It speaks to Ben Simmons‘ once-diminished reputation that a popular preseason debate among NBA diehards was between him and Lonzo Ball as a fictional team’s preferred franchise point guard.
That reality has nothing to do with the widespread struggles of the Los Angeles Lakers’ rookie, either. Simmons has been a generational prospect since he was a teenager; Ball was a borderline lottery pick before rising to prominence at UCLA. There shouldn’t have been any hesitation in picking the former over the latter, let alone a different answer.
Simmons, thankfully, has forcefully reminded the basketball world of the rarefied air he occupies over the first three weeks of the 2017-18 season. If Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kristaps Porzingis weren’t changing the game, and the Cleveland Cavaliers weren’t hemorrhaging points at a record rate, Simmons exceeding expectations would be the league’s biggest story by far. It’s not hyperbole and certainly fitting to suggest that he could be the most impressive first-year player since LeBron James. Simmons is both that good and that unique.
The most fascinating aspect of his play might be that Simmons is exactly who we thought he’d be offensively, only to greater extremes. His many strengths are even stronger than anticipated, and his all-encompassing weakness even weaker. He’s a point guard in every sense of the term at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds. He shows transcendent ability on a nightly basis despite a complete inability to shoot outside 15 feet. He’s already a one-man fast break on the truly unstoppable level of LeBron and Giannis.
Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers are 7-6, having won seven of their last 10 games after an 0-3 start. One of their best victories, a 104-97 road win over the Utah Jazz last week, came without Joel Embiid, inactive due to doctor-ordered “load management.” Simmons shot just 7-of-22 from the field and committed six turnovers. Still, his fingerprints were all over what is arguably Philadelphia’s most encouraging win of the young season.
“This is the thing that I’m learning with Ben,” Brett Brown explained after the game. “I’m so into helping him get better, and you look through it with sort of a critical lens on how to continue to grow, and you come back in and you’re looking at his stat sheet, and you’re like, ‘He just really makes people work in the statistics department.’ Look at his line, and he’s got so much more to give, which is the good news.”
Simmons finished with 16 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, three blocks and three steals in 36 minutes against the Jazz, a line that hadn’t been reached by a rookie since Christian Laettner did it in 1993. Raw numbers will always come easily for a player of Simmons’ talent level; he’s averaging 17.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game. What stands to separate him from players to whom box-score production comes as easily is the impact behind them.
Embiid is still his team’s most influential player. The 76ers’ net rating is convincingly positive whether he plays with Simmons or not; the same can’t be said vice-versa. That has more to do with the importance of an elite rim-protector than any unfixable offensive deficiencies Philadelphia has dealt with when Simmons is Philadelphia’s lone blue-chipper on the floor. Case in point: his effect on the efficiency of the 76ers’ limited, sweet-shooting supporting cast.
So much for J.J. Redick struggling without Chris Paul, by the way. He has cooled off from deep over the past couple games, but still has a 56.9 true shooting percentage despite a degree of difficulty higher than at any point of his 11-year career.
Robert Covington has gone from streaky volume shooter to high-yield marksman this season, one of the most efficient players in basketball. Jerryd Bayless has completely rehabilitated his value as an off-ball guard, and T.J. McConnell has become more like a legitimate scoring threat. After a slow start, Dario Saric has come on like gangbusters since being promoted to the starting lineup. Just imagine the sweeping influence of Simmons’ presence on his teammates once defenses have to guard him on the perimeter.
Brown has schemed smart ways to get his super-sized point guard to the paint despite most defenders playing five to 10 feet off him. One set the 76ers like to run is as simple as Simmons swinging the ball to his right and immediately getting it back on the run as his defender relaxes. Another involves a guard bringing the ball up the right side of the floor before quickly passing to Simmons in the middle, who immediately receives a screen from Embiid or Amir Johnson – one set as high as the logo when his man plays him tight, and as low as the elbow when his defender is dead set on going under picks.
Laying far off him is the best way to play Simmons for now. The only spot on the floor he seems comfortable shooting from is the free throw line area. The lefty has made just 20 of his 59 jumpers this season, and his six 3-point attempts are misleading – all of them have come from the backcourt with the game clock ticking toward zeros.
