NBA

From Rookie of the Year rivals to bonafide All-Stars: Ben Simmons vs. Donovan Mitchell has become must-see TV

Since the two went toe-to-toe in the 2018 Rookie of the Year race, it's always been must-see TV whenever Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell square off.

Fast forward to today, and both young stars have continued to make big leaps individually, both being named All-Stars again this season. They also find themselves driving the two best teams in the league, with both the Philadelphia 76ers (23-12) and Utah Jazz (27-8) sitting at the top of their respective conferences.

For both players, the key to their success has been the incremental growth each year as they have added new facets to their games.

Mitchell has always been a fantastic scorer, with his electrifying speed and nuclear athleticism allowing him to get to his spots, but he's finding new ways to score, be it from the free-throw line or beyond the arc, where he's shooting a career-high 38.0 percent.

Not to mention his penchant for taking over games and getting buckets in a bunch down the stretch.

Last week, Mitchell turned in one of his best games of the season, scoring 25 of his 31 points against the Orlando Magic in the second half, going 5-for-8 from deep and adding six assists, with his energy setting the tone for his teammates.

"I think he did a great job being a playmaker, especially in the first half. Not forcing, finding his teammates," Rudy Gobert said. "And then when it was time to be in attack mode, he attacked. He was very efficient. When he does that, he takes our team to another level."

While he's averaging a career-high 24.4 points per game, his evolution as a passer has been just as critical to the Jazz's success, averaging a career-high 5.4 dimes per game this season. With no clear No. 2 on offence, the Jazz get it done by committee, and the trust Mitchell has shown in his teammates - picking his spots, when to score, when to pass - has seen the likes of Gobert, Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley and Joe Ingles find their rhythm and interchange as the team's secondary scorer on any given night.

As each game goes on during their blistering start to the season, it's clear Mitchell is developing into a player capable of being the No.1 guy on a championship-contending team.

For the growth Mitchell has shown on the offensive end, Simmons has taken an arguably bigger leap on the defensive end, quickly becoming one of the best defenders in the NBA, in the same tier as Mitchell's teammate and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert.

Simmons' size and versatility on the defensive end has propelled the 76ers into the league's fifth-best defence, with his individual work on the perimeter hard to ignore.

Last week, Simmons turned in one of his best defensive displays yet, holding Luka Doncic to just 19 points on 6-for-13 shooting, hounding the All-Star scoring machine around the perimeter all night.

"If you can hoop, you can hoop," Simmons said after the game. "Defensively, I feel like that's just effort. I do feel like I'm the best defensive player in the league. I can guard 1 through 5."

Offensively, the Aussie is still reluctant to shoot from beyond the arc, but he's doing what he does best at an extremely high level - getting out in transition and finding teammates for 3-pointers. Of his 228 assists this season, 126 have resulted in 3-pointers. And when he's not creating shots for others from beyond the arc, he's barging his way to the rim with increased confidence, bringing his own version of bully ball.

In the first meeting of the season between these two teams, which the Jazz won by a final score of 134-123, Simmons finished with a career-high 42 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds on 15-for-26 shooting and 12-for-13 from the free throw line. His 15 made field goals were a career high.

The two conference leaders will square off for the second time this season on Wednesday (ET) in their final game before the All-Star break, with the 76ers at full health and having won five of their past seven games, while the Jazz have lost three of their past six.

After missing the first matchup, Joel Embiid is back in the lineup for this game, setting the stage for an entertaining big man battle with Gobert, but all eyes will be on Mitchell and Simmons as the two young guards look to add another chapter to their rivalry, in what could well be a preview of the NBA Finals.

"Hopefully, it's a precursor to the end of the year," 76ers head coach Doc Rivers said. "You know what I mean? If we continue to play and they continue to play, I think we would all be thrilled to death if we played a third time.

"That would mean we are all in the right place."

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