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Can Ben Simmons dominate the NBA? Lessons from the preseason
If the NBA preseason is anything to go by, Ben Simmons is going to provide plenty of entertainment during his rookie campaign.
Simmons played in all five of the Sixers preseason games, posting averages of 11.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.4 assists in 22.8 minutes per contest. He was the Sixers lead ball handler for the majority of his minutes.
From the very first game against Memphis, where Simmons was announced as the starting point guard, it was clear he would dominate the basketball. Even when sharing the court with fellow rookie, Markelle Fultz, it was abundantly clear the Australian was in control, with the former Washington Huskie playing the role of sidekick.
As we explained last month, Fultz’s talents complement those of Simmons. While the two only shared the court for limited minutes, there were early signs of a burgeoning marriage.
Any concerns over who would be leading Brett Brown’s offence have already been put to bed. Simmons is leading the way and Fultz, like the remainder of Philadelphia’s guards, has been relegated down the pecking order. Don’t expect this to cause issues, however, as Simmons upheld his reputation as a willing passer during the practice circuit. This was true across every aspect of offence. Whether it was transition, half court sets, or even when nobody in their right mind would expect a pass; Simmons always has his head up.
While he grew more aggressive as the preseason wore on, highlighted by a 19 point scoring outburst against the Miami Heat, passing was the bedrock of Simmons’ game. He remained a reluctant shooter, only attempting six field goals from outside of 10 feet (we will have more on this later), and often sacrificed ambitions of personal buckets to set up those around him.
Simmons’ movement, both with ball and body, keeps all four teammates engaged on offence. His tally of 27 assists across the five games grossly undersells the impact of his passing. Assist numbers will naturally fluctuate given they are interdependent with those around him. The Sixers are improved over seasons past, although there will be stretches where Simmons is surrounded by limited offensive players.
This was seen during the third quarter of Philadelphia’s third preseason game in Boston. In a six-minute stretch, Simmons created (by my count) seven clean looks for his teammates. All were either missed or resulted in shooting fouls. Advanced metrics like usage rate or assist rate can’t fully recognise his impact.
Leveraging those around him
Concerns over surrounding talent should be levitated once the regular season begins and optimal rotations see Simmons play alongside Philadelphia’s elite. With Joel Embiid only playing 29 minutes across two preseason games, and Fultz being held out of the final two contests, we still don’t know what the complete roster looks like.
While the sample size we do have is incredibly small, and any observations are compromised by the standard caveats of preseason, there were glimpses of synergetic relationships that could elevate Simmons’ talents.
My first takeaway is that J.J. Redick is going to love playing alongside Simmons. The pair showed early glimpses of a lethal transition combination.
Redick, an elite shooter, is an expert at finding gaps in the defence and aligning himself in dangerous shooting positions. This presents a terrifying threat for opposition coaches, while simultaneously granting Simmons a specialist running mate. Redick has a knack of setting his feet beyond the three-point line and launching with trademark accuracy. Not since Ray Allen has someone been so proficient in this field.
Redick’s role in the half court offence is more nuanced, although his constant movement and willingness to cut hard without the ball creates gravity for the attack. This is especially valuable in situations where Simmons’ lack of shooting could otherwise compromise fluidity and ball movement. Redick’s range is one patch for Simmons’ outside struggles, as is placing the Australian in the post.
On this play, Simmons is operating in the post, while Embiid spaces the floor in an inverted set. Redick starts in the weak side corner, before curling around two screens. He pops open with a clear driving lane and Simmons hits him in stride.
Yes, Redick misses the shot, but the takeaway here is how the defence separated like the Red Sea. Simmons is comfortable operating from the high post – something we have previously explored – and can easily hit slashing guards in spread offensive alignments.
Simmons aggressively chased post position throughout the preseason. Philadelphia’s offence routinely ran misdirection sets that begun with Simmons initiating the offence, making a quick dribble hand off, and then sprinting into post position on the weak aside. Here is one such example.
One improvement area for Simmons is maintaining post position. Opposition defenders would belligerently fight for space down low, with the Australian occasionally being displaced from his in initial area. His post stance can be flatfooted at times.
Whether that entry pass should have been thrown is a valid question, but Simmons must learn to maintain the space his gaudy athletic talents facilitate. We are nitpicking a little here, as Simmons did show great intelligence in the post. He was often too quick of foot for opponents, and even when disrupted, he was too wily for most.
Quincy Acy does a great job of pushing Simmons away from a deep seal. He correctly forces Simmons away from the basket, although he cannot deter the Australian’s size for an entire possession. The rookie’s 214 centimetre wingspan is greatly beneficial in these settings.
The power of Embiid cannot be ignored. He is a seven foot monster who can space the floor and deliver competent entry passes to Simmons. The Process is an extraterrestrial! Much to the chagrin of Hassan Whiteside, we should all be praying that Embiid stays healthy. As outsiders go, Australian basketball has as much invested in Embiid as anyone, as he can significantly boost Simmons’ ability to show off.
Before we pivot into Simmons’ other talents, I just wanted to highlight this horns action with Embiid and Covington.
Simmons and Embiid garner so much attention, and Covington is freed for a ridiculously easy shot. The action is a staple of modern NBA offences and there are no exotic wrinkles to explain. This is just two MVP calibre talents manipulating and stretching defences. Simple is always beautiful.
Half court weaknesses
The limitations of Simmons’ game are most striking in half court settings. Defences can retreat and shift the paradigm by attacking his unproven shooting talents.
The Grizzlies wall off the paint, a tactic routinely used against Simmons during his lone Summer League campaign. Opponents don’t care how much free space is available on the outside, as clogging driving lanes is the only thing that matters. Memphis’ conservative habits treated them well in transition situations that Simmons would normally dominate.
This matchup against the Grizzlies was the Sixers first game of the preseason. Simmons looked more comfortable with each passing game and playing at pace was a key reason why. Philadelphia led the NBA in pace during the preseason, with the speed rising even further with Simmons on the floor.
Attacking early, and decisively, is the best preventative measure against Simmons’ obvious flaw. A lack of outside shooting is the pimple in his otherwise beautiful skillset. Opponents will continue picking at it until they are punished for leaving the Australian alone on the perimeter.
Early offence will facilitate opportunities closer to the basket, against more favourable match-ups no less. Opposed by smaller Celtics line-ups, Simmons was attacking with an accelerated purpose, even looking to attack after made opposition baskets.
This remains the bread and butter of Simmons’ arsenal. He is a one man fast break waiting to happen, ready to explode like a jack-in-the-box. Simmons routinely makes great decisions with the basketball, and leverages his gravity to distract opposition defenders. Here, each retreating Celtic is keyed in on the rookie, leaving Dario Saric wide open from above the arc.
The common thread in most Simmons related highlights is relentless pace. Expect more of the same during the season proper, as pushing the tempo also eliminates time for Simmons to overthink his Achilles Heel.
You could literally see his mind racing. The intuitive splendour that characterises his game was replaced with one of the ugliest attempts you will ever see.
Simmons is a relucent shooter at the best of times and this tendency only accelerates when away from the basket. He attempted 49 field goals during preseason. According to NBA.com’s shot tracking metrics, 88 percent of these came inside of 10 feet. Simmons didn’t attempt a single three pointer. Whether he can convert from long range remains a mute point, as Simmons didn’t look remotely interested in doing so.
In the above clip, the Sixers are moving the basketball with flamboyant ease and have a retreating defence beat. The ball swings to Simmons and he should be wide open for a three point attempt. Virtually every non center in the NBA would be spotting up and taking this shot. Instead, Simmons’ instincts draw him inside the arc. He is on the move even before the basketball arrives, and subsequently attempts an unrealistic finish through Timofey Mozgov.
Even for below average shooters, a wide open three is a significantly better look than what Simmons struggled through against Mozgov.
The most insightful defensive stretch of Simmons’ preseason came during the third quarter of game one against Boston. For a six minute stretch, he was responsible for guarding Kyrie Irving. These were the first, and only minutes, spent in direct opposition of an elite ball handler.
Challenged by the assignment, Simmons’ defensive energy clearly lifted and so too did his output. When Irving had the basketball, he was light on his feet, often emphasising his length advantage and funnelling Irving into the midrange. His wingspan can be a disruptive force against smaller guards, something Jeremy Lin found out very quickly.
In pure ‘on ball’ settings, the early returns were promising. Simmons showed flashes of the versatility that could make him an elite defender across every position. While most of his minutes were spent guarding the opposition’s more benign forward, there was time spent guarding opponents of all shapes and sizes. He comfortably defended Kelly Olynyk during the Sixers last preseason game.
Things were more complicated away from the basketball, as rookie mistakes – things like ball watching and failing lunges disguised as help defence - often found Simmons in no man’s land. Mistakes like these should be ironed out with experience, with mental mishaps replaced with crisp rotations.
This one play alone draws connotations to Draymond Green. The reigning defensive player of the year does this with regularity. Repetition is Simmons’ challenge as he seeks to reach his defensive ceiling.
Ben Simmons is finally at the starting gate. An NBA debut is beckoning and he is ready for the challenge.
“I know how great I can be,” Simmons said at media day. “It’s gonna take a lot of work, a lot of time. I’m gonna fail and succeed. But I’m looking forward to it.”
Simmons flashed his almighty potential during the preseason. The NBA is now on notice.
“Oh my god,” David Fizdale, head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, proclaimed after playing against Simmons. “I don’t want to see that for the next 15 years.”
I dont know about you, but I couldn’t disagree more with coach. Another 15 years will do nicely.