PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia 76ers rookie Ben Simmons went blow for blow with his mentor LeBron James on Friday night, matching the four-time MVP with a triple-double and defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers for sole possession of the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference.
Twenty-four hours later, Simmons sat down with ESPN for a one-on-one at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Philadelphia. Just as on the court, the 21-year-old didn't hold back when discussing the team's expectations, playing without Joel Embiid, being a leader, the Rookie of the Year race, his relationship with James and potentially playing alongside him, and much more.
Here is the interview, which has been edited for length:
Chris Haynes: What you guys have been able to do, going to the postseason, what has this experience been like for you and your teammates?
Ben Simmons: It's been great. It's been a learning process for everybody. We got some vets coming in playing with younger guys, and we have guys playing in their first year together. Building chemistry with everybody on the floor and then picking up some guys along the way throughout the season -- I think everyone's really gelled together.
There's been all this talk the past couple of years about The Process. Going into this season, was this really the expectation that you guys would be going to the postseason, and this high?
As a team, our goal was to make the playoffs. I don't think anybody had us winning as many games as we've won, but this team has gotten a lot better over the season and the time we've spent together.
When Joel Embiid went out with that eye fracture, what was the mood around the team?
It's just annoying, because he has had so many downs; to get all the way through the season and have that injury, I know how he feels, and it's frustrating. But for us as a team, we stuck together. It showed the maturity of the guys on the team, the way we carried ourselves. ...
For me, I needed to be more of a leader. It's good for the team that we have had adversity, so I can step up and lead the team a little bit more and get comfortable doing that. Once Joel comes back, it's gonna be a lot easier.
Is that comfortable for you to take a leadership role? A lot of people see you as the quiet one.
On the court, it's a different thing for me. I'm more vocal, direct with what I say to guys, what we need to do, and how to say it. It was a good opportunity for me to lead the team, but it's something I've always kind of done over the years.
Markelle Fultz went through a similar situation to what you went through last year. What advice have you been giving him?
Once he came back on the floor, it was to keep learning from every game, every play. Make better decisions as time goes on. I've seen him doing that from a few games in. He's gotten a lot better. He's been great. Mentally I think it was a struggle for him at the start of the year, but now he's coming back and he's ready.
Nobody had done what you've done in your rookie year -- over 600 assists, over 600 rebounds -- other than Oscar Robertson. When you think of the company, what comes to mind?
That I have a long way to go. I've reached some accolades and milestones along the way, but at the same time, I have a long way to go. So much more improvement that I can work on, from scoring to defense, and just the way I play the game.
Who is the rookie of the year?
Who would I pick? Me, 100 percent. I think I've been playing solid all year. If you look at the numbers, you will see. People who know the game know.
What do you say to the people who say that this is really your second year?
Coming off a broken foot is definitely not an edge. People are always going to say what they want to say. At the end of the day, this is my first year in the league. If you're a guy coming from overseas, you're still a rookie if you're 30 years old.
What other rookies have caught your eye this year?
None. I wanna be where the greats are. For me, I watch guys like KD, Bron, Curry, Westbrook, guys like that. That's where I wanna be.
What more do you want to accomplish?
Championships. MVP. I want to be the defensive player of the year.
Can you do that at the point guard position?
For sure. I will guard whoever I have to. Westbrook, Bron, whoever it is. I love the challenge.
Epic game going against LeBron (on Friday night). What did he say to you after the game?
Honestly, I don't even remember. It is all love between me and him. He always looks out; he's been a great mentor to me. ...
Watching his game, the way he plays -- being 6-9 and handling the ball and not being locked down to a small forward position. But being so diverse and able to do different things on the floor. I've been watching him for a long time now. As a player, he's outstanding, he's amazing.
When you are going up against him, what is it like?
I always hear the greatest way to show respect to a guy like that is to play as hard as you can, and that is the mentality I go into every game with, no matter who I'm playing. I want to dominate whoever I'm playing against and whatever team it is.
It takes a lot to earn LeBron's respect. What do you think he's seen in you to establish the respect?
He just knows where I want to be, and he's been the type of guy that if they want to learn, then he'll give you that advice. But if you don't want to learn and put that effort in, then I don't think he thinks you deserve it.
