Aussies in NBA: Ben Simmons Season Preview: Summer League Lessons
Ben Simmons was supposed to be leading the Philadelphia 76ers to success this season.
It has been over six months since Adam Silver called his name, and Simmons has yet to grace an NBA court. Potential highlights and growing pains were put on hold the moment Simmons suffered a broken bone in his right foot. Instead, Simmons has been limited to social media shenanigans and confronting documentaries.
All information coming out of Philadelphia is positive, it appears Simmons will make his debut in the coming weeks. This is great news; it allows Australian basketball to dream once more. Simmons could become the first Australian All-Star, he could lead the Sixers in virtually any statistical category you name, he could form a revolutionary frontline with Joel Embiid and he could become a transcendent force. We think, pray and hope these things will happen but truth be told, we just don’t know. That’s the problem with injuries and disappearing from the basketball consciousness; you become an afterthought until you return.
Simmons remains the next great hope of Australian sport. In anticipation of Simmons’ impending NBA debut, it’s worthwhile reviewing the only tangible professional evidence on his resume: NBA Summer League. While the standard caveats regarding opposition quality and sample size apply, summer season is the only place to look for information concerning Simmons’ ability to impact the NBA this year.
How did Simmons look like during Summer League?
He played in six games, averaging 10.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists, shooting 32.2% from the field and missing the one 3-pointer he attempted. Simmons didn’t produce a truly definitive or revolutionary performance by any means. Shooting splits were pedestrian, he occasionally prioritised personal development to the detriment of his team and there was the odd defensive lapse.
In many ways though, none of that matters. Simmons showed glimpses of his pre-draft prophesy and that was enough. Off-the-charts passing, great physical control and basketball intelligence: they were all on display. He showed the ability to serve as lead playmaker of an NBA offence, finding ways to positively impact the Sixers attack by utilising sublime transition skills, threatening in the high post and highlighting sublime passing skills.
The kid is good, and early returns reinforce the hope underpinning Philadelphia 76ers basketball. Given Simmons will be the 16th player born in Australia to play in the NBA, let’s delve a little deeper and use 16 videos to see what we can learn from Simmons’ Summer League performance.
The biggest takeaway from watching Summer League is that Simmons in transition is a Vine waiting to happen.
Whether the Sixers are capable of getting consistent defensive stops that allow Simmons to work in transition is another question, but Philadelphia now has a talented athlete who can create instant offence. The common thread with most highlights we are about to watch is Simmons making great decisions with the basketball, and specifically using his gravity on the court to distract opposition defenders.
Simmons collapses the defence, making offence a walk in the park for his teammates. 76ers’ guards run straight into their respective corners, while Richaun Holmes clears out an additional defender by running to the basket. This might be my favourite Sixers moment from Summer League because it’s so simple yet equally effective. It is akin to how Draymond Green has pushed the tempo for Golden State under Steve Kerr.
There is nothing more dangerous than a forward grabbing a defensive rebound, going straight into a speed dribble and creating great looks for his teammates. Green has the ball-handling ability to bring the basketball up the floor and initiate instant action for the Dubs. Scrambling defenders have trouble locating Golden State’s shrewd arsenal of shooters.
Talent surrounding Simmons in Philadelphia obviously pales to what Green has at his disposal in Golden State. That said, the Australian is already a lethal ball handler and will create good looks right away, regardless of his teammates.
Simmons should be racking up dimes very quickly due to his unique cocktail of size, strength, vision and basketball intelligence.
When forced into half court situations, Simmons continued to terrorise defenders on the perimeter. Routinely matched up against opposition forwards who don’t belong on an NBA court, the number one draft pick was too quick of foot for his opponents. Talent mismatches often allowed the Sixers supporting cast to receive clean looks from Simmons’ penetration. That whole “point guard in a forward's body” reputation was on display.
Again here against Golden State.
There are two ways to look at the above plays. On paper, these are golden plays for an offence. Having the “point guard” creating a wide open look from three point range is the goal of the modern day NBA. However, it’s such an artificial process (insert your Sam Hinkie joke here). I’ve long called plays like the two above contrived offence, because the results are manufactured from the greatness of one individual act and not a fluid offensive system.
