Ben Simmons inspires equal amounts of wonder and frustration. How can a player so creative be so demure when it comes to taking jump shots? How can his game have improved to All-Star levels while his shooting stroke would make most basketball camp coaches wince? The Sixers phenom is often compared to Magic Johnson, and understandably so. He’s a jumbo-size point guard who dazzles with his playmaking and open-floor scoring. Johnson was able to thrive early in his career without a jumper, and Simmons is following suit. After a season at LSU and a redshirt first NBA season recovering from a broken foot, Simmons won Rookie of the Year in 2017-18, and was named to the 2018-19 All-Star team. But what made Magic magic were his playoff heroics. Simmons’s postseason performances have been dotted by some emphatic duds.
Against the Celtics last year, Simmons was contained in transition and invisible in the half court; at one point, he was even benched for his backup, T.J. McConnell. After the first game of Philly’s opening-round matchup against Brooklyn this season, the song sounded the same. Then in Game 2 on Monday night, a dominant 145-123 win for the Sixers, he shined on the break and sparkled in the half court, finishing with 18 points, 12 assists, and 10 rebounds. This is what Simmons looks like when he plays with urgency and Brett Brown adds a sprinkle of creative coaching. It was a welcome respite from the dark clouds hovering over his postseason game. The regular season shows us how good he already is, but tough playoff opponents have revealed how low his ceiling can be.
In the Sixers’ half-court sets, Simmons typically initiates the offense then heads to the baseline, where he stands around and occasionally wrestles with opponents, clogging the lane for his teammates. In the two clips below, Simmons loiters without the ball, allowing his defender to either double someone else or serve as a second rim protector.
Simmons’s inactivity isn’t necessarily his fault; it’s a convergence of situational factors that work against him, all out of his control, from his coach’s system to his subpar-shooting teammates to the rapidly shifting nature of the game. The NBA has drastically changed since Magic was winning titles with the Lakers in the 1980s, when these particular weaknesses were less detrimental. Shooting is now a requirement across all positions; if a player can’t shoot, defenses won’t respect him.
When a player is as good as Simmons, on a team with as much potential as the Sixers, it’s easy for expectations to get inflated. Remember: Simmons is 22 years old and this is just his second real season of pro ball. He’s also already improved on some flaws, such as drawing fouls on drives and post-ups, while his defense has come a long way since college. Simmons is one of the game’s most versatile defenders, capable of holding his own against bruising bigs, keeping up with speedy guards, and putting in a shift with everyone in between. Though Simmons could help himself by consistently busting his butt on defense, he’s already one of the league’s best defending across positions. And his shot won’t develop overnight; after all, Johnson couldn’t consistently hit midrange jumpers until the mid-1980s. Once Johnson could make defenders pay, it opened up his scoring and made life easier on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Maybe someday Simmons will be able to do the same for Joel Embiid, but in the meantime, Brown’s coaching staff needs to work with what they have. Shooting matters, but it isn’t everything. The Sixers need only to look around the NBA to find better ways to maximize Simmons as he develops.
The best way to utilize a nonshooter is to make him a screener, but the Sixers don’t run much pick-and-roll. Simmons scored an excellent 1.2 points per shot when screening and rolling, but according to Synergy Sports he logged only 13 such possessions—fewer total than two Sixers backup centers, Amir Johnson and Boban Marjanovic. Only 19.3 percent of Philadelphia’s regular-season possessions finished with the pick-and-roll, the second-lowest figure in the NBA, per Synergy. Philly has personnel issues that make it challenging to run a heavy pick-and-roll system like, say, that of the Utah Jazz or the L.A. Clippers. Regardless of what you blame—the system or the roster, which includes ineffective shooters such as McConnell, Embiid, and Jonathon Simmons—it’s unfortunate that a talent like Simmons isn’t empowered as a screener.
Consider his passing vision: Why not let him pick apart defenses on the roll like Draymond Green or Nikola Jokic?
Consider his athleticism: Could he not score with finesse and power like Giannis Antetokounmpo or a vintage Blake Griffin?
Antetokounmpo will likely be named NBA MVP despite shooting only 29 percent on shots outside the paint. Jokic is the heartbeat of Denver’s offense despite draining just 30.7 percent of his 3s. Green makes up for his offensive deficiencies by screening, cutting, and locking in on defense. Griffin once thrived by playing off of others in the half court. The blueprint is out there for Simmons. So how in the world is a 6-foot-10 playmaker in a positionless league with talented teammates relegated to the dunker’s spot like he’s Jahlil Okafor?
Now that Simmons is playing with more pick-and-roll-friendly weapons like Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, there should be no more excuses. Butler is one of the league’s most threatening pick-and-roll attackers, and Harris ranked as one of the most efficient scorers during his Clippers and Pistons tenures. JJ Redick can handle the ball, too: Redick and Simmons have two-man-game chemistry in numerous dribble-handoff actions, but they rarely run pick-and-roll despite Redick’s ability to accurately hit the roll man.
The few times the Sixers did run pick-and-roll with Simmons as the screener in Game 1 against Brooklyn, it worked well. Toward the end of the first half, Simmons screened twice for Butler, resulting in Butler’s driving once on Jared Dudley and unleashing a 3 another time when Dudley and DeMarre Carroll failed to switch. Philadelphia didn’t effectively run it again, as it lost 111-102. Game 2 was a different story.
Simmons was energized out of the gate on Monday night, penetrating Brooklyn’s transition defense and aggressively dribbling into post-ups. In the half court, the Sixers ran a handful more ball screens using Simmons. One of them worked beautifully with Redick delivering the ball to Simmons on the short roll. Nets center Jarrett Allen was forced to rotate over, and Simmons found Boban for a dunk.
There’s naturally a concern that using Simmons as a screener makes Embiid a bystander, but he doesn’t have to be. The Sixers experimented in the preseason with stagger screens that sent Simmons rolling to the rim and Embiid popping for 3. Markelle Fultz usually handled the ball in those sets; now they have two obvious upgrades in Harris and Butler, but they’ve gone away from utilizing a set that could be difficult to defend. Even if Embiid were in the dunker’s spot, like Simmons often is or Boban is in the clip above, he can present more value as a devastating finisher and rebounder to create second chances, while Simmons is a more dynamic roller.
The Nets might not be the stiffest challenge against the Sixers. They’re an undersized, less talented opponent. Future matchups, like the Raptors in the second round or the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals, would be more problematic. At some point, the Sixers will need to run more pick-and-rolls and isolations while Simmons is on the floor. The Sixers have run slightly more on-ball screens since Butler aired his complaints about the offensive system earlier this year, but what’s changed most is who gets touches at the end of games. Ever since Butler was acquired, Simmons has seen his usage decline each quarter, from 24.4 in the first frame to 17.6 in the fourth. Meanwhile, Butler’s usage has increased from 18.8 in the first to 27.7 in the fourth. The difference could be more significant in a deep playoff series against a better opponent when the game slows down, and pick-and-rolls and isolations become a necessity for each team to employ. For Philadelphia to thrive late in those games, it must optimize Simmons.
What’s frustrating now is that the Sixers know Simmons is capable of more impactful screening because they’ve invested time in improving the skill. Simmons entered the NBA a sloppy screener after one year in college, but now sets fundamental picks with contact that knock opponents off their path. It just mostly manifests off the ball, where Brown installed set plays that send Simmons soaring toward the rim for lob dunks. Philly has merely given us a taste of what Simmons can do in the pick-and-roll; it’s time to stop teasing.
Simmons is such a dynamic player, it might come as a surprise that he’s less effective as the pick-and-roll ball handler. This is where his Achilles’ heel jump shot comes into play: Defenders can sag in the paint, knowing he won’t and can’t shoot from the perimeter. In Game 2 against the Nets, the Sixers did a far better job of attacking this style of defense by setting screens closer to the rim.
In the play above, Simmons attacks as Butler screens Simmons’s defender, Treveon Graham, smack in the middle of the paint. Simmons is able to get to his natural hand for the bucket. Philadelphia pulled the same trick a few possessions later. Normally, the screener in this scenario would be Redick, who is a tough cover since he can pop for off-balance 3s, and he’s such a threat that defenders can’t sag off of him. It’s an unorthodox approach for an unorthodox player in Simmons, but isn’t necessity supposedly the mother of invention?
Simmons’s usage calls to mind how the Clippers once used Blake Griffin with DeAndre Jordan. Doc Rivers had to get creative with two bigs who couldn’t shoot 3s (at the time), so Jordan would occasionally set screens for Griffin at the elbow—sometimes Redick would, too. That action opened driving lanes for Griffin, or if the defender committed to him, it led to lobs to Jordan. The Sixers have taken a page out of the Lob City playbook, occasionally screening for Simmons with a wing like Butler or Redick, or with Embiid at the elbow or baseline.
Philly hasn’t utilized this so far in the playoffs, but it’s one way for the Sixers to leverage their size advantage moving forward. Instead of trying to be something they aren’t, they could always play the classics.
Speaking of being something he’s not, let’s address the elephant in the room: Ben Simmons’s nonexistent jumper. There will come a time when Simmons will need to shoot, even at an average level like Embiid, just to keep defenses honest. At this stage, that just doesn’t seem to be an option. Simmons is a reluctant shooter from anywhere outside the paint, with an allergy for 3-pointers. He’s a right-hand-dominant player who shoots jumpers and free throws with his left hand; over 70 percent of his layups, floaters, and post-ups are released with his right hand. In Game 2, all eight of his made field goals came off his right hand. Notice in the clips below how he uses his right hand regardless of the shot type.
We’ve been through this before. This case is closed. The Sixers are aware: There’s video evidence of Sixers shooting coach John Townsend having Simmons practice shooting free throws with his right hand before a game in November 2017. Brown told me before a Sixers game against the Clippers earlier this season that he doesn’t buy into the idea that Simmons needs to switch hands, dismissing the importance of that right-handed practice session. It’s not like he’d publicly say it anyway. Brown did admit there’s “confliction” with his handedness, since he throws American footballs right-handed and kicks Aussie footballs with his right foot.
Brown said he believed Simmons will incrementally embrace shooting as time passes and it’d be “ambitious” for a hand switch to be part of the solution. Of course it would: Tristan Thompson and Nate Britt are only two of the few players known to have switched hands. It would take a lot of courage to do it, but maybe it wouldn’t be so hard for him since he’s already more comfortable using his right.
“He is only 22 years old and has had success in a bunch of other ways without having to shoot,” Brown said. “But I’ve said many times that we are not gonna get where we want to go unless he does.”
Simmons will probably never be more than an average shooter. Even with his right hand, his touch is only good, not great. And he’s a subpar free throw shooter with his left hand, at 58.3 percent for his career. But as Brown said, Simmons does need to shoot, even if just at a passable level. Simmons is already an All-Star who’s enhanced his strengths and improved his weaknesses.
Think about that: Simmons is already this good without the safety blanket of a reliable outside shot. The question—one that will be asked over and over again throughout these playoffs—is: How good can his team be if that’s who he is? We know he can physically dominate most of the defenders who try to mark him. We know he can make blind, psychic passes that no one else can see. But what happens when the game is close, when time is tight? Is he a playmaker or a passenger? Can he still be an offensive threat without a complete offensive game? The answers are going to come fast, and what Philly does with that information will be fascinating.