Who will make an NBA 3-pointer first, Markelle Fultz or Ben Simmons? That question isn’t intended to troll 76ers fans. It’s a legitimate curiosity. On one side is Fultz, the 2017 draft’s top overall pick, whose GM recently described his current range as “within the paint”; on the other side is Simmons, the 2016 draft’s top overall pick, who hasn’t yet attempted a single legitimate 3-pointer in 58 career games.
The “legitimate” specification comes because, although Simmons has technically attempted 10 3-pointers this season, they all have something in common:
(One of Simmons’s 3-point attempts is missing from NBA.com’s video archive, but as an 86-footer just before halftime, it fits the pattern.)
This is strange. Not quite Fultz strange — few things in recent NBA history are — but Simmons’s complete avoidance of the staple of modern basketball represents a separate fascination. He’s poised to become the first guard — which, despite his size, is what he and team view him as — since Avery Johnson in 1993–94 to qualify for the field goal percentage leaderboard without making a single 3. But even that topline fact doesn’t encapsulate the oddity that is Simmons’s shot.
Simmons’s 3-point restraint didn’t begin this season. In college, the LSU star took three 3-pointers, making one. In 2016’s summer league, he took one 3-pointer and missed. This preseason, he again took one 3-pointer and missed. Add in his oh-fer start to this season, and Simmons has made one in-game 3-pointer, total, since high school.
His hesitation to shoot extends inside the arc, too. Per NBA.com, his three 2-point attempts of 20 feet or more this season have all come with the shot clock expiring. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor believes Simmons is using the wrong hand to shoot, noting that Simmons has tended to take jumpers and free throws — which he hits at just a 57 percent clip — with a dominant left hand but shots near the rim with a dominant right.
Even in exhibitions, Simmons is evidently loath to trust his jumper. Most participants in last month’s Rising Stars game during All-Star Weekend took advantage of the freewheeling atmosphere and half-speed defense to launch with abandon; the five starting guards other than Simmons (Jamal Murray, Buddy Hield, Jaylen Brown, Dennis Smith Jr., and Donovan Mitchell) averaged 7.8 3-point attempts apiece. Simmons didn’t take a single 3 and attempted all of his shots from inside the restricted area, but he also didn’t miss and handed out 13 assists.
That Rising Stars stat line illuminates the most intriguing aspect of Simmons’s 3-phobic game: He is a multifaceted offensive force even without any semblance of a long-range shot. He ranks second among 2017–18 rookies in scoring, behind only Mitchell, and he and Lonzo Ball join Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson as the only rookies ever to record at least seven rebounds and seven assists per game. And Simmons stands alone among all rookies with an assist rate north of 30 percent and a rebound rate north of 10 percent. (The possession data used to calculate assist and rebound percentage doesn’t extend back to Robertson’s rookie season, so he might have reached those benchmarks, too.)
Simmons also carries an immense offensive load; he touches the ball more times per game than any other player in the NBA, and both throws and catches the most passes. He hasn’t flagged as his first long season of basketball has progressed, either. His February averages of 16.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game align with his season-long averages of 16.6, 7.7, and 7.4, respectively.
The most immediate question, then, is if Simmons has an artificially low ceiling, particularly in the playoffs, when teams develop more narrowed, opponent-specific game plans and tactical counters. He has fared well in regular-season crunch time thus far, at least. The 76ers, as a team, score at a top-10 rate in clutch situations (defined by NBA.com as possessions in the last five minutes with a five-point margin or closer), with the best assist rate in the league; individually, among 112 players with at least 20 shot attempts in clutch situations, Simmons has the sixth-best effective field goal percentage. The player directly ahead of him is Kevin Durant; the two players directly behind are Steph Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It’s harder to fathom what a non-shooting point guard will look like in the playoffs. Teams have schemed the likes of Tony Allen and Andre Roberson off the floor in recent postseasons, but it’s not like a top seed in the East can match its Andrew Bogut against a lead ball handler without compromising the rest of its defensive structure. Defenses can pack the paint, but J.J. Redick, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington can still splash 3s. Joel Embiid’s outside shot, currently hitting at 32 percent on 3.4 attempts per game, might prove the key to Philadelphia’s spring success; an inverted offense with the nominal 5 spotting up and the nominal 1 shooting exclusively in the paint sounds odd, but talent trumps positional orthodoxy.
Looking further into the future than just these upcoming playoffs, Simmons’s anachronistic style could complicate the 76ers’ potential pursuit of LeBron James in free agency. Some tea leaves are aligning in that direction of late: A Philadelphia-based company bought three billboards in Cleveland to exhort James to sign with the 76ers, which he deemed “dope”; Ringer staffers who spent time at last weekend’s Sloan Sports Conference reported a healthy amount of James-to-Philly chatter; it would make sense for his career narrative.
James playing next to and sharing distribution responsibilities with Simmons would require a reimagination of James’s modus operandi in recent seasons, when he has surrounded himself with capable shooters and zipped the ball around the Quicken Loans perimeter. Since he returned to Cleveland, the only rotation players who have come anywhere close to Simmons’s meager 3-point attempt rate (3PAr) are Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. Among non-centers, Dwyane Wade had the lowest 3PAr (16.1 percent of his shot attempts were 3s), and he fit so poorly in Cleveland that the Cavaliers traded him back to Miami for a heavily protected pick in lieu of relegating him to a reduced role. Every other Cavalier except James himself has taken well over 20 percent of his shots from 3-point range.
Simmons, meanwhile, has taken just 1.3 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. The 76er point guard’s 3-point abstinence is effectively unprecedented in the modern NBA even pretending, for the sake of broader comparison, that all of his buzzer-beating heaves are equivalent to any regular 3-point attempt. Among the 121 players who have taken enough shots to qualify for the field goal percentage leaderboard this season, Simmons ranks 113th in 3PAr, ahead of just eight centers. The closest guard is Ish Smith (7.9 percent); the next-closest guard is another notoriously 3-avoidant point man, Elfrid Payton (14.3 percent), who is still taking 3s at more than 10 times the rate as Simmons is.
By Basketball-Reference’s position designations, a qualifying guard has recorded a 3PAr at Simmons’s rate or lower 74 previous times in the 3-point era, which sounds like a lot. But 73 of those instances came in the first 15 years of the 3-point line’s existence, when few players dared to venture so far from the hoop. Since 1993–94, only one player (Avery Johnson in 1999–2000) has taken 3s at such a low rate.
James and Wade successfully meshed in Miami, but that broader dissonance presents an interesting wrinkle in the James-to-Philly rumors. James has never played with anyone quite like Simmons — but that’s partly because there’s never been a player quite like Simmons as long as James has been in the league. He is a paradox in the modern NBA, a player who in some respects would fit better in the ’80s, but who also runs the point despite being listed at the same height as, and 15 to 20 pounds heavier than, Moses Malone and Kevin McHale.
Simmons’s closest comparison comes from that decade, in the form of a young Magic Johnson, who captained some of the best offenses in league history but struggled himself from range. In 1982–83, Johnson set the record for most 3-point attempts in a season without a make with 21. He also led the league in assists that season and was named to the All-NBA first team. Simmons’s future isn’t dull without a jump shot, but it would certainly be brighter with one.
Placing James next to Simmons would represent an experiment; there’s a fine line between complementary and overlapping skill sets. Is James, on the precipice of his mid-30s, with more than 50,000 NBA minutes already logged, willing to embark on another experiment as he chases Michael Jordan’s legacy? The league will find out this summer. It’s an open question whether Simmons will have attempted, let alone made, a real 3-pointer by then.