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Rookie Status Update: Ben Simmons Proving Philly Can Have Nice Things

Plus thoughts on the immediate impact of Jayson Tatum and OG Anunoby

Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, and OG Anunoby Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ben Simmons still can’t shoot. Much of the discussion surrounding the 76ers rookie over the past two years has focused on whether he will ever be able to. In a profile written before the 2016 draft, one executive called Simmons “a taller Rajon Rondo, a more athletic Evan Turner, or a skinnier Royce White.” Our own Kevin O’Connor thinks Simmons is shooting with the wrong hand. He could have worked on his jumper last year, while sitting out what would have been his rookie season with a broken foot. He doubled down instead. In his first five NBA games, Simmons has abandoned the jumper completely. He is turning the famous quote from Wayne Gretzky and Michael Scott on its head. You can’t make the shots you don’t take, but you can’t miss them either.

Simmons is playing point guard for Philadelphia, but he has the shooting profile of a traditional center. He has taken 56.5 percent of his field goal attempts within 5 feet of the basket, and 78.3 percent within 10 feet. He has taken only four shots outside of 14 feet all season, and three of those were buzzer-beating heaves from beyond half court. Simmons is focusing on what he does well instead of trying to fix what he doesn’t. It has worked so far: He is averaging 16.4 points, 10 rebounds, 7.4 assists, and 1.4 steals a game on 47.1 percent shooting. Simmons is the first rookie since Oscar Robertson to have at least 10 points, five rebounds, and five assists in his first three NBA games. The Rookie of the Year race might be over before it even started.

The game plan against non-shooting point guards is simple. Executing it against Simmons is hard. Defenders are sagging off him and daring him to shoot, but he’s not taking the bait. When he’s given space, he takes it. At 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds, Simmons can dribble into the lane, stop on a dime, and elevate over the top of smaller defenders. The degree of difficulty on many of his shots isn’t high. He might as well be shooting this in an empty gym:

Even when a defender is bigger than him, Simmons is strong enough to attack his defender’s chest and finish through contact:

Simmons is a walking mismatch. Sagging off him doesn’t work that well when Simmons has the space to play one-on-one. He’s bigger than most perimeter players, and he’s faster than most big men. Few defenders can stay in front of him while still challenging his shot, and he doesn’t take many shots he can’t make.

Packing the paint with extra defenders is the easiest way to guard a player who scores at the rim. The problem is Philadelphia spaces the floor around Simmons too well for that strategy to work. Double-team him and someone is open at the 3-point line, plus he’s a gifted passer big enough to see over any help to find the shooter. The 76ers have built their team around Simmons, emphasizing 3-point shooting at every other position to give him enough room to operate inside.

Finding players who can fit around Simmons isn’t easy. He scores like a center, but he doesn’t play defense like one. His wingspan (7 feet) isn’t much longer than his height, and he doesn’t have the instincts to protect the rim. He averaged 0.8 blocks a game in college, and is averaging only 0.4 blocks a game in the NBA. The problem is most centers who could cover for him on defense would get in his way on offense. That has been the issue for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, one that Blake may have solved this season by becoming a consistent 3-point shooter. Until he learns to shoot, Simmons needs to play next to a unicorn—a big man who can block shots on one end of the floor while still being able to space the floor on the other. The good news is the 76ers have one.

Joel Embiid is the perfect complement to Simmons. Embiid is a high-volume shooter who locks down the paint and hardly ever passes. He opens up driving lanes to the rim for Simmons, and Simmons spoon-feeds him open shots. The pick-and-pop between the two is almost unguardable:

The most interesting lineup Sixers coach Brett Brown has tried this season puts Simmons and Embiid alongside Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and J.J. Redick. Redick is the only player of the five under 6-foot-9. Lineups with that much size would typically not have enough shooting, quickness, or playmaking to survive. But Redick, Embiid, and Covington can all space the floor, while Simmons and Saric are both high-level passers. Simmons and Covington have the speed to match up with opposing backcourts, too. Simmons is as fast as most guards, and he has the size to play a step off the true speed demons and still challenge their shot. Watch him switch the screen and stay in front of Reggie Jackson and Avery Bradley over the course of this possession in the final minutes of their win over the Pistons:

The upside of building around Simmons is that Philadelphia doesn’t need a traditional point guard. The Sixers can cover the floor with the longest and most athletic player possible at every position. That’s the blueprint Milwaukee has used with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Everyone is waiting for Simmons to develop a jumper, but Giannis is a superstar without one. The similarities are there. They are both supersized point guards who can guard all five positions but can’t shoot. Simmons may not have the same upside as Giannis, but he’s still a fascinating prospect. We spend so much time analyzing what young players do wrong that we can overlook what they do right. A 6-foot-10 version of Rajon Rondo is a pretty awesome basketball player.

Jayson Tatum’s Changing Role

Jayson Tatum was ready for his opportunity. The no. 3 pick in this year’s draft was supposed to start his career in a complementary role next to Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. When Hayward went down on opening night, Tatum became a featured player in the Boston offense. He has thrived in his new role, averaging 14.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.2 steals a game on 47.9 percent shooting. He is incredibly polished for a young player. He’s a natural scorer who already knows how to take advantage of a mismatch. If he is taller than his defender, he can take them in the post and shoot over them:

The concern about how Tatum would transition to the NBA was about what he would do if he didn’t have a mismatch. He played as a small-ball 4 at Duke, and he doesn’t have elite size or speed for the position at the next level. Jaylen Brown, Boston’s no. 3 overall pick the year before, is a good reference point. Tatum is giving up 20 pounds to Brown, and he’s never going to beat him in a running or jumping contest. He would have a tough time scoring one-on-one against Brown. One of the keys to Tatum’s early success is that he isn’t often being guarded by a defender of Brown’s caliber. The best wing defender on the opposing team is guarding Brown, and not many teams have two players that good.

Brown’s presence, meanwhile, has made Tatum’s life easier. The two are interchangeable when they play together. They are the 3 and 4 in smaller lineups, and the 2 and 3 in bigger ones. Brown defends the better scorer, while the better defender guards him. When the Celtics played the Knicks, Courtney Lee guarded Brown and Tim Hardaway Jr. guarded Tatum. In their two games against the Bucks, Brown started the game defending Giannis while Tatum was on Malcolm Brogdon. It’s a best-case scenario for the rookie. Tatum gets more offense run for him than he would have had Hayward been healthy, but not enough to where the defense is gearing up to slow him down specifically.

If this were the team the Celtics would have all season, Tatum might have a chance to compete for Rookie of the Year. However, things are about to change in Boston, again. Marcus Smart returned Thursday after missing two games with sprains in both ankles. Marcus Morris, who hasn’t played this season while dealing with knee soreness, may be right behind him. Morris and Smart will take more shots and hold the ball longer than the guys they replace in the rotation. Morris, who started the past two seasons for the Pistons, can create his own shot and initiate the offense. Smart took 39 shots combined in his first three games this season, and he is playing for a new contract. Neither will want to take a backseat in the offense.

Brad Stevens has a number of options for integrating them back in the lineup. Smart started in the first game following Hayward’s injury, but he has spent most of his time in Boston coming off the bench. Stevens moved Aron Baynes into that spot after Smart’s injury, but started Daniel Theis there instead in their second game against Milwaukee on Thursday. If Morris ends up filling the position permanently, the Celtics could go back to their original plan of having four 3-point shooters around Al Horford. Either way, Tatum will probably be the one who ends up sacrificing. Kyrie is one of the most ball-dominant point guards in the league, while Brown is making the leap to stardom in his second season. A rookie on a contender, no matter where he was drafted, has to pay his dues. Tatum has been good in a bigger-than-expected role, but he might be going back to where he started.

The Raptors Need OG Anunoby

OG Anunoby was supposed to be a project. After coming out of nowhere to have a breakout freshman season at Indiana, Anunoby played in only 16 games as a sophomore before tearing his ACL. He missed all of summer league and played in only two games in the preseason. A raw rookie coming off a serious injury would normally have a difficult time earning playing time on a contender. But Anunoby has already carved out an important role for himself on Toronto’s bench. He is averaging 15 minutes a game, and his role could grow as the season progresses. There’s no one else like him on their roster.

An inability to match up with bigger wings, from Joe Johnson all the way to LeBron James, has killed the Raptors in the playoffs the past few seasons. Toronto’s new starting lineup could have a similar issue. DeMar DeRozan is their primary option on offense and spends most of his energy at that end of the floor. Norman Powell, Toronto’s starting small forward, is extremely undersized for the position at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. Serge Ibaka is a traditional big man who is better at protecting the rim than guarding on the 3-point line. Their top two perimeter reserves are Delon Wright (6-foot-5 and 190 pounds) and C.J. Miles (6-foot-6 and 225 pounds). It’s Anunoby or nothing for Toronto.

At 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Anunoby is a tank with the engine of a sports car. He can conceivably guard all five positions at the NBA level. The question about Anunoby is whether he would contribute enough on offense to crack a rotation. He averaged only 11.1 points per game in sophomore season at Indiana, and he shot 31.1 percent from the shorter college 3-point line. While it’s still too soon to say whether Anunoby can be a consistent 3-point shooter in the NBA, he has shown he can at least be a cog in a good offense. He moves the ball, attacks off the dribble, and makes good decisions. As long as he makes plays like this, Dwane Casey has to find minutes for him:

The Raptors have been stuck in a rut the past few years, consistently coming up short in the playoffs. They are shooting more 3s and playing less isolation basketball this season, but the key players are still the same. Anunoby could change things. A lineup with Ibaka at the 5 and Anunoby at the 4 would spread the floor while giving the Raptors more length and athleticism up front than ever before. It’s a lot to ask for a 20-year-old coming off an ACL tear, but Anunoby is already far ahead of where anyone thought he would be at this point.