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Aussies in NBA: Why Ben Simmons can handle the point
This isn't new: Ben Simmons has been perplexing basketball decision-makers about what exactly his best position is. With the physical dimensions of a power forward, the agility of a small forward and the natural instincts of a point guard, it's a basketball package that could be successful in any position, creating a paradox of choice.
After the Philadelphia 76ers drafted him with the no.1 pick, it's becoming increasingly clear that if Simmons is to become a fully-armed and operational superstar, allowing him to play to his natural basketball instincts gives him his best shot.
Sixers coach Brett Brown first mused over the idea in his post draft interview.
“When you say he’s 6’10”, 245 pounds, and people are guessing what position is he,” Brown told the surrounding media crowd back then. “Normally, you’re going to say that guy is a forward or a center. He’s that versatile where you’ve seen him bring the ball up the floor.
We are at the inception stage of Brett Brown’s wildest dream, and we may have to wait before moving into the dream within the dream - if Brown sticks to his plan.
“I think we’ll start him out as a power forward and let him dribble, let him rebound, lead a break, let him play, let him get out in the open court. But his versatility makes it a real exciting challenge on how best to tap into him,” Brown said.
Brown later explained to NBA.com that there is a clear distinction between point guards and point forwards, and when Simmons' NBA training wheels are removed, he sees him firmly in the camp of the former.
"When I say point guard I mean point guard. You’ve got the ball. You could call him Isiah Thomas, the old Isiah Thomas of my generation. You could call him Chris Paul. I mean point guard point guard. There are times I think that he can be a point guard. Not Draymond Green. Not LeBron. Not Lamar Odom. That’s a point forward."
During Summer League, Simmons spent the majority of his time at point guard and looked increasingly comfortable in the position. He topped the assist averages in Utah and earned All-NBA Summer League First Team honors in Las Vegas.
Currently, the 76ers point guard cupboard is relatively bare; it's stocked with the shoot-first Jarryd Bayless, athletically challenged TJ McConnell and 30 year old flopper who drove a dagger in Australia’s collective hearts Spaniard Sergio Rodriguez, who has been absent from the NBA for six seasons. When you add in the 76ers moving from ‘The Process’ to a wins-driven era, we could see Simmons as the full-time point guard sooner rather than later.
Brown’s former mentor and certified basketball legend Lindsay Gaze, reiterated the belief that Simmons should be viewed on his talents and not his physical profile, telling CSN Philly:
Krešimir Ćosić 1970
“I don't think we should assess Ben as a ‘standard’ small forward,” Gaze said. “In fact I don't think we should assess him as ‘standard’ anything. Ben has guard/playmaking skills which could be exploited, as LSU was able to do to some degree.”
Gaze casually delves into his encyclopaedic knowledge of world basketball to find a suitable comparison for Simmons.
“I think he has the ability to change the game as the great Kresimir Cosic did for the former Yugoslavia.”
The 6’11 Cosic played from the mid 60’s to the early 80’s and starred at BYU in the NCAA. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers AND Portland Trailblazers in successive years but chose to ply his trade in Europe instead. Cosic also has the distinction of having the first basketball mixtape I’ve watched set to classical music.
The main point of Gaze's comparison is, Cosic like Simmons, was somewhat of a basketball unicorn during his era; a guard trapped in the body of a big man who was able to maximise his talent by playing in a style which suited his basketball instincts rather than his physical dimensions.
“Few believed a 212cm player should, or could, play effectively as a guard,” Gaze said. “But he did, and changed the conventional beliefs forever.”
Getting a handle on it
It’s well-documented that Simmons’ creative passing and fluid athleticism are key attributes that would allow him to man the point guard position. Yet there is one skill which doesn’t really get the attention it deserves (at least not explicitly): his elite ball-handling skills.
Simmons has been labelled ‘dynamic with the ball’ by DraftExpress and ‘good ball handler’ from Chad Ford, but I feel these statements don't fully justify what he can do as a dribbler. It’s his ball handling skills that truly allow Simmons to be position-less.
It unlocks every position on the floor for him, rather than just being a slick passing big man. It allows him to get to where he wants on the floor; to bend and probe defenses until they break, exposing passing and scoring opportunities.
The video below highlights various ways Ben Simmons used a variety of moves to penetrate defenses and attack the paint. These ranged from the crossover, to the change of pace dribble, behind the back and more. Many times, the threat of Simmons' rim finishes drew the undivided attention of opposing defenses whilst leading the break, and allowed him to make passes to an unguarded teammate.
It's worth noting that Simmons' passes are often unscripted and seemingly improvised on the go, similar to what we've seen from great passing point guards like Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo and Jason Williams. Again, Simmons would have never been able to thread passes like these, if his handles had not allowed him to exert pressure on the defence.
Although Simmons has shown himself to be an elite dribbler at lower levels, like all rookies he will still need to make adjustments when he begins playing in the pros. Tightening and lowering his dribble will be essential to keep the ball away from leather-thirsty defenders of the NBA, who are as long-limbed as they are athletic.
Few people believed a 6'10 player should, or could play effectively as a point guard. Yet, by being allowed to play to his natural instincts, Simmons looks set to change conventional beliefs forever.