Before delving into the body of this piece let’s wind the clock back 17 months and consider context as far as draft evaluation insights and takeaways are concerned. On one hand we have a 6-foot-10, 240 pound dynamic athlete with a great frame, plus first step, rare movement skills for his size, coordination, an incredibly high IQ/court awareness, big man defense (in space and rebounding) and the skill to match via handle and passing. On the other, we have a potential non-shooter (meaning “he needs the ball”), a so-so effort defender in a college environment not conducive to extracting plus effort, and reported character concerns. It’s truly fascinating how the narrative seemed to stray so far towards framing Ben Simmons as a “risky player to build around” when the conversation *should* have revolved more centrally on “if this player hits isn’t he *exactly* the kind of player you want to build around?”
The Ben Simmons draft captured so many prominent draft talking-points from risk assessment to team building strategies, but the two most captivating for me looking back on the class now are 1) the importance of valuing what a player *can* do versus what they *can’t* do when that player has very strong, translatable traits (despite even glaring weaknesses) and 2) the value a potential high-level initiator in today’s NBA.
The reason I led with this sentiment is that Simmons is proving both draft points correct thus far in his career. Insert whatever superlative stat or accomplishment you wish to sum up Simmons’ white hot start. This one will do.
Ben Simmons has 178 points, 101 rebounds and 80 assists through 10 games. Basketball-Reference's Player Game Finder tracks back to 1983-84. Simmons is the first player in the database to accumulate all those numbers in his first 10 career NBA games.
— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) November 8, 2017
To even those who were high on Ben (for transparency I had him the clear #1 as the best size/athleticism/passing prospect since LeBron, not the best prospect since LeBron) his start to the season has likely surpassed expectations. He lost some prospect momentum after losing a season due to injury and people forgetting what a special (and somewhat divisive) player he is. I think it’s safe to say he’s not slipping through the cracks anymore as not only a superstar caliber prospect, but a rare impact rookie.
In terms of assessing impact, I’m of the opinion that you have to evaluate rookies on a different scale than how we typically assess NBA players in the standard usage and efficiency context. For rookies, efficiency rarely applies to my calculus in an absolute sense, especially for lead ball handlers (lead guards and initiators), because rarely do 19-20 year-olds create offense for themselves and/or for others efficiently in a high usage setting (more on this to come in the future). It’s just much more challenging than being a situational energy big or a spot up shooter right away. Hell, creation is a challenging task for quality veterans, and the transition from college creation to NBA creation in a faster game and more athletic climate takes time to acclimate to. We have to consider context, mainly role, play type distribution and most of all the actual game tape to create a holistic picture to accurately assess rookies. But Simmons is a generational rookie who doesn’t need my coddling.
From 30 thousand feet we can glean from the numbers that Simmons has been exceptional relative to his class in being the only rookie creating for both himself and for others on high usage with reasonable efficiency:
Rookie Advanced Stats (Sorted by Usage)
This general method tells us part of the story (mainly that Simmons has been impressive, as an understatement), but a more nuanced dive is needed to address exactly *why* Simmons has been so impressive.
Play type distribution data, meaning the percent of the time a player finishes a certain type of play, is far more useful (to me) than points-per-possession efficiency metrics for rookies, again tying back to the notion that rookies who are tasked with creation are rarely efficient and it’s more important to ascertain role and context than efficiency early.
The two *best* rookies thus far this season by most accounts, including mine, have been Simmons and Jayson Tatum. Let’s compare how often each have finished possessions in “self-creation” settings, meaning as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, in isolation and on post ups:
Simmons’ 2017 Self Creation Distribution
Tatum’s 2017 Self Creation Distribution
Synergy Sports Tech
Simmons is finishing basically 30-percent more of his possessions in self creation settings this season than Tatum, an incredible differential. This is not meant to be a knock on Tatum in the slightest. He’s filled a valuable role on the best team in the East thus far as an integral system floor-spacer, situational creator and defender (his 3pt shooter and defense relative to expectations have been spectacular). More importantly, he hasn’t needed to create offense for his team with Kyrie Irving as the primary handler and with Al Horford as one of the best playmaking fives in basketball. It’s meant to highlight again just how special Simmons has been as a capable primary creator for his age.
