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Season in Review: Ben Simmons Bursts His Own Bubble

A no-range game, even in today’s 3-centric NBA, hasn’t stopped the Sixers rookie’s ascension

A treated photo of Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons Getty Images/Ringer illustration

An NBA court is 94 feet wide and 50 feet tall, and at only 21 years old, Ben Simmons manipulates the geometry of his surroundings about as well as any player. He bullets outlet passes like the great big men before him; he threads the needle in tight spaces like the elite point guards throughout history. Simmons’s brilliant rookie campaign (which should be enough to earn him Rookie of the Year, despite Donovan Mitchell’s advances) is a perfect cocktail of circumstance: three parts natural talent, two parts players around him, and one part what the defense gives him. It’s this last one that provides the kick. What does the defense give him? An awful lot.

Basketball isn’t played in a vacuum, but Simmons does seem to operate in a physical bubble. His inability to shoot from anywhere beyond 10 feet has gone from worst-kept-secret territory to one of the most apparent truisms in the league today. His outright refusal to shoot from most areas on the court almost scans as a mockery of the modern game: As The Ringer’s Zach Kram pointed out, all 10 of Simmons’s 3-point attempts on the season came on pointless, buzzer-beating heaves at the end of quarters, traveling an average distance of 61.5 feet in the air. To say defenses sag off of him would be to assume that they are ever attached to him in the first place. There will be at least 6 feet between Simmons and his closest defender on nearly every play he initiates. A Martian catching an ESPN broadcast from outer space would wonder why Simmons is the only player in the NBA with an undetectable repulsion field. (Among other things.)

Sagging was supposed to work. A player who can’t shoot, whose driving and passing lanes are cut off, should have nothing to work with. Simmons should have hit the rookie wall hard. Instead, he’s become even more efficient in the second half of the season than the first. Since the All-Star break, he’s averaging 14.1 points (on 56.9 percent shooting), 8.6 rebounds, and 10.1 assists. He’s had as many triple-doubles in the past two weeks (four) as he did in the previous three months. Simmons has come to understand the way defenses gear up for him. He’s turned the conventional wisdoms about himself into a mind game for his opponents. In other words, Simmons knows you know he can’t shoot, and to take advantage of that perception in the interim, he’s leaned even further into the bit:

On one play in Philadelphia’s blowout win over Minnesota on Saturday, Simmons just … stopped. For nearly three beats, he stood still at the free throw line, with every other Sixer sprawled out behind the arc. Three months ago, Simmons might’ve tried to bust through Jamal Crawford’s helpside swipe and turn the corner hard on Gorgui Dieng, who dropped back exactly as he was told to. And, to be honest, that probably would’ve been the right move in this scenario, too. Instead, he brandished his own unwillingness to shoot by faking an impossible handoff, then faking a tight squeeze of a pass to Justin Anderson, who was running a decoy cut. Frankly, it was a mess of a play that should not have netted two points, but it was also hilarious—a cheeky showing from a creative player testing the limits of a defensive philosophy improbably built around his own faults.

The bubble that defenses encase him in has been weaponized. It manifests in different ways, but my favorite way Simmons leverages his body and unique skill set is in transition. Every once in a while, instead of darting straight to the basket, he will angle himself toward his trailer as though he’s going to run into his own player, creating a bottleneck effect in the defense right as he makes the pass:

The misdirection allows Simmons to take full advantage of his reality as a 6-foot-10 point guard, using his immense frame as a sort of pseudo screen that forces defenses to slow down and move away from the actual target:

No full-time point guard in NBA history has been as tall as Simmons. Over the past five months, we’ve borne witness to a player slowly but surely learning new ways a position can be played.

Simmons was 15 years old the first time I watched him play. He was one of the headliners of Team Australia opposite a 17-year-old Dante Exum at the 2012 Adidas Nations tournament held in a high school gym in Long Beach, California. Exum was the standout then—he was the team’s leading scorer and playmaker, only a month removed from his breakout performance in the 2012 FIBA U-17 World Championship—but it was Simmons who drew most of the buzz around the gym. Simmons was 6-foot-8 then, a cherubic giant still housing some leftover baby fat. He was an athlete, for sure. He had a handful of eye-opening blocks. He had impressive ball-handling skills—facing up and creating his own shot from behind the 3-point line, making some nifty passes—but I remember being more impressed by his agility in the post, the way he was able to use his nascent athleticism over less-coordinated big men. I thought he’d make an excellent power forward one day.

There are precedents for the tall, omnipositional playmaker that Simmons is, but few, if any, in the past 25 years have been given as much freedom from the jump. Simmons’s ROY-caliber season is a product of nature and nurture—an upbringing that encouraged him to do more than what was expected of someone his size, and a coach who saw something intrinsically unique about his demeanor on the court. In an early-season profile of Simmons, Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins recounts a conversation Sixers coach Brett Brown had with Simmons’s father, David. “I think he’s a point guard,” Brown said to David. “Has he ever done that before?”

By Basketball-Reference’s on-court estimates, Simmons has been exclusively used as a backcourt player for Philly, which has secured its first playoff berth in six years and has an inside track on home-court advantage in the first round. The domino effect of playing a tall, hypermobile athlete at point guard extends far beyond the Sixers offense. It has, in conjunction with Joel Embiid’s healthy season, transformed an already hard-working defense into something elite. The apathy he displayed at LSU is a thing of the past; Simmons has become a hound who can be deployed in an endless array of assignments. He’s strong enough to handle most players in the post, and he can close out on smaller point guards without any trouble. He can switch onto just about any player. He has a nose for the ball and is second in the NBA in loose balls recovered, trailing only Russell Westbrook. He has a defensive real plus-minus that would rate favorably across any position 1 through 4. There are 11 three-man units (who have played at least 800 minutes this season) that allow fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions; seven of them are Sixers lineups, and six of them involve Simmons. In all of his unorthodoxy, Simmons is unquestionably the most well-rounded rookie in what could be a landmark rookie class. This is what that looks like:

Stylistically, the comparisons to LeBron James and Magic Johnson are inevitable. After all, these are the greats whose records are being threatened by the young Aussie. But the way in which Simmons is defended is unlike all but one starting ball handler in the league, a player who had at one time exemplified the same joy that Simmons evokes today. Ten years ago, Rajon Rondo went from being a young placeholder in the Celtics’ starting lineup to being the primary caretaker of three Hall of Famers, maximizing their talent with his own off-kilter logic. He was also a master of angles. He also could not shoot to save his life. He also might be too much of a smart aleck for his own good. But for a time, it didn’t matter. He was consistently the most captivating figure on the court. Rondo presented himself as avant-garde art theory. He was a perversion of the pure point guard trope, taking the position’s statistical foundation (assists), and accumulating them in a less-than-archetypal way (selfishly). Rondo may have been consumed with outsmarting the league by playing a game within the game, but at his peak, he won at both. Simmons takes all of Rondo’s pros and cons and stretches them out to an extreme. The way his career has played out has turned the Rondo-Simmons comparisons into a pejorative punch line. But Simmons is still riding a wave of nearly unprecedented success. We’ll catch up to his faults when the league does.