The path to NBA stardom for Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo could not have been any more different.
The Australian blazed his way through high school, before taking the NCAA college system by storm as an eventual consensus No. 1 overall pick, and drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Antetokounmpo on the other hand, was a late entrant to the basketball scene. He honed his craft while selling sunglasses on the streets of Greece, to help his family put food on the table. Antetokounmpo was eventually plucked out of obscurity by the Milwaukee Bucks, who selected him with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 draft right out of the A2 league, Greece's second tier of domestic professional basketball.
Last week, Simmons' 76ers made the trip to the sparkling new Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee to take the Bucks on. There was a palpable air of excitement within the arena, as fans waited for a matchup between two of the league’s most entertaining players.
While Simmons continues to find his standing among the league’s top ranks, Antetokounmpo, who is affectionately known as the “Greek Freak”, has already cemented his place. A legitimate MVP candidate heading into the season, Antetokounmpo is suddenly a veteran with six years under his belt year six in North America. It has been time well spent, too, as he looks ready to destroy the league.
Despite their wildly different paths to the NBA, Antetokounmpo and Simmons are game-altering talents, in their own unique ways. They are far removed from the textbook NBA prototypes of 2018. These two assert their dominance by handling the ball, working their way to their spots with a mix of speed, grace, and unquestionable physicality.
The knock on both players, and certainly more so with Simmons, is their jump shot – or lack thereof.
Prior to the contest with Philadelphia, The Pick and Roll asked Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer about the importance of both players adding outside shooting to their repertoire, as opposed to surrounding them with players that help highlight their existing strengths even further.
"I’ll speak to how important it is with Giannis who has put a lot of time in with his shooting," Budenholzer responded.
"We’re encouraging it. It’s only going to make him harder to guard, more dynamic, more special. If you are in our seats, and our shoes, then Giannis getting even better is exciting for us to think about, so we’re going to continue to push it every day and every night.
"I’m sure [with Simmons], [the Sixers] have a game plan for how he’s going to grow and develop."
Gaining a jump shot will be nothing short of transformative for Simmons. It's been illustrative to see how the introduction of proper floor spacing around Antetokounmpo, through the addition of perimeter threats, has allowed the Greek superstar to find unfettered room to operate.
For Simmons, this luxury is not available in Philadelphia. Losing Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli in free agency was an unquestioned blow for Brett Brown's squad, as both helped unlock the Sixers offence down the stretch last year.
Speaking before the Bucks-Sixers contest, Ilyasova, now playing for Milwaukee, spoke to his initial reactions on working with Simmons last season.
“I didn’t really expect it from him, but the way he plays is really mature,” Ilyasova said.
“Obviously last year was his first year, but the way he played and his IQ for the game is really high. He really kind of pushes everybody and makes everybody better so he’s tough to stop.
“He’s the head of the snake so we know to slow the offence down. We have stop him in transition because he’s going to push the ball and look to pass it off.”
Facing the Bucks, ‘the head of the snake’ was often presented with defensive groups packing the paint, designed to limit the effectiveness of that relentless transition attack Ilyasova spoke of. Giannis was joined by Ersan and either Brook Lopez or John Henson on multiple occasions, giving the Bucks three bodies, 6-foot-10 or above, in an attempt to get the ball out of Simmons' hands.
Early in the season, it appears Simmons is still reluctant to expand his game beyond 5 feet, with his willingness to get to his sweet spot unrelenting. The play below is a perfect illustration of how the opposition are able to project what both Simmons and the Sixers are going to do.
The Philadelphia offence primarily begins with Simmons and Joel Embiid. On this play, both players are afforded plenty of room on the perimeter for an open look if they so choose, but predictably, both attempt to drive through the waiting defence.
When Embiid is walled off by Lopez and Antetokounmpo, he kicks it out to Simmons, who is left with an absurd amount of room to make a play. In fact, the Bucks defenders don’t even approach Simmons at the free throw line, Rather than pull up for a shot, Simmons attempts to split multiple Bucks defenders at the rim, with predictable results.
It’s this type of play that leaves Simmons a polarizing figure among NBA fans. A key storyline over the summer was the expansion of his offensive presence from beyond five feet, and thus far, it’s been the opposite.
According to NBA.com stats, Simmons has made 60 field goal attempts, with 46 of those coming from within five feet. That accounts for a staggering 76 percent of his attempts, which is a significant leap from the 58.1 percent through the 2017-18 season. Compounding the concerns, is the fact that Simmons is making only 50 percent of those close-range attempts, well down on the elite 69.3 percent from a season ago.
Simmons racked up a triple-double against the Bucks, but his scoring proved ineffective, finishing 6-for-15 from the floor. After the game, The Pick and Roll asked Brett Brown about the monstrous defensive lineups Simmons was confronted with.
“It’s a copycat league. That’s what the Celtics did in the Eastern Conference semis and that’s what my good friend, the coach of the team here in Milwaukee scouts and sees,” Brown commented.
“That’s part of Ben’s growth, trying to navigate that type of crowd when it’s more of a static game. You see his breakaway speed and when it’s fast he shines. He’s our Giannis and Giannis is their Ben. They’re very similar in how they play with their breakaway speed. That’s how the league guards both of those players.”
While the comparison with Antetokounmpo is certainly legitimate, Simmons will need to adapt his game and continue to show signs of growth in a similar way to the Bucks star, in order to avoid becoming too predictable. Make no mistake, Antetokounmpo still makes bread in the restricted area, with 63 percent of his attempts coming within five feet so far this season, but his willingness to let it fly from the mid-range and beyond, regardless of result, presents the unpredictability required to keep the defense on edge.
One figure with a vested interest in both stars is Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova, who has been able to work in close proximity with both players and described the similarities he sees between the two unicorns.
“They both can overpower the opposition with their strength, athleticism and size for their position,” Dellavedova said. “They’re both so young, but you can tell from the passes they make that their IQ and the way they see the floor is on another level.”
Given how dominant Simmons has been at times, it’s often easy to forget Dellavedova’s point: Ben Simmons is just 22 years old. While it can be easy to criticize the areas of the game he hasn’t yet developed, it should not be lost that his professional career is still in its infancy, as he has yet to play 100 regular season NBA games.
Despite his relative inexperience, Simmons is a fierce competitor and a definitive leader in the locker room, one who drives his team to be better. This was never more evident than in the deathly quiet visitors’ locker room, where a certifiably frustrated Simmons gave a terse response to my question about the matchup with Antetokounmpo.
“I feel like I should have been on him the whole time,” Simmons remarked.
It was an insight into Simmons’ competitiveness. He actively wanted to face Antetokounmpo, a terrifying assignment for your everyday NBA player. While Antetokounmpo put up a ridiculous line of 32 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals, you could at least argue that Simmons had a point, as he actually fared quite well when the two went head-to-head.
Despite giving up an inch in height to Antetokounmpo, Simmons is one of the rare players around the league that has the speed, strength and athleticism to compete with Antetokounmpo, and the play above illustrates his elite anticipation on that end. While Saric provides help late on the play, the fact that Simmons is able to hold his ground is more than what anyone else on the Sixers could claim for the night.
Overall, it’s been a challenging start to the 2018/19 season for the future Boomers star. After a year of startling rookie performances, he needs to react and adjust to the league plotting their entire scheme around slowing him down.
Brown isn’t concerned, and neither is Simmons. It’s going to be interesting however, to track the path of Simmons in relation to Antetokounmpo. Whether or not he is able to continue to diversify his game moving forward in the same vein as the Greek Freak will determine his ceiling as an MVP-level talent, rather than just the All-Star calibre player he already appears to be.
Both Milwaukee and Philadelphia expect to contend in the Eastern conference this season, and through those expectations a healthy rivalry is bubbling under the surface. One gets the feeling they enjoy squaring off against each other. Don't underestimate Simmons' comments on defending Giannis as a throwaway line. This is a marquee matchup for the now, as much as it for the future.
For the record, the Bucks and Sixers won't see each other until March 17. Until then, the basketball world will eagerly anticipate the next installment of Simmons v Antetokounmpo.