It is the third healthy season of Ben Simmons’ NBA career and he has made two three-point shots in the regular season. That fact is difficult to ignore and unfortunately tends to distort any evaluation of Simmons.
The 23-year-old is also, of course, a gifted player who leads the league in steals, is fifth in assists and, to put it simply, is very good at many parts of basketball besides shooting.
Instead of fixating on his shot or praising all his skills, let’s evaluate Simmons in half-court offense and examine, outside of the obvious, where he can get better.
Making the most of all that room
Normal NBA actions, like this 1-5 pick-and-roll at the end of the first half on Dec. 27, are sometimes less normal when Simmons is involved.
Going under a ball screen is a common scheme, but the way Aaron Gordon slid under Joel Embiid at the foul line before Simmons had even gone inside the arc is not. This defensive approach against Simmons can make it difficult to run conventional offense.
Since he hasn’t yet done it, we don’t know whether Simmons taking these near-omnipresent opportunities to shoot would change how teams defend him. The similar way opponents guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, now a very willing outside shooter (32.4 percent from three on 5.1 attempts per game), indicates it might not.
One action the Sixers like as a means of exploiting the open space teams give Simmons is called “12,” and it begins with a wing rising up from the baseline to set a ball screen for Simmons, accept a handoff or slide out behind the arc, as Furkan Korkmaz did early in the fourth quarter Wednesday night.
It got Josh Richardson a good look in the second quarter on Christmas. This is an odd way to produce a three in the modern NBA, but the Sixers managed an open one for Richardson because Donte DiVincenzo got caught under the sagging Antetokounmpo.
Simmons can chew up space well, and not just by sprinting at top speed. He countered the defense’s expectations and changed pace effectively on the play below, acting as if he was going to hand it off to James Ennis before accelerating.
A focus on spacing
For the current version of Simmons, off-ball spacing is vital. When Al Horford posts up, Tobias Harris drives or two teammates run a pick-and-roll, it’s important that Simmons is in the proper floor spot.
Brett Brown said on Dec. 17 it’s something he often reviews with Simmons.
I spend so much time with Ben talking about spacing. … He uses the space to play downhill and so somewhere, the bottom line is we need to grow his perimeter game. And it starts with space. Out of a post, where is he? Out of a pick-and-roll, where is he? Not when he's in the post, not when he's in the pick-and-roll — when he's out of the action. Those are the areas that we've been talking a little bit about.
“He's been great. He sees it and he shares things with me, too, that I give him credit for. And so this is a partnership. I'm here to help him, help us, help himself. And that I'll continue to try to do.
The Sixers are working to deprogram Simmons’ default mode of wanting to be as close to the basket as possible. On the play below, he stood in a no man’s land between the left block and left elbow instead of relocating behind the arc, didn’t look at the rim when Harris dropped the ball off to him and ultimately helped derail the trip.
A positive possession for Simmons in terms of spacing is usually quite basic. Here, he recognized Embiid was in the “dunker spot,” walked back to the three-point line and stayed there as Harris drove.
The team just needs Simmons to be attentive, aware of both where his teammates are and where he should be once he gives up the ball. It didn’t have an impact on this particular play, but notice how Harris had to motion to Simmons as he stared at Horford posting up — “Move over to the corner.”
The pick-and-roll pairing of Richardson and Simmons has picked up steam over the past few weeks.
As Brown noted on Jan. 5, Simmons has many qualities that should make him a good screener and roller.
“I think Ben is a really good screen setter,” he said. “He’s physical — he embraces that side of it. And he’s a dynamic roller — he’s a lob guy, he’s a catch-go guy and he can facilitate picking off corners as a passer.”
The lob part of that equation is unique for a "point guard."
Richardson obviously made the right read to throw it up to Simmons when he noticed James Harden hadn’t fully recovered, but Simmons’ size and athleticism are why that pass was an option.
When Brown talks about “quarterbacking” a gym, he usually is referring to Embiid picking out passes from the low block. Simmons, though, can do something similar from the top of the key, like on this after-timeout play from Dec. 28.
That’s an easy pass for Simmons to throw once he sees Kelly Olynyk front the post like the Sixers hoped he would.
Simmons can often gain that position against smaller players. The Sixers got Simmons a switch against the 6-foot Chris Paul on Jan. 6, essentially leaving him free to throw any pass he wanted. He picked out an excellent one, rifling it to Horford in the corner when he saw Danilo Gallinari briefly fall asleep.
This season, Simmons is 7 of 30 from 10 feet and out (23.3 percent). He was 25 for 105 last season (23.8 percent).
His major weakness is unavoidable and an obstacle the Sixers must continue to confront in their half-court offense. Simmons has strengths in the half court, too — his downhill driving ability, the attention he draws, his passing, his screening and rolling.
One aspect of the current formula for success is maximizing those positives. The others are being fastidious about spacing, and intelligent in countering opponents knowing Simmons’ jump shot is not a threat and playing him as such.
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