By Bryan Toporek
In retrospect, the season-ending foot fracture Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons suffered in training camp last fall may have been a blessing in disguise.
Not only did Simmons’ absence fuel one more season of tanking, enabling the Sixers to trade up for Markelle Fultz in the 2017 draft—ongoing shoulder saga notwithstanding—but the year off allowed Simmons to acclimate to the style and speed of the NBA without having to endure the typical struggles of a rookie point guard.
“Sitting out a whole year gave me a chance to really take a step back and look at the game and make sure I was focusing on the right things,” Simmons told reporters in July. “And then, obviously, my body and taking care of my body and just continuing to work.”
His early-season returns suggest that work has paid off in dividends.
Through five games, Simmons is averaging 16.4 points on 47.8 percent shooting, 10.0 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.4 steals in 34.5 minutes per game. He leads all rookies in points, is tied with Chicago Bulls big man Lauri Markkanen for the class lead in rebounds, and he’s second only to Lonzo Ball in assists. Simmons had four double-doubles over his first five outings, while the rest of the rookie class combined has eight.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau (via Sixers Stats), Simmons is the first player to begin his NBA career with three straight 10-point, 10-rebound, five-assist outings since none other than the triple-double king himself, Oscar Robertson. The LSU product, who recorded his first career triple-double in just his fourth game, became the first to do so within his first four games since Hambone Williams in 1967, according to Elias (via ESPN Stats & Info). As B/R Mag’s Tom Haberstroh noted, LeBron James didn’t accomplish that feat until January of his second season.
Is it any wonder, then, why Simmons has cemented himself as the early Rookie of the Year front-runner?
Though he has yet to attempt a shot further than 16 feet away from the basket, that lack of a jumper largely hasn’t limited Simmons’ effectiveness. At 6’10” and 230 pounds, he’s bigger than guards who have the misfortune of being cross-matched onto him, while he’s quicker than most bigs tasked with guarding him. By placing the ball in his hands and having him run the offense, the Sixers are maximizing