How Philadel­phia's Ben Sim­mons is mak­ing such an im­pact in the NBA

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Chris De Silva

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

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