It was awhile ago now, but Ben Simmons on media day was asked plainly if he’d be willing to take more threes as his head coach had encouraged.
Simmons, as usual, was short and concise.
“It’s just a part of the game,” Simmons said back in September. “If it’s open, I’ll take it.”
While Simmons did make the first two threes of his NBA career this season, it’s tough to say that he’s stuck to those words from September. Opponents have guarded Simmons the same way — sagging off, pretty much daring him to shoot — but Simmons’ shot selection hasn’t changed.
And yet, if you look at Simmons’ 2019-20 campaign, he’s improved.
In fact, in the last 19 games before he got hurt in Milwaukee, Simmons was playing the best basketball of his career. During that stretch, he was averaging 21.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 7.9 assists a game. And he was only further proving to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Where Simmons is getting his looks from hasn’t changed. Last season, 89.7 percent of Simmons’ shot attempts came within nine feet of the basket. This season isn’t that much different at 87.2 percent. We saw the work Simmons put in over the summer, so where did that show up?
More important than him launching threes or inefficient mid-range jumpers, Simmons was markedly improved at the free throw line (73.4 percent over his last 12 games). And it wasn't just a small sample size as Simmons was attempting almost eight free throws a game during that time.
The most comparable NBA player to Simmons is likely Giannis Antetokounmpo. While Simmons still has a long way to go to be on the level of the reigning MVP, they both are exceptionally skilled players with great size that struggle shooting from the outside. If you look at Antetokounmpo’s evolution over the years, it has little to do with his jumper.
While he’s taken a career-high 4.8 threes a game, Antetokounmpo is only shooting 30.6 percent from beyond the arc. And look closely at the way team’s guard him — including the Sixers, who pride themselves on limiting three-point attempts.
Despite the added attempts, most teams have maintained the strategy of forcing Antetokounmpo to beat them with his jumper. If Simmons attempts and shoots at a similar clip, is that really what’s best for him and the Sixers?
The aspect of Antetokounmpo’s game that Simmons has adopted is the way the Greek Freak eats the space opponents give him and attacks the rim. When that space shrinks in the playoffs, it may not be as easy for Simmons to do that.
We call Simmons a point guard, but he isn't one in the traditional sense. It's 2020. We all need to accept that positionless basketball is a real thing. The way the Sixers have used Simmons as a screener and roller — far from the way you'd deploy a traditional point guard — has opened things up for the team offensively.
Brett Brown had another interesting player comparison when discussing Simmons in that capacity.
“[Simmons’] ability to roll out of that like a Blake Griffin and either catch and dunk, catch and pass, make plays as a roller, there's an area that we can tap into,” Brown said last month. “It's clear over the past 15 games, 20 games, especially what he really can do, where he's not just forced to dribble the ball up the floor 1,000 miles an hour and make people better and win games, high-level playoff games, some of those lessons will bleed into what I hope will end up another chance to play in the playoffs this year.”
The idea of Simmons opening up the floor for Joel Embiid with the occasional jumper sounds great. Still, it’s based much more in theory than reality. What we saw in the Sixers’ last game before the All-Star break in a win over the Clippers was the blueprint. On that night, both players had 26 points and played complementary basketball.
Even though it’s something we don’t like to do around these parts, give Brown credit for that night. For years he’s tried to use Simmons and Embiid in a snug pick-and-roll — essentially just a pick-and-roll on the low block with Simmons as the ball handler. And for years, the results weren’t there.
But Brown stuck with it, seeing it as a way to best utilize the unique combination of skill and size his young All-Stars possess. If Simmons and Embiid can bottle up that performance, it will go a long way.
Of course, none of this matters if Simmons isn’t healthy. The nerve impingement in his lower back cost him eight games before play was suspended.
Word on how he’s doing has ranged from GM Elton Brand being “optimistic” he’d play in the playoffs to Brown not expecting him to be “100%” to Simmons showing off an impressive physique and equally as impressive dunk repertoire. He’ll need the eight seeding games to get his feel back since he hasn’t played a full basketball game since before the All-Star Game.
So, don’t get your hopes about Simmons suddenly rising up on a fast break and bombing a three.
But get excited that the Sixers are finding creative ways to use his special skill set and that Simmons’ ascension could — and should — continue.
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