The Philadelphia 76ers' newest star has been able to adjust so far, but his life will get significantly harder once defenses button up in the postseason, if Philly qualifies.
Kamil Krzaczysnki-USA TODAY Sports
Ben Simmons is a 6-foot-10 point guard who can’t shoot. His left elbow awkwardly juts out on his jumper and makes basketball aesthetes cringe. But he also might be the most talented rookie since LeBron James. How do we resolve these seemingly divergent bits of information in today’s three-happy NBA? And more importantly for Sixers fans, can Simmons continue to thrive without an outside shot?
Simmons’s jumper-averse game would have been fine if he were battling Magic Johnson in 1987, when teams took fewer than five three-pointers a game. But not 30 years later. After basic math weaponized shots from beyond the arc, teams are now averaging over 28 per game.
Despite the league-wide craze, Simmons has attempted just nine three-pointers out of 411 shots in his germinal career. Of those nine attempts, none came with more than a second remaining on the clock (it’s a testament to his on-court character that Simmons doesn’t attempt the faux shot milliseconds after the buzzer sounds to protect his shooting percentage). Basically, he never shoots a three in the normal course of a game. In fact, he doesn’t shoot much of anything outside the paint:
How has he been an effective point guard for a team that, until Joel Embiid’s recent back issue, was in the thick of a playoff race?
Typically, when a player can’t shoot, his defender sags closer to the hoop, cluttering the paint and mucking up his team’s spacing. Simmons's True Shooting percentage is far below league average (and he can't make free throws). It’s all the logical consequence of that vulnerability. Brett Brown’s pace and pass offense is predicated on space, too.
But Simmons is so crafty with the ball, and so smart using screeners and actual shooting threats (e.g. J.J. Redick), he’s turning the space defenders give him into a runway. Once he gets into the paint, he can finish with either hand or dish to cutting teammates. His timid shooting acts as an asset in this respect. Look at him abuse fellow rookie De’Aaron Fox on Tuesday night:
Fox goes under the dribble handoff because scouting reports rightfully told him to, but Philly’s star rookie fakes towards the pick and goes behind his back to scooch past Fox and Zach Randolph and score around the rotating Willie Cauley-Stein. There aren’t many NBA point guards who can make that dribble move, and fewer still who could finish the layup. Simmons also happens to be bigger than all of them.
On top of that wizardry, heaven help anyone who tries to stay with him in the open floor. Poor Paul Zipser got caught with no rim protection as Simmons bore down on him during Chicago’s win over Philly on Monday night:
The handle, speed, size and ability to finish at the rim aren’t the only attributes that let Big Ben get away with an impotent outside shot. He also has a staggeringly high basketball IQ for a rookie—a preternatural feel for the game that often doesn't arrive until the twilight of one's career.
There were two late-game examples of this in Philly’s loss to Chicago. Twice in the fourth Simmons found Dario Saric for a layup, despite David Nwaba (a good defender) sitting back and daring him to take an outside shot.
On one, Saric runs up like he’s going to set a ball screen for Simmons, but instead slips to the cup. Simmons’s size allows him to see over the defense, and he lobbed a pinpoint pass to Saric for the layup because Nwaba gave him room to shoot.
While Simmons’s innate basketball gift have helped turn him into the runaway 2018 Rookie of the Year, the huge flaw in his game will come back to bite right around the time he’s collecting that trophy.
In the playoffs, bad shooters are even more exposed. Defenses leave non-threats to pack the paint. Watch Golden State leave Portland’s Evan Turner alone in the corner to stymie driving lanes for Portland’s talented backcourt during last year’s first-round matchup. And Houston did the same thing to Oklahoma City's Andre Roberson to focus on Russell Westbrook.
For point guards like Simmons, the defense’s disrespect isn’t as explicit because they have the ball, but it can still negatively affect a team. The Cavs went under screens against Marcus Smart after Isaiah Thomas went down in the Conference finals last spring, and Smart himself, as well as Avery Bradley, did the same against John Wall and Washington in the Conference semifinals—even though Wall has worked hard to improve his still-inconsistent outside shot.
Will the same fate befall the Wells Fargo Center's new wizard? It might be even more pronounced because he lacks any confidence in his outside shot.
But as we’ve seen in his first 29 games, Simmons already does so many other things at an elite level, it might make up for such a prominent handicap. And let’s not forget one important thing when criticizing—or, more accurately, nitpicking—what appears to be his only on-court peccadillo so far: He’s a rookie. He’s still just 21 and commanding a Sixers team that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since Doug Collins’s silly bleach blonde hair stalked the sidelines.
Simmons is an engaged, imposing defender, and has a cool, calm demeanor that’s as ill-fitting his age as Collins’s dye job. He may also be a once-in-a-generation playmaker, and—for now, at least—that should overwhelm any grousing about the errant left elbow on his jumper.