Tom Haberstroh

Why we shouldn't expect Ben Simmons to be a 'crunch-time scorer' yet

Why we shouldn't expect Ben Simmons to be a 'crunch-time scorer' yet

In the first few minutes of a game, Ben Simmons so frequently looks like the best player on the floor. He sometimes is for the duration of the game, too, but especially so during that opening burst when he tends to barrel at the rim and make a loud, early imprint.

Over the Sixers’ last three contests, he’s scored six of the team’s first nine points, eight of its first 17, and 10 of its first 18, respectively. 

However, as NBC Sports national NBA insider Tom Haberstroh notes, Simmons’ usage has plummeted in fourth quarters. He has just a 15.4 usage rate in the fourth this season.

Haberstroh posits that, during the time Joel Embiid is sidelined after having surgery for a torn ligament in his left hand, the Sixers should “make Simmons a crunch-time scorer.”

The idea that Simmons should sustain his early aggressive mindset is certainly fair, and it seems hard to dispute.

The belief that he has the ability to be quite as effective late in fourth quarters, though, is a bit optimistic. His obvious limitations as a shooter allow defenses to play off him in the half court. The Sixers have been employing Simmons more as a screener when Josh Richardson or Tobias Harris are handling the ball, which has been promising. On Wednesday vs. the Nets, Brett Brown also encouraged Simmons to drive and quickly evaporate the open space the Nets were giving him. He called plenty of “12,” an action that begins with a wing coming up from the baseline to either set a ball screen for Simmons or take a handoff. Furkan Korkmaz got several good looks out of the action and scored nine points in the fourth quarter.

Though Simmons only had five of his 20 points against Brooklyn after halftime, the Sixers were at least able to put him in some impactful positions. It helped that Harris was tremendous in the fourth, too, hitting a string of tough, game-clinching shots and finishing with 34 points.

Brown admitted he had some regrets when asked before Wednesday's game about Simmons’ following up a 20-point first half Monday against the Pacers with a four-point second half. 

If you got to the fourth period — because I will own the large majority of it in the third period — we played through J-Rich and he had it rolling. … I think in the third period I could have posted him more. I could have gotten him the ball more. Did I think that he shied away from anything? I did not. He was running some play calls that I asked him to run and in the light of day, probably I could have gotten him the ball more. 

Another clear reason why Simmons might be limited late in games even if he adopts an attacking mentality is his poor free throw shooting. After a 2-for-7 performance Wednesday, he’s hitting 58.2 percent of his foul shots this year. He also hasn’t increased his free throw volume the way Brown said he hoped he would on Dec. 7.

On that night — on which Brown famously proclaimed that he wanted “a three-point shot a game, minimum" — he also said he wanted Simmons attempting eight free throws per game. He’s averaging 4.6 this year, 5.1 since that statement. 

The bright spot for Simmons is that he’s made 10 of 13 “clutch” free throws this season, generally responding well when teams have turned to a “Hack-a-Simmons” strategy. 

Like any team, the Sixers would love to have a diverse, dangerous array of late-game scoring options. But, if we’re being realistic, their fourth-quarter offense will likely run through Embiid when he returns, as it did before his injury. Richardson and Harris have also shown that they can create and make shots in crunch time.

Simmons should be be a more prominent figure than he is currently, but his value will likely stem more from his passing, screening and rolling, and ability to spark offense in the open floor as a result of elite defense than from his scoring.

As Haberstroh writes, the Sixers can find ways to develop while their All-Star big man is out. Maybe Simmons’ confidence in late-game situations will improve while Embiid is away, but he likely won’t be who the team centers its late-game offense around in the playoffs. He shouldn’t be, either. 

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

An interesting discussion about why Ben Simmons' ceiling is so polarizing

An interesting discussion about why Ben Simmons' ceiling is so polarizing

For the time being, Ben Simmons still qualifies as a young player.

And, in the opinion of Nate Duncan, host of the Dunc’d on Basketball NBA Podcast, the 23-year-old is sliding among the NBA’s best prospects.

On the latest Habershow podcast with NBC Sports national NBA insider Tom Haberstroh, Duncan ranked the top-10 prospects 23 and under. 

Here’s his list:

Tier 1: 
Luka Doncic

Tier 2: 
Zion Williamson

Tier 3: 
Ja Morant
Trae Young

Tier 4: 
Devin Booker
Donovan Mitchell
Jaylen Brown
Bam Adebayo
Brandon Ingram
Ben Simmons 

To Duncan, Simmons’ lack of shooting has a vast impact. 

Let’s give him credit for the way he’s developed the other facets of his game,” Duncan said. “I think he has taken incremental steps forward in things other than shooting, He’s a weird player. And to me, people have focused on the corner three — can he space the floor when he doesn’t have the ball?

"I actually think it’s a bigger deal that he can’t shoot a 15-footer when he’s on ball, that you can’t really run a pick-and-roll because you can just go under on him every time or you can switch onto him with a center that he then is not going to be able to beat because he can’t shoot more than three feet away from the basket — and that’s where centers are bigger than him, and they can just wait for him there if they’ve switched onto him.