Simmons is living at the rim this year, averaging the third most attempts per game in what Synergy Sports classifies as “around the basket” in the half court among all qualified individuals:
Around the Rim Attempts: Half Court (Sorted by Possessions Per Game)
Synergy Sports Tech
This is the benefit of having a primary initiator and creator who is 6-foot-10: you gain avenues to high quality rim attempts via traditional big man mechanisms such as put-backs and distinct cutting opportunities that lead guards don’t have as much access to due to lack of height, while in addition tapping into the driving opportunity airspace that guards and wings traditionally occupy that less coordinated and skilled bigs can’t access.
Currently, Simmons is mostly utilizing the latter avenue as a driver, where his ability to get downhill building up steam either in transition or when he has a crease in the defense quickly accelerating to freakish speeds for his size and the ability to convert that speed to power on fully display:
Simmons has a rare ability to sink low for a player his size with his fluid hips, and the result is the maximization of his straight line burst and explosiveness:
He gives P.J. Tucker a slight hesitation move that makes Tucker react and start to open up as a result, but I want to focus on just how low Simmons gets here. In order to do so let’s replay the previous sequence in slow motion:
Simmons looks like a damn 240 pound jaguar dipping and suddenly accelerating. To reiterate, humans his size are not supposed to have these kinds of movement skills, especially in conjunction with coordination and skill with the ball, and his athleticism, specifically in terms of first step and burst, can’t be overstated.
Simmons has mostly been able to get where he wants to on the court this season mostly because of this first step and explosive burst combination, especially when teams try to press up on him. In the following clip montage, you can see him blow by guards, wings, and bigs alike with the common denominator being it’s incredibly hard to keep Simmons in front if you guard him conventionally:
Having a dynamic first step is one of the most crucial elements to a primary creator, and it’s almost imperative if you can’t shoot. Simmons has that sudden explosiveness and quickness necessary to combat his lack of shooting, especially with that athleticism intersecting with high awareness.
Simmons’ athleticism/frame/height might be his lifeblood for success, but his basketball IQ, anticipation and awareness combination is what separates him from most NBA players. You can see how his BBIQ has translated to the league in just one play against Detroit. First, he reads Stanley Johnson pressing the passing lane and back cuts. Second, he has situational shot clock awareness in quickly hoisting up a shot to avoid a turnover. Third, he instinctively reacts to the ball off the rim and all in one motion tips the ball right to Embiid for the layup. You can’t teach reactionary awareness like this:
The announcer notes that “the Sixers are lucky to get a shot off.” That may be true to an extent, but it’s also a credit to Simmons’ in-game awareness.
At LSU Simmons’ ability to quickly diagnose plays and make what I call “bang-bang” reads really popped on film, and was one of the main allures of his game:
A lot of NBA players can catch, hold and process actions on the court, but few can truly anticipate where the defense is going to be and already have the chain moving before the defense even has a chance to react. We’ve seen these quick read and recognition skills already manifest in Philadelphia this year:
One of the two most important passes in the modern game (along with pocket passes) is the skip pass, and Simmons has also shown a particular proclivity for high velocity precision darts, even dating back to LSU:
When you pair the ability to pass over the top at 6-foot-10 with this kind of vision and passing precision, an offense can truly stretch the defense horizontally, making an offense that much more difficult to guard. Simmons unearths this potential for the Sixers:
But sheer high IQ and instincts aren’t enough to manufacture a franchise player. In the modern game in primary creation settings you need self gravity as a creator, meaning an avenue to create offense for yourself that compromises the defense and forces help (the attention of a second defender) in some way. This is often accomplished via shooting gravity, but for players of Simmons’ archetype it’s usually done by being able to get into the teeth of the defense and either force defenders to cave in, resulting in kick-out opportunities for shooters, or getting to the rim to finish.
Thus far this season, Simmons’ main play type to accomplish collapsing the defense is via drives out of pick-and-roll as the ball-handler. This is not foreign to Simmons, who commanded possessions of this type in relatively high usage compared to other fours in college:
Pick-and-Roll Ball-Handler Finishing Possessions (Drafted Fours Over the Last Decade)
Opposing teams have utilized multiple different pick-and-roll coverages this year to negate usually a Simmons/Embiid or Simmons/Saric pick-and-roll.