Simmons embarrassing D-League talent is one thing, repeating it in the Association against elite opposition cannot be relied upon. This was only Summer League, which means game plans and offensive schemes don’t exist, but I will interested to see if similarly simple possessions persist once Simmons hits the court. They lingered around in Cleveland with our next subject for a very long time.
The LeBron James parallel
Now to the obligatory LeBron James comparisons. There are two situations observed during Summer League that give some validity to the comparison.
First is the idea of Simmons receiving screens from unconventional sources. Philadelphia routinely employed pick and rolls where Simmons was the ball handler and the pick was set by the smallest 76er on the court. It started during the Sixers' first game against Boston and continued all the way through Summer League.
The hope is that opposition defences will switch the pick and roll, allowing Simmons to attack smaller defenders. Once again, it was only Summer League and defensive game plans were anything but robust, yet the intent from Philadelphia is obvious. If you watched any of the NBA Finals last season, this play should look very familiar. It’s the same philosophy that contributed to Steph Curry’s foul trouble in Game 6.
Similarities in tactics are striking and you would expect Brett Brown to utilise similar schemes once Simmons returns to the line-up.
Our second situation takes us into the high post, where Simmons has cleared out his teammates and operates in isolation. In this following highlight, Simmons thoroughly beats his direct opponent, causing the defence to collapse and abandon a weak side shooter.
Simmons commanded the respect given to a dynamic finisher and routinely attracted multiple eyeballs when driving through the defence.
Simmons’ reputation precedes him and is strong enough to collapse the defence with uncanny routine, something James has been able to do for his entire career. Take a look at this play from February 2009 when James and his backup singers were winning 60 games in Cleveland.
Even before James could shoot a strong percentage or make opponents pay in the post, he commanded the defence’s absolute attention at all times. Simmons received similar treatment during Summer League. The Australian’s combination of physical ability and extreme passing talents made him a deadly threat.
Most of Simmons’ damage came in the form of an assist, something NBA scouts will no doubt be aware of. Summer League showed early glimpses of why comparisons to James are appropriate for certain aspects of Simmons’ game. James has become one of the NBA's best post players and uses this to leverage his passing talents. This is one blueprint for how Simmons can harness his extreme passing gift.
Make him beat us from the outside
Given Simmons’ reputation as a reluctant shooter, it’s no surprise we saw many plays like this.
Opposition defenders build a wall around the restricted area and dare Simmons to beat them from the outside. Here is another example from the Lakers game.
Opposition sides didn't respect his shooting ability and packed the paint without hesitation. Simmons is perceived to be a bad outside shooter and it will take sustained evidence to the contrary to win over the collective.
Taking actual ability out of the equation, it’s the perception of being a good shooter that’s equally important for Simmons and his development. If the opposition respects an outside shooter, they will game plan for it, regardless of recent results. Steph Curry could miss his next 400 three point shots and defences will continue to guard him on the perimeter due to his proven reputation. There is clearly a feedback loop here as shooting percentages dictate reputations, but opinions don’t change overnight.
Simmons will invariably start taking these open jumpers, as he did in Summer League against Chicago and Miami, and nothing will change until the ball starts going through the nylon. He must show marksmanship before opposition teams get concerned with him taking jump shots.
This doesn’t speak to what Simmons can become as a shooter, there is no reason to doubt a jump shot developing with time. All the same, such obvious early returns show below average shooting skills could be a problem for the Sixers offence in year one. A clear work around is getting Simmons to run Philly's attack and this is something Brown has already flagged. Placing the basketball in Simmons’ hands will increase the pressure on opposition defenders and allow him to take advantage of any defensive miscues.
A lackadaisical defensive effort from Spencer Dinwiddie makes this a virtual one-on-one, leaving Cristiano Felício on an island and opens the door for Simmons to put his immense talents on display. NBA defenders will be more alert to plays like this once scouting reports are established.
If Philadelphia can surround Simmons with any semblance of outside shooting, the threat might be enough to draw out opposition defenders enough to create space.
* * *
While it was only six games during the NBA's silly season, there are early signs of greatness from the the Sixers' biggest investment in 20 years. Watching Ben Simmons play in Summer League gave me flashbacks to Daisy Ridley’s character at the beginning of The Force Awakens. Nothing much makes sense just yet, but superstardom is lurking over the horizon if the force can be harnessed.