Duncan also notes that players who shoot 60 percent or worse from the foul line at a high volume (Simmons is at 58.2 percent) hardly ever develop passable jumpers. It’s a sound point, especially given Simmons’ flawed mechanics, flared elbow and all.

Haberstroh, though, has faith in Simmons.

“I think the skills are there, I think the tools are there for him to become a jump shooter,” he said. “Watching him in practice and watching him pregame, it just feels like there’s just a switch. There’s just something that needs to click.”

The best argument for Simmons being too low on Duncan’s list is that the Australian is a stellar defensive player. There are obviously a variety of stats that help capture a player’s defensive value, many of which are limited. Simmons, however, scores well in many categories.

He’s tied with the Bulls’ Kris Dunn for the most steals in the league, first in defensive loose balls recovered per game, fifth in defensive win shares and fifth in deflections per game (minimum 10 games played).

Watching Simmons every game, one also appreciates what he adds defensively outside of statistics, as Haberstroh pointed out.

“He has a Giannis [Antetokounmpo]-type ceiling, to me,” Haberstroh said. “Defensively, he’s incredible. … His ability to lock up guards and his versatility on that end is a huge asset, and it’s one of the things that you can’t see in a box score. It’s harder to quantify that. Certainly, in conversations with your buddies at the bar, defensive versatility isn’t going to trump the whole non-shooting thing.”

Duncan respects the gist of that idea, but he also thinks it can be a crutch for proponents of Simmons. 

“Because it’s not quantifiable, they almost use it as a trump card now,” he said. “They’ll just be like, ‘Oh, but his defense is so much better.’ … Simmons, to me, he’s settling in. My projection for him would kind of be lower-end All-Star in the East. As amazing as his physical tools are, I don’t believe he has the upside because I don’t project him to ever shoot it.” 

You can listen to the full podcast here

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

It's not as simple as Joel Embiid needing to be in the post more

It's not as simple as Joel Embiid needing to be in the post more

If you’re a Sixers fan, you’ve likely watched Joel Embiid and thought to yourself — or yelled at your TV — “Why isn’t he in the post?”

NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh not only agrees with you but has numbers to back this notion up.

Embiid’s average shot distance this season is 12.4, which is by far the highest mark of his career. Last season, in the 19 games where Embiid took at least eight shots from three feet or less, the Sixers were 16-3. The only game he’s done that this season is in a win in Atlanta.

Cut and dry, right? Just get this dude in the post and go to work.

While Embiid does have a tendency to "float" on the perimeter, it’s not that simple. If you’ve watched the Sixers this season, you’ve seen aggressive double teams thrown Embiid’s way. Sure, he’s seen double teams in the past, but nothing like in 2019-20. His goose egg in Toronto gave teams somewhat of a blueprint. 

Marc Gasol has always given Embiid problems, but head coach Nick Nurse decided to double Embiid on every single post touch. It was easily the most aggressive tactic we’ve seen vs. Embiid. While it worked that night and the Raptors came away with the win, it’s not necessarily the greatest strategy. What opposing coaches are saying is they want to take away Embiid and make the rest of the Sixers beat us.

And they have.

Since that loss in Toronto — a game the Sixers still had very much in their grasp before crumbling in the last few minutes — the team is 8-2 with Embiid in the lineup. Their only losses have been a flat-out clunker against the Wizards and a funky loss against the Heat where they looked like they’d never seen a zone defense.

We’ve seen Tobias Harris elevate his game in those circumstances. In those 10 games, Harris has averaged 23.4 points and taken 19.3 shots per game, both above his season averages. 

But the bottom line is the strategy has worked in slowing Embiid, but not the Sixers.

Haberstroh also points to Embiid’s 38-point performance in Boston where he stepped up after facing criticism from Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley. Again, it’s not black and white. The Celtics erroneously didn’t double Embiid as much as others have. They were practically begging Embiid to have a breakthrough game.

The fact that the Sixers hit 14 of 28 from three was a huge help.

“Whenever I was guarded with single coverage, I took advantage of it,” Embiid said to reporters after that game. “If they don’t make shots it’s easier to double team me. If they do, you got to make a decision — do you want to give up a three or just hope that your big man can try and stop me? It’s a hard decision to make, but like I said, it goes back to I give them a lot of credit — my coaches and my teammates.”

With all that said, there are things Embiid can do better to get himself more touches closer to the basket. He often doesn't run rim to rim and "floats" around the perimeter instead of trying to get early post position. When he's setting screens for ball handlers, he can roll harder and more frequently to the basket.

It’s fair to want Embiid in the post more. He already leads the league in post ups per game by a wide margin, but Brett Brown and Embiid have said they’d like that number to go up even higher. When he’s covered 1-on-1, he’s almost impossible to stop.

But if he’s double teamed, he needs to keep making the right decisions and have his teammates make the opponent pay.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers