Ben Simmons Looked The Same...Or Did He?
Reading entrails to find glimmers of excitement
After a half-season of back-and-forth with the Philadelphia 76ers over whether or not Simmons was faking mental distress to force a trade, in which neither party came out smelling like roses, and a half-season of weird disconnect with the Brooklyn Nets, in which Simmons belatedly pulled out of playing in a game to much chagrin only to undergo back surgery for a herniated disk, it’s safe to say that people had to see Simmons on the court again to believe it.
Well, Simmons finally made it back, and despite some rough edges, his game looked… mostly the same, with a sprinkle of encouragement?
Simmons is one of the strangest players the league has ever seen. A legitimate 6’10” and built like a house not even the big bad wolf could blow down, Simmons is a jumbo-sized point guard with the defensive chops to guard anyone in the league. Unfortunately, he’s allergic to jump shots and has struggled throughout his career with his confidence, and after fifteen months off, nobody was sure how coach Steve Nash would use Simmons.
Old Simmons was the ultimate defensive weapon: The 76ers would routinely leave him on an island against the opposing team’s best bucket-getter, and Simmons always responded. He was All-Defensive First Team in both 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, the latter of which also saw him finish second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Simmons is capable of neutralizing the quickest guards or strongest wings. His defensive bonafides are unimpeachable.
But his offense has, contrary to most players, devolved over time.
Simmons is an animal in transition, too big and too fast for anyone to match up with when he gets a head of steam. An unselfish, talented distributor, he especially shines with hit-ahead passes after rebounds. Despite being on a relatively unathletic, slower 76ers squad, Simmons had more transition assists than any player in the league and generated a ton of open threes for teammates.
Unfortunately, Simmons himself famously has no outside shot whatsoever, and he’s grown increasingly reticent to attempt something that isn’t a layup or dunk. The Big Ben Question has always been if he is willing even to miss a three-pointer, and to this point, the answer has been a resounding no.
In a wide-ranging and fascinating podcast with J.J. Redick, Simmons was somewhat dismissive (as he often has been) about his need to shoot from range:
Redick: “Are you gonna shoot threes this season for the Nets?”
Simmons: “Yeah, I need to! I need to just go out there, put some up.”
Redick: “You should just make a goal, I’m going to shoot five a game until they tell me to stop shooting.”
Simmons: “Twenty threes a game! Kevin [Durant]’s wide open… nope!”
In case it’s not clear out of context, Simmons was dealing out a heaping helping of sarcasm there. But would he be willing to extend himself, just a little, even at the risk of looking silly?
After one preseason game, the answer is maybe?
Ben had a couple of pretty passes, played a little defense. Set some good screens and some mediocre ones (something he’ll have to improve to maximize his abilities off-ball). Pushed the pace, made quick decisions. Didn’t look interested in soliciting free throw attempts (where his poor shooting is highlighted).
Turns out that, like the other times Simmons has said it, he wasn’t willing to shoot any threes, at least not on this night. Simmons had six field goal attempts from two-point range. He went three-for-three at the rim, including two dunks. He missed his three shots from beyond the restricted area, as well as both free throws he attempted.
However, it wasn’t all the same old story. What’s noteworthy is that two of those misses were from outside his recent typical range.
One was a deep hook shot, which raised an eyebrow. The last was even more audacious:
A legitimate midrange turnaround jumper is something that Simmons used to try as a rookie but that he completely excised from his game in previous seasons. Sure, he missed by a mile, and it was the end of the shot clock, but with Simmons, that’s not the point. Was this jumper a one-off fluke? Will the Twitter blowback cause Simmons to shrink back into his shell like a snail sensing salt? Or could it be the harbinger of a braver Simmons who isn’t as afraid to fail (even horrendously, as in this case)?
That remains to be seen, but as food for thought, I’ll leave you with a few pictures. The first is Simmons’ shot chart from his rookie year (darker blue means more accurate relative to the rest of the league). Notice that, although there weren’t any threes, there were still pockets of midrange paint where he was willing to shoot from:
The next is Simmons’ shot chart from his fourth and most recent season, 2020-2021. Look how much lighter the blue is in the restricted area and how sparsely populated the chart is everywhere else. That’s bad!
And here’s his shot chart from last night:
Hmmm. Sure looks a lot more like his rookie year chart to me.
The Simmons of 2020-2021 was a good player. But Ben has long been the most frustrating experience in the NBA due to his disinclination to stretch himself. A direct comparison can be made to Giannis Antetokounmpo, another player with similar (albeit even more outrageous) physical tools and a wonky jumper who has been willing to fail — to improve. Despite repeated struggles at the free throw line during the playoffs, Giannis refused to quit on himself and kept bulldozing his way to the paint. He famously shook off his demons by going 17-19 from the charity stripe in a clinching NBA Finals Game 6.
It’s clear by now that we’ll never see Simmons shooting from deep in volume, but that’s a bridge too far, anyway. For all the talk about Simmons’ lack of a three, it’s always seemed to me that it’s more important for him to start taking twelve-footers again first. Baby steps. It’s impossible to draw firm conclusions from a six-shot sample, but at the very least, Simmons came out and was willing to give it a go for one night.
Any indication that Simmons is capable of positive change is an exciting sign that maybe, just maybe, this is the year we see him willing to break free from his self-imposed fossilization. I won’t be holding my breath… but I will be watching very carefully.