One of the craziest offseasons in recent history has not only shaken up the league’s hierarchy, it’s altered the path for several prominent teams and players heading into the 2017-18 season. For Golden Opportunity Week, the third of four weeklong series leading up to the tipoff of a new NBA year, we're taking long, hard looks at the most intriguing situations in the league—and what comes next for everyone involved.
In August, 39 rookies were polled in NBA.com’s annual rookie survey, answering questions like, “Who will win Rookie of the Year?” and “Which rookie will have the best career?” No more than three rookies responded with “Ben Simmons” for either of those questions. The 2016 draft’s top pick wasn’t named once as “most athletic” or “best playmaker.”
Ben Simmons was asked at Sixers media day if he was aware of the survey’s results.
“No. I’m not really about the guys coming in,” Simmons said while grinning. “I’m worried about the guys up top.”
The reporter followed up, “Do you feel like it was maybe out of sight, out of mind because you didn’t play last year that your fellow rookies didn’t look at you in that regard?”
“They’ll remember. They’ll remember,” Simmons interjected.
Even in the 2016-17 rookie survey from last year, Simmons finished only third in Rookie of the Year, tied for fourth in “best career,” received only one vote for "most athletic," and second as "best playmaker" behind Kris Dunn. It’s safe to say that Simmons isn’t the most popular rookie no. 1 pick.
It’s easy to forget or overlook what a player can bring to the floor with how fast the NBA changes. Here’s a refresher of who Simmons is, and how he might fit in with the Sixers:
He’s Best in Transition
The Sixers like to play fast, which is a good fit for Simmons, a muscular, 6-foot-10 athlete who has legitimate point guard skills. They logged the fifth-quickest pace in the league and the eighth-most transition possessions last season, per Synergy. But they were sloppy and scored inefficiently. This was Brett Brown's MO in Philly; he didn’t have the personnel, but he installed the right tendencies for a modern style of play. Now they finally have players who can turn those situations into plus opportunities. Toward the end of Sixers training camp last year, Simmons suffered an acute fracture of the fifth metatarsal bone after landing on the foot of his then-teammate Shawn Long during a scrimmage, but now he’s back. And the team has already given him license to drive at will. “Baseline to baseline, there is a thing we’re referring to as ‘Bolt’ when we talk to Ben, where [he] is Usain Bolt, and off you go,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said recently. “It’s jaw-dropping at times, his ability to cover ground.”
Brown’s description is quite accurate. Simmons’s default setting is to push the ball as soon as he grabs a rebound. Defenses need to retreat immediately any time Simmons has the ball on the break. In the open floor, he can unleash myriad ballhandling maneuvers with either hand to break down a defense. Or he can just bolt by the entire opposition.
Moments captured in the above video are why Simmons draws comparisons to LeBron James. There simply aren’t many players that large who can move that quickly, and make angle-warping passes. Simmons sees one pass ahead when he has the ball and can deliver creative, accurate darts through tight windows. It’s not a stretch to say Simmons will be one of the NBA’s better pure transition playmakers as soon as he makes his regular-season debut on October 18.
He’s a Walking Mismatch
“There’s not many people who can really guard me off the dribble the full length of the court,” Simmons said at media day. “It’s gonna be a mismatch problem a lot of the time.” When Simmons motors the ball up the floor, crossmatches can be created against a scrambling defense. Watch here as T.J. McConnell sets a screen for Simmons in 2016 summer league, which puts a little guy on the big Australian:
Simmons draws a freaking triple-team, which means multiple teammates are open, including the eventual target, Richaun Holmes, who hit an and-1 layup.
The mismatches also extend to the half court. With Simmons on the floor, the Sixers will use on-ball and off-ball screens to find the most desirable matchup. Though Simmons is the “point guard,” 2017 no. 1 pick Markelle Fultz will have the ball in his hands plenty. Fultz is a dynamic pick-and-roll playmaker who can pull up over the top of defenses or snake his way to the rim. Joel Embiid should prove to be a massive screening threat for Fultz, but Simmons’s off-ball impact shouldn’t be overlooked.
If Simmons screens for Fultz, or vice versa, defenses will look to switch, which would place a smaller player on Simmons and a larger player on Fultz—the starting point for most mismatches in the NBA. If Simmons has a big size advantage, the Sixers could benefit from using him on the post:
Simmons bullies the opponent into the paint in the clip above, which draws eyes from help defenders. Simmons makes the smart, quick play and kicks it out. Against a rotating defense, he swings the ball out to the corner for an open 3. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot misses here, but swap TLC for J.J. Redick and more often than not the result will be just as satisfying as the process.
Simmons tends to make the right play. Even if defenses don’t switch screens against Simmons, he’s an explosive leaper who is also advanced at using his body to navigate his way inside.
He Could Be a Devastating Creator in the Pick-and-Roll
While Simmons can serve as a screener, let’s not forget he is the Sixers’ point guard, so he’ll be running the offense, getting them into sets, and piloting pick-and-rolls. This is, perhaps, where the possibilities get most exciting with any number of Sixers serving as a screener. Simmons being a point guard in the body of a big man changes how opponents will position their personnel on the floor. Teams will need to put a player big enough to bother him on the perimeter, but they’ll also need to slide with him to prevent him getting into the paint. So with Embiid, the team would be running a 1-5 pick-and-roll that is actually more of a 4-5 pick-and-roll, which most teams aren’t accustomed to defending. Embiid screening for Simmons could prove to be a formidable threat, with two large, skilled bigs rumbling toward the rim, or Embiid popping for a 3. Redick could slip screens, much like how Klay Thompson does for Draymond Green.
Simmons can make all the passes with his advanced court vision and pinpoint accuracy. He could stand to get better at moving the ball in rhythm rather than record-scratching the offense, but those warts can be sanded down over time within Philly’s motion-based system. Nonetheless, adjustments will have to be made. Simmons may be a blessed athlete, but the speed and physicality of the game is a significant hurdle for all rookies.
“Ben has yet to acclimate. He hasn’t played a game yet. He has to figure it out,” Redick said at media day when asked about how Simmons compares to Blake Griffin. “No. 1, he hasn’t played a game yet. No. 2, he’s still young enough where he’s figuring it out himself. But he’s going to be a great player in this league. I love what I’ve seen in pickup and I’m really looking forward to playing with him.”
Redick is right; Simmons has a lot of learning to do. LSU rarely ran pick-and-rolls, and he logged only 36 pick-and-roll possessions during the summer league in 2016. There’s also one big issue that could plague Simmons in half-court situations early in his career.
He Shoots With the Wrong Hand
If you’ve been paying close attention so far, you’ll notice every video clip above features Simmons scoring with his right hand. If you had to guess, you’d assume he’s a righty. But he shoots jumpers and free throws with his left hand. That’s a problem. At LSU and summer league in 2016, Simmons hit only 18 of 63 jumpers (or 28.6 percent), per my research. He’s a bad shooter and he knows it—so does his coach. Brown has even admitted Simmons limits the types of lineups that can be used around him. He will be the only non-shooter in any given lineup he’s involved in because defenses will sag off him so much.
“I think we’ll be ready for whether they don’t play him, but meet him and just sag all the way back. I’m calling upon my Tony Parker days and thinking about how we would guard [Rajon] Rondo,” Brown said. Ouch. Sometimes the truth stings. “The league is so smart and well-coached, it’s just an evolution and we’ll keep seeing different ways teams try to guard him. I believe we’ll have answers. If they do something, then something else will be open and we’ll prepare with that in mind.”
No one on the Sixers staff will admit it, but what they really need to keep in mind is pushing Simmons to switch shooting hands if his struggles persist. Simmons should be shooting righty—I’ve never been surer of anything. I’ve manually tracked all of his shots going back to his time at LSU, and will continue to do so in the NBA starting in the preseason. Updates will be posted periodically on my Twitter. As outlined in-depth last year on The Ringer, my research showed Simmons used his right hand on 82 percent of non-jumpers (layups, tip-ins, dunks, floaters, post-ups, etc.). That’s despite the fact he uses his left hand on all jumpers and free throws. Simmons even admitted to the New York Daily News that he thinks he was “supposed to be right-handed.”
He’ll Need to Work on His Effectiveness Off the Ball
The reality is that no defender should feel threatened when Simmons is spotting up at the 3-point line without the ball, or when he’s tip-toeing through ball screens. Simmons is scary-good at scoring in the open floor; he might be scary-bad at scoring in the half court. In the pick-and-roll, defenders will slide under screens and double-dog dare him to shoot the jumper.
When Simmons doesn’t have the ball in his hands, defenders will have the license to freely help on penetration without any worry about staying home.
Simmons’s jumper was even disrespected at summer league. If he shoots as poorly now as he did 15 months ago, then defenses will game plan against him. You’d think if Brown had confidence in the way Simmons’s shot has developed, he wouldn’t be speaking to the media about how he’s preparing for when defenders “don’t play him” or “just sag all the way back.”
Simmons gets compared to LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo so frequently because of their size and playmaking ability. Optimists will note that neither player was a good shooter early in his career, either. So Simmons will be fine, right? Maybe. But it should be noted that while they were far from accurate, both LeBron and Giannis were far, far more advanced at shooting than Simmons at the same stage in their development.
He’s Not the Most Physical Player
Giannis and LeBron are also superior at-rim finishers. LeBron was a physical beast from his rookie year onward. Giannis needed to improve his off-hand when he entered the NBA, but he did seek out contact. The last time we saw Simmons, he tended to avoid contact. Simmons would often settle for right-hand floaters, or he’d twist his body around a rim protector rather than going right into his body.
Over time, he could learn to become more physical. When he has a full head of steam going toward the rim, it'd be hard to imagine even the NBA's best rim protectors keeping him from the basket. But perhaps more importantly, improving his left-hand touch would help his success rate inside. As previously detailed, Simmons tends to use his right hand on layups, even when he should use his left. Exhibit A:
Simmons will be fine in this regard; don’t let my obsession with Simmons’s handedness scare you too much. But we’re talking about a no. 1 pick, a player who has the skill to be one of the greats. I only want to see him realize his potential, and for that to happen, he’ll need a jumper that’s good enough to threaten defenses. He doesn’t need to knock down shots like Steph Curry. But to even come close, he might need to switch hands just like fellow Rich Paul client Tristan Thompson did in 2013.
And Now: Other Things Simmons Does Righty
Just in case you wanted more evidence that Simmons is right-handed, here he is throwing with his right hand:
Here he is spinning a basketball on his right fingertip during a Beats by Dre advertisement:
Here he is picking up and eating a Philly cheesesteak sandwich with his right hand during an appearance on Jimmy Fallon:
Here he is signing his rookie contract using his right hand:
Simmons’s original tweet from contract-signing day has since been deleted. Considering his on-court habits and off-court handedness, the odds are good he used his right hand to hold the phone and his right thumb to press delete on the tweet.
He’s a Mixed Bag on Defense, but the Tools Are There
Moving to the other end of the floor, Simmons’s upside is a bit confusing. On one hand, Simmons looked disastrous in college. He played with low effort, like an apathetic teenager. He rarely got into a defensive stance. His help defense was nonexistent. LSU stunk, but even when you rewatched their games early in the season before they were truly terrible, Simmons suffered major lapses.
And yet Simmons is one of the most physically gifted players in the league. He’s extremely quick laterally. He’s super-smart. He’s strong enough to defend larger players. His leaping ability leads to exciting weakside blocks. He vacuums rebounds. He played with more effort during summer league, too. Plus, Brett Brown loves him, which should mean something considering his honesty when talking with the media.
"He has a chance to be an elite, multipurpose defensive player,” Brown told reporters last month. “Initially, it’s easier to play NBA defense than it is to play NBA offense because so much of it is just proper positioning, and effort, and athleticism, and he’s got that. So I feel like those types of things are gonna stand out when people first see him.” In other words, Brown seems to be expecting Simmons to be an impact defender right off the bat. If that happens, and if Embiid stays healthy, and if Robert Covington defends at the same level he did last season, the Sixers will be damn good defensively.
Brown added that Simmons would likely defend the opponent’s power forward, which is a good move. If he’s defending forwards, Simmons is more likely to be in position to switch screens later in the clock rather than starting possessions against guards. He can also be free to do what he does best: roam and cause deflections to turn defense into offense.
It’ll take time for Simmons to develop. Even though he was a no. 1 pick, and even though the Sixers are hungry for a playoff run after years of losing, the process never stops. Simmons will be one of the league’s most exciting rookies we’ve seen in years, and he may soon become one of its most polarizing players. He has the tools to become one of the NBA’s best, but it will take time. “I know how great I can be. It’s gonna take a lot of work, a lot of time,” Simmons said at media day. “I’m gonna fail and succeed. But I’m looking forward to it.” So are we, Ben.