons. Likewise, the fastbreak attack of the early 1980s Lakers which was coordinated by Coach Paul Westhead contributed to more possessions which translates to higher stats. There is also an eye-popping discrepancy in the steals department.
Based on the figures, it was Earvin Johnson who had a slightly better rookie season due to better averages and the NBA title. However, the future looks bright for the sensational Ben Simmons. With more experience (and possibly an improved outside shooting), he adds more merit to this lofty comparison.