How Philadelphia's Ben Simmons is making such an impact in the NBA
Before Ben Simmons played a single minute of NBA basketball, the comparisons were startling: the young Australian was being talked of as the next LeBron James, Magic Johnson or Oscar Robertson.
In today’s NBA, where many top prospects enter the league with just a solitary year of college basketball, such heady comparisons can often be a death knell. Yet for the special few, the pressure allows them to thrive.
Twelve games into Simmons’ NBA career, being mentioned in the same breath as Hall of Famers does not seem unwarranted.
The most interesting part of Simmons’ hot start to his NBA career isn’t that he has put up gaudy assist numbers, nor that his Philadelphia 76ers have put together a four-game winning streak. It’s that he has been able to have such success early in his career whilst being a non-shooter.
Like the league’s early-season MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, Simmons enters the league in an era where players with his shooting deficiencies rarely thrive.
To say the NBA is trending towards and beyond the three-point line is putting it lightly. Long distance shooting has become synonymous with winning – the best team in the league, the Golden States Warriors, centre their offense around the the three-point arc – and players who cannot extend the floor struggle to get minutes.
Given the trajectory of the league, how has Simmons managed to be so effective?
“Gravity” has become one of the NBA’s most popular buzzwords in the last five years. In basketball, the term refers to the way a defensive player can be pulled around the court. Golden State’s two-time MVP Stephen Curry is arguably the master of gravity due to his otherworldly shooting ability.
Wherever Curry is on the floor – and whether he is on the ball or off it – the entire defense is slanted towards him due to the shooting threat he poses, leaving acres of open space for his team-mates to wreak havoc. Curry’s gravity is how Golden State has been able to scythe through every defensive scheme it has encountered in the past three years.
However, Simmons carries a different type of gravity – gravity when it comes to his passing ability. Simmons’ assist numbers from the forward position are impressive – he is averaging 7.8 per game this season – but what is more impressive is the type of assists he has.
From the moment he stepped onto an NBA court, Simmons has demonstrated the rare ability to make the cross-court pass – with either hand – that James has made his own.
Simmons is averaging 2.05 assists per every turnover he makes which is extremely impressive given the types of passes he makes. Not only is he generating excellent looks for his team-mates, but he is taking care of the ball while he does it.
Put Simmons on the floor and he has the ability to find any one of his Sixer team-mates in any spot on the court.
Defenders know this when he is in possession – they cannot leave shooters as a second of hesitation or one misstep will allow Simmons enough time to deliver the perfect pass. Scan through every elite offense in the NBA, and they are unlocked by forwards who are masters of locating perimeter shooters. Simmons and Joel Embiid’s passing ability unlocks Philadelphia’s offense and already the former has put himself in the upper echelons of big man passers.
Without being a shooter, Simmons has done an outstanding job of leveraging the threat of his passing to score. Since defenders are reluctant to leave shooters, they can’t pack the paint as effectively on Simmons’ drives – the normal strategy against a non-shooter – and he has duly taken advantage. Simmons is converting 70% of all shots in the restricted area (0-3 feet from the basket), a number that ranks him among the league’s best.
Another key for a player who is not a prolific shooter is to be a threat off the ball, something Simmons has excelled at so far this season. Simmons’ unique blend of speed and strength at his position makes him a nightmare to defend on the move and he has used his athleticism to become an excellent off-ball scorer for the Sixers.
Simmons has converted a remarkable 69% of all shots where he has received the ball while cutting
to the basket, a number that ranks higher than Kyrie Irving (60%) and Paul George (66%).
When quizzed about just how much more he can improve after Philadelphia’s game against Atlanta earlier in the season , Simmons’ answer suggested he knows the sky is the limit.
“There’s a lot more,” he said. “There’s way more. I mean, I’ve got to keep working hard and stay in the gym but I think in a few years it’s going to be fun.”
His game isn’t by any means perfect. The more game film opposition defenses get a hold of, the harder it will be for Simmons to score. He is still a below average free-throw shooter. But the warts in Simmons’ game are absolutely fixable, and he is far too hard a worker to not improve as a shooter.
But Simmons’ cerebral ability to read the game? That’s something that cannot be taught.
76ers guard Ben Simmons has demonstrated the rare ability to make cross-court passes with either hand. Photograph: Rick Bowmer/AP
Ben Simmons dunks in a pre-season game against the Boston Celtics. Photograph: Winslow Townson/AP