When teams press up on Simmons, the Sixers counter setting the screen farther out, allowing Simmons the option to reject or accept the screen and then giving him the space to build up momentum, making him a nightmare proposition for a weak side defender at the basket:
The Wizards notably tried an under coverage, mostly on side pick-and-rolls. What makes Simmons such a headache is he can still turn the corner with his burst in these settings, beating players like Kelly Oubre and Otto Porter to the rim instead of pulling up off the dribble (the goal of the defense here):
Lastly, teams will switch and sag off Simmons, again hoping for Simmons to settle for a pull-up jumper. The problem is most of the time the Sixers set screens closer to the basket, which allows Simmons the ability to create a higher value shot closer to the rim either exploding through the switch defender or still beating less mobile bigs around the edge:
In some situations however, especially involving really sound defensive teams with a dynamic rim protector, the only option for Simmons against these sag-off defenses is to take the pull-up. Simmons is 15-42 on off-the-dribble shots in the half-court this year, per Synergy Sports, with most coming around the foul line/elbows and in (.714 points-per-possession, good for the 27th percentile). It’s definitely not an ideal outcome for Philadelphia’s offense, but it’s promising that Simmons has shown the confidence to take this shot as a last resort:
Perhaps the most promising component of Simmons’ early play from Sixers fans’ perspective (I’d imagine) is the developing chemistry he’s showing with Embiid. Two generational talents coexisting as harmoniously as they have thus far is enormous for Philadelphia’s future prospects, and when you watch the tape it’s clear their rapport is growing.
You see this mostly in four/five pick-and-rolls, with Embiid starting to get the timing down on slips that puts enormous pressure on the defense with Simmons’ ability to pass over the top in conjunction with Embiid’s finishing. This gets even more trying when you throw in Redick’s spacing in the weak side corner, forcing teams like the Pacers into chaos and impossible situations:
Just imagine Markelle Fultz, widely considered the best prospect in the 2017 draft (the *real* Markelle that is) thrown into the mix with these two.
There have been a lot of well deserved Simmons puff pieces written thus far this season, and I wanted to address perhaps an even more fascinating element to this evaluation calculus: what areas does Simmons need to improve in to reach his ceiling outcome?
The answer by many is immediately shooting, and by shooting I interpret that as *range* shooting from 3. I don’t think 3pt shooting is a likely reality in the future (I certainly wouldn’t bet on it). But I’m of the minority opinion that he doesn’t have to space the floor from 3 to be a top five player in the league (of which I think he can be). Let’s throw out improving as a free throw shooter, improving turnovers and refining defensive awareness/technique for now, all which are probably/likely obtainable to some extent on the development curve, and focus on two distinct areas:
- Finishing: physicality, getting all the way to the rim instead of instinctually stopping short and actually using his left hand.
- Unleashing Simmons’ versatility.
The former is in Simmons’ power to develop (both in mindset and approach), while the latter rests on team scheme. Let’s take both in kind.
Drawing back to the earlier chart on possessions finished at the rim per game, you can see in the following chart how much of a high volume driver Simmons has been this year:
2017 Regular Season Drives Per Game (All Players)
For context, the league leader in drives per game last season was Isaiah Thomas at 12.7, so the abundance of high volume early season drivers here perhaps speaks to a limited sample that will regress. But still, Simmons is being used similar to James Harden in this respect, meaning more like a guard.
The issue is that in these settings he’s also *finishing* more like a guard as well, as evidenced by the following chart this time only including NBA.Com defined forwards:
Other metrics also paint Simmons’ finishing as relatively pedestrian (especially when you include runners) in the half court:
I broke down the numbers even more in regards to “around the basket” (non-post-up) situations based on individual game tape:
Whatever metrics you adhere to, the cause of this “average” we’ll say finishing is clearly laid out in the game film. The reality is that Simmons is more of a finesse finisher in traffic than his size suggests he should be, he avoids contact too often and rarely uses his left hand.
I’d say on a majority of his attempts this season in the paint Simmons does a combination of 1) stops short of the rim instead of taking the extra step or two to get all the way to the basket 2) avoids contact attempting lower percentage shots instead of dropping his shoulder and 3) uses his right hand in situations that are better fit for his left. He’s only drawn one shooting foul around the basket in the half court this year, per Synergy Sports, an insane number. Maybe he’s just reluctant to draw fouls being a substandard free throw shooter. I don’t know. What I do know is he’s way too big, powerful and skilled to finish in the manner of the following montage:
It’s worth noting that Simmons does have pretty remarkable touch on some of his right-handed runners, but shots like these are hard to live on:
I make this point not to slight Simmons, but because he has shown the ability to be physical and play to his size in these attack situations, and is therefore capable. Here he drops his shoulder twice on Lucas Nogueira at the rim, creates space and finishes with his left. It probably went unnoticed due to a lack of highlight equity but it’s my favorite finish of his this year:
We’ve also seen him explode through bodies and contact at the rim in a manner representative of his size and frame:
Similarly, he’s gone to his left enough to shed light on his actual ambidexterity (not conceptual ambidexterity) upside:
Brett Brown has even talked about Simmons taking an extra step getting all the way to the rim, and that would be a huge start. He’s never going to be a generational finisher like LeBron or Giannis, lacking LeBron’s superhuman explosion + body control and Giannis’ space-eating long-strides + length extension. But there is still sizable growth potential in this area, and he doesn’t have to be that level of finisher possessing those specific attributes to be the kind of self-gravity force that he needs to be in the future.
He can replicate one element of both LeBron and Giannis: physicality. Giannis may have space-eating agility to pair with his aforementioned toolbox as a finisher, but at the end of the day he will just put your ass in the basket sometimes:
Simmons has legitimate attributes in his finishing toolbox: a strong frame to absorb and explode through contact, explosiveness, and the ability to use either hand. He just needs to pair that with a more aggressive mentality around the rim and kill his instincts to avoid contact. If he reaches 70% or so around the basket, I don’t think he needs to shoot 3s, or have the threat of a 3pt shot, to be a superstar, especially when you start to tap into his versatility as an overall offensive contributor, as the following will explain.
One of Simmons’ most slept on sources of value is his offensive versatility. He’s too often categorized into traditional positional constructs like “point guard” or “point forward” and in that process his uniqueness in several respects are lost.
Take his play at LSU for example. He was utilized with moderate frequency as the dive man in pick-and-roll, and he showed some pretty remarkable in-air body control and fluidity in these situations:
Simmons has fluid hips and can quickly flip them as a screen-setter to slip or dive after setting the screen, and obviously has the handle and coordination to navigate confined spaces if he catches the ball on a short roll.
Further buttressing his playmaking four profile as a dive man is his ability to read a defense, make good decisions and pass on the move, again elements he showcased in college:
We haven’t seen much of him in Philadelphia thus far in this capacity, with just this slip in a small four/five pairing with Saric out of Horns really his only finishing possession:
You can see the fluidity, coordination and explosion off two to finish these kinds of plays. Probably the reason the Sixers haven’t run this as much (at least successfully) is they lack the guard creator to pair with Simmons is these actions currently. You know who profiles really well in this role? *Real* Markelle!
We know from basically his career sample again that Simmons can also playmake for others out of this roll man setting. If teams trap Fultz in the future here (assuming his dynamic pull-up shot and the threat of it return), Simmons can unleash hell in advantage situations with nifty passes like this:
While the Sixers haven’t explored this element of Simmons’ play type versatility, they have started to utilize him more in the post in this newly started “Monstars” lineup that features Ben guarding actual point guards and sharing the court with Saric, Covington, and Embiid.
Usually this lineup causes some kind of mismatch (although sometimes this lineup can be a negative, as I think it will be long-term especially against more explosive perimeter teams and when Simmons’ mobility advantage is neutralized), with Simmons sometimes reaping the rewards.
With Embiid operating from the wing and with his passing ability, it opens up a lot of spacing opportunities that teams without passing centers can’t capitalize on. Here, Simmons knows that Victor Oladipo is crashing down to double his duck-in, so showcasing his high intellect he sets a back-screen on Oladipo, freeing Redick in the corner:
This time, Simmons’ post acumen as a scorer is realized, as he ducks in with the undersized Oladipo on him after observing help from Bojan Bogdanovic wouldn’t arrive in time:
These are just some ways to leverage Simmons’ versatility offensively into high value shot opportunities for the team, but they are far from an exhaustive list. This snug five/four pick-and-roll out of horns for example is the kind of creative set that could really optimize both Simmons and Embiid: