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Who Can Stop Ben Simmons?

The Sixers point forward has wreaked havoc on the NBA this season. But will his inability to shoot catch up to him in a seven-game series? The answer could define the 2018 playoffs.

Ben Simmons dribbling the ball between green silhouettes of defenders Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last August, NBA.com asked 39 rookies 10 questions, including who will win Rookie of the Year in 2017-18, and which rookie will have the best career. Dennis Smith Jr. won the former, while Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum tied for the latter. Hm. Did they forget that Ben Simmons was a rookie? Probably, considering no more than three voted Simmons for either of those questions, and not a single one named him as “most athletic.” Simmons also didn’t win any of the questions from the year before, when he and his fellow 2016 draftees were given a similar survey. Not even “best playmaker,” which went to Kris Dunn. What a time.

One regular season later, Simmons is already one of the NBA’s 15-to-20 best players and a top-five playmaker; Simmons passes like he’s using GameShark. The 21-year-old averaged 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds, and he guarded positions 1 through 4 for almost equal amounts of time, according to data aggregated by Nylon Calculus’s Krishna Narsu, which means that he’s statistically one of the NBA’s most versatile defenders. The 6-foot-10 Australian just missed my cut for second-team All-Defense, but he’s the clear Rookie of the Year, and he also made my All-NBA third team. If you repolled the 2016 and 2017 draft classes today, Simmons would likely win the aforementioned honors in a clean sweep.

But new challenges await. The Sixers will host the Heat on Saturday to open their first-round series, marking the first playoff Game 1 in Philly since April 2003, when Allen Iverson’s team beat the Hornets. And with it comes new questions for the team’s all-everything rookie. Or, perhaps more accurately, the same questions asked in different ways.

Simmons has accomplished everything this season without a jump shot; he didn’t attempt a single legitimate 3-pointer in 81 games, was reluctant to shoot from midrange, and shot 56 percent from the free throw line. He played to his strengths by attacking the rim, drawing fouls, posting up, and playmaking. But strengths are often taken away or minimized in the playoffs, which means we’re about to find how far away he is from superstardom, or if he’s already there.

This first-round matchup is particularly intriguing because the Heat have a roster built to contain Simmons. James Johnson and Justise Winslow are hustlers who play smart defense, and are built like brick houses, so they can handle Simmons physically. It’ll be a heavyweight bout, just as it was in their regular-season matchups (which the teams split, 2-2). Winslow defended Simmons for 108 possessions with mixed results, while Johnson guarded him for 65 possessions and largely neutralized the rookie, according to NBA.com/Stats. Potential All-NBA defensive wing Josh Richardson also spent 52 possessions against Simmons and fared well against him. More interesting than the results of those plays is Miami’s approach.

Watch Winslow sag off of Simmons by about 10 feet. When Robert Covington turns the corner off of a dribble handoff, Winslow is there, swiping at the ball with no concern for Simmons, who is open from 3. Winslow then sits in the paint even after Simmons get the ball back. Winslow isn’t as much defending Simmons as he is roaming like a free safety.

With the hopes of baiting Simmons into settling for jumpers, the Heat have defended the rookie like this over …

... and over.

The Heat used a similar tactic in their last two games against LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and both forwards struggled from the floor (James went a combined 15-for-39 shooting, while Antetokounmpo went 14-for-36). Miami tends to drop under screens against the point forwards and has one defender help at the middle of “the nail” (i.e., the middle of the free throw line), while its other stays home on shooters, which limits passing lanes. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will likely deploy a similar game plan against the Sixers.

Johnson could get the primary responsibility of defending Simmons, as he’s had more success in the matchup because of his larger frame and longer arms. In the teams’ last meeting, on March 8, a game Miami won 108-99, Johnson defended Simmons for more possessions (37) than Winslow did (23) for the first time in their four games this season. Johnson does a good job of walling him off and using his left hand to block Simmons’s right-handed shots.

But the Sixers will make adjustments, too. When teams have sagged off of Simmons, they’ve occasionally screened the defender, opening the lane for him to drive downhill.

This play is similar to what the Clippers used to run with J.J. Redick screening for Blake Griffin; the Sixers, Redick’s new team, can do the same for Simmons, who is quicker and a far better ball handler than Griffin.

Simmons is still going to rack up assists, dominate on defense, rip down rebounds, go coast to coast, and finish with ferocious slams. And the Sixers will probably win the series because they’re the more talented team.

But the matchup will still be a good litmus test for Simmons, considering the quality of the defenders on the other side. If Simmons thrives, it’ll bode well for his and the Sixers’ success in later rounds, regardless of the opponent.

Considering how open the East is this season, we’re already at the point when the Sixers have entered the Finals conversation. LeBron’s team is more vulnerable than it’s been in the past decade. The Raptors defense has been shaky since early March and there are no guarantees that their new style of play will carry over to the postseason. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward won’t walk through that door for the Celtics. The Sixers may be the favorites in any series. If Simmons’s lone limitation isn’t a pressing issue this postseason, then who will beat them?

What happens against the Heat may also affect how Simmons will approach the development of his jumper moving forward. I’ve banged the Ben Simmons Shoots With the Wrong Hand drum many times before, but it’s worth noting now, with a full season of data, that around three-quarters of Simmons’s non-jumper attempts came off his right hand, even though he shoots away from the basket with his left. Redick even said on The J.J. Redick Podcast that he suggested Simmons switch hands after he first saw the rookie shooting righty jumpers earlier in the season. Redick said Simmons “seemed open to the idea,” though the veteran added that he’s gotten better left-handed over the course of the season, so it might not be necessary.

Having said all that, the jumper isn’t essential right now. Simmons is already a tremendous pro, and, as Redick said, “The guy’s going to average a triple-double or close to a triple-double for his whole career, simply because he’s 6-foot-10 and can get wherever he wants to go, and throw the ball wherever he wants it to go.” But even LeBron had to develop his jumper to take the leap from amazing to legendary. Simmons has a nonzero chance to be the best point guard ever. So the status of every part of his game is worth tracking if he’s to even sniff that level.

Simmons already has the ingredients to be the heir to the throne. There’s just one missing piece. We’ll find out how much it matters this postseason.