The long-limbed, like-sized Golden State Warriors, believe it or not, were more successful stymieing Simmons than any opponent this season. It’s way, way too early to expect Philadelphia to compete for 48 minutes with what might be the greatest team of all time. Still, any notion that Simmons could scrape his ceiling without developing a jumper defenses must respect was erased by Draymond Green and the defending champions.
Antetokounmpo is so crazily long that he can finish over the top and around the outstretched arms of conservative on-ball defenders once he gains a head of steam. Simmons is a similar matchup problem in terms of overall size and athleticism, but lacks the reach that essentially made Antetokounmpo’s non-existent shooting range irrelevant this season.
On these consecutive possessions early in the third quarter of the Warriors’ 135-114 win over the 76ers, watch Green go under a maze of off- and on-ball screens before Golden State shrinks the floor even further upon Simmons’ catch. The second play is a good example of how his suspect jumper mucks up opportunities for his teammates. Putting Simmons on the weak side of an Embiid post-up allows for easier help, but having him make the entry pass can be even more problematic against smart, talented defenses.
That’s the strategic minutiae Philadelphia will have to deal with more and more as the season goes along, and certainly in the playoffs – if it gets there. Fortunately, the 76ers’ peak is high enough on the other end to offset any step back in efficiency gleaned from teams homing in on their weaknesses. Pre-draft reports be damned, Simmons is part of what makes this team’s defensive potential equally exciting.
Embiid will be a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate as long as he’s healthy, and Covington is finally getting the recognition he has long deserved as one of the most disruptive, versatile defenders in basketball. Simmons has a tendency to turn his back to his man as the ball moves. He’s prone to over-helping, and hasn’t completely avoided the random losses of edge that afflict all players early in their careers.
Even so, Simmons is close to a perfect fit next to Embiid and Covington on defense. Brown’s past assertion that he’d routinely check point guards has come to fruition, and Simmons’ physical profile allows him to switch onto any position without the fear of imminent negative results. He and DeMarcus Cousins are the only players standing 6-foot-10 or taller to average at least 2.4 deflections per game.
Like LeBron, Simmons is the type of defender who can make impact plays in a flash just after textbook technique and constant engagement abandon him.
“You could see him in the background kind of sniffing plays, hoping someone throws a cross-court pass and he’d go pick it off,” Brown recently said of Simmons. “He covers unexpected ground. I’m sure when you’re an offensive player you think some balls are safe when they’re really not. He’s got the ability to cover a lot of ground where you don’t think many people do that.”
All true. It’s telling that Philadelphia moves Simmons onto forwards when McConnell enters the game for Redick. When this team is ready to contend for titles, Simmons will probably be best utilized defensively guarding players closer to his size. Not only will doing so conserve the energy required to be a primary playmaker, but also allow him to wreak havoc off the ball using the natural gifts Brown describes above.
Simmons’ game is special enough that description doesn’t do it justice. Stats don’t, either. There’s no way to accurately convey the pressure put on a defense by how he looks off help, sometimes in midair, to create space to Embiid for a lob. He stays alert and active away from the ball. His righty hooks and push shots from distances as far as the free throw line often look ugly, but will remain a staple of his finishing repertoire for years to come. He has turnaround jumpers from both blocks, a weapon that will be even more dangerous as the 76ers continue adding wrinkles to their offense – like snug pick-and-rolls with Embiid.
It’s not a stretch to say that Simmons is among the game’s several best passers at 21. He leads the league in passes per game, and averages fewer dribbles per touch than Steph Curry. The guy is an absolute maestro, as comfortable making the simple read provided by a defensive lapse as he is creating open looks for teammates all by himself.
Simmons had 22 points, 12 rebounds and four assists on 9-of-14 shooting in his team’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday night. For fans at Staples Center catching him for the first time, it must have been easy to confuse Simmons with a young Blake Griffin – he had seven dunks, including a right-handed throw-in over Wesley Johnson and a reverse alley-oop in traffic. One big difference: Simmons is already twice the playmaker it took Griffin half a career to become.
That’s no slight to the Clippers’ franchise player, either. Simmons, 13 games into his career, already has just one or two playing peers. To hear Brown gush about his franchise point guard after the game, it’s only a matter of time until he won’t have any at all.
“The thing that I like the most and get excited about the most is he has barely scratched the surface. He has so much more to give, and so much more to improve on, and so much knowledge to take in about what the NBA really is.”