You made some headlines. You came up with the nickname "The Fresh Prince" ... and he's "King James."
A few people have been saying that around Philly, another friend within sports has been saying that. I was kind of on the edge about it. I wasn't sure. After that game, I said I'll take it.
Why were you on the fence about it before?
I feel like I needed to earn it.
People say you're still a couple of pieces away from being a title contender. There's one big free agent who is expected to be available: LeBron James. Will you be recruiting him?
Wherever he wants to play, it's up to him. We wouldn't mind having LeBron on our team.
Could you two play together?
Who knows. His IQ and mine combined on the floor, it's pretty freaky.
Have you guys spoken about that?
Are you satisfied with what you have done in the regular season?
A little bit. I think I could have played better, but at the same time, I had a lot to learn. It's my first year in the league playing, and it's a different experience stepping on the floor.
Were you upset you didn't get the call for the All-Star Game?
A little bit, but at the same time, I'm a rookie. It's only happened a few times. I'll have my moment. Just motivates me a little bit more.
Obviously there's a lot of things going on in the NCAA. ... It seems like we're going in that direction where guys will be allowed to come out of high school straight to the pros. What's your take?
If they're ready. Physically, it's a different game, different speed. Mentally, of course, it's much different than college or high school. It's a huge jump. There might be one or two guys who are ready. If you were to say that about the whole draft, the first round, definitely not.
I think it comes down to anybody can get a job once they turn 18 in the real world, so it comes down to that person and the team that chooses him.
When did you know you were ready to make the jump?
For me, I've always played against older people, when I was 16 playing against 21-year-old guys back home. Coming out here, playing against older seniors, I've always stepped my game up when I played against guys who were older than me. I've always felt like I'd been ready, but I'd say around the end of my senior year in high school.
If you could have, would you have gone [straight to the pros out of high school]?
I probably would've.
I remember when you were drafted, there was a debate about who's going No. 1, who's going No. 2. It seems like you've separated yourself from the pack. Was that a motivating factor for you?
I wanna be the best player no matter where I'm playing and who I'm playing with.
What has it taken for you to be successful on the court?
It starts off with taking care of your body. That's one of the main things. Lifting weights every other day. Icing your body, your knees, your feet, and getting in the cold tub. A lot of film goes into it -- 30-minute film sessions before games, and then you've got your individual film. The next day you might have practice, and then individual workout right after that. So there's a lot of different things that go into it that people probably don't notice.
What surprised you about the league?
I think the amount of games, every other night traveling somewhere. Getting in late at 2 a.m., having a game the next day. But you have to come to play every night; no one's taking any breaks.
Is that a toll on your body, getting used to playing 82 games?
I've got a few hits, cuts and bruises. But I love what I do. I wake up and I am going to go play; that's the easy part for me.
Growing up, you knew you were going to be tall. Did any coaches try to sway you? Because usually when you're big, they want you to be on the block.
Having a dad who played basketball professionally back in Australia, I moved clubs or teams if I had a coach that was gonna throw me in the post, just 'cause he knew for my development I wasn't going to be good.
You've been dominant playing the game the way you've been playing it. How do you evolve?
If I want to get to that next level, I think working on my outside game a lot more and perfecting everything I'm doing now. I'm good at what I do now, but I'm not perfect. There's a lot of things I gotta learn -- getting to the rim finishing, certain play calls.
The league has expanded to 3-point shooting. Everybody's out 3-point shooting. Does that bode well for what you bring to the table and being able to facilitate?
Having shooters on your team helps a lot. I don't have to be the guy taking shots, and they are really good at it -- JJ, Marco, Ersan, Robert Covington. So for me to affect the game right now, getting to the rim and finding those guys to get shots.
You shoot left-handed, you shoot right-handed. Is it a big difference as far as comfortability?
I feel comfortable with my left.
What are you expecting when the postseason comes around?
I'll be playing hard, as I usually do, all game. I expect it to be similar to the Cavs game the other night. If I can put up those numbers, I think I'll be fine.
What is the ceiling for this team?
We don't put a ceiling on ourselves. No one expected us to be where we are right now. For us, we just want to keep winning.