That two-word phrase was often used to describe Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as they entered the NBA, with good reason. You didn’t have to be a basketball scout to appreciate their tantalizing combination of size and skill and imagine their future as the key pillars of a championship foundation.
Fast forward a few years (three seasons for Simmons and four for Embiid) and while both players are All-Stars, they have been unable to correct the most glaring flaws in their games, the type of flaws that elite teams will expose in the playoffs.
Let’s start with Simmons and the obvious hole in his game. For all his wondrous talent as a passer, ball handler and defender, his unwillingness to shoot from the perimeter is limiting to the team’s offense. It’s hard to run a lot of pick-and-rolls with Simmons at the top of the key when opposing coaches know Simmons is not going to rise up and shoot.
A player with his speed in transition and ability to drive and find teammates should be a point guard. Period. But Simmons’ refusal to shoot led Brett Brown to try him at power forward in a last-ditch attempt to get some spacing on the floor. If Simmons is unable or simply refuses to add a perimeter jumper to his game, perhaps the only path to unlocking his potential is to surround him with four shooters.
The clear model to follow is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is only an inch taller and about 10 pounds heavier than Simmons. But to this point in their careers, Antetokounmpo has been far more willing to address the weaknesses in his game. Antetokounmpo is still well below average as a three-point shooter, making just 30.4 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc this season. But he still took 4.7 threes per game, and just the threat of those attempts makes him more difficult to defend.
Antetokounmpo also plays with force, something Simmons can and should do more consistently. Antetokounmpo imposes his will on every game he plays in, averaging 19.7 field goal attempts and 10 free throw attempts per game this season. Simmons averaged a career-low 11.4 field goal attempts and added 5.2 free throw attempts per game. As physically overpowering as Simmons can be, those numbers should be significantly higher. Simmons can easily make the leap from 16 points per game to 20 or more if he sets his mind to it.
Now to Embiid. The lack of a jumper in Simmons’ arsenal means that Embiid needs to become a better three-point shooter. Otherwise, there’s not going to be adequate spacing when the two share the floor. With his shooting stroke, there’s no reason Embiid can’t become a 34 to 35 percent three-point shooter on five or six attempts per game, like we’ve seen from Brook Lopez over the last couple seasons in Milwaukee. That would still leave plenty of room for Embiid to lead the NBA in post-up possessions per game, as he did this season.
To become a three-point threat late in games, Embiid needs to have his legs, and that means getting in better overall shape. The game is not easy for seven-footers these days, often having to protect the rim and defend a pick-and-roll on the same possession. In the recent playoff sweep, we saw the Celtics make Embiid work so hard defensively that he looked gassed late in games. Teams will continue to follow that blueprint and see if Embiid can keep up.
The series sweep against the Celtics also highlighted the need for Embiid to improve his decision-making when he gets double-teamed. In Game 3 of that series, we saw the Celtics use double teams to get a steal and a block against Embiid on back-to-back possessions, turning the tide of that game. If the Sixers are going to play through Embiid late in games, he must make the right reads in those situations. Otherwise, you can’t give him the ball when the game is on the line. And if you can’t give him the ball in the most important moments, is he really a superstar?
Is he really a superstar?
That question gets to the heart of the matter for both Simmons and Embiid and the franchise’s fortunes going forward.
If both players correct the flaws in their games, the superstar ceilings are still there. But to reach that level, Simmons and Embiid need to prove they’re willing to make the necessary adjustments to get better. Regardless of what happens with the supporting cast, the Sixers won’t improve in any meaningful way if their pair of generational talents don’t live up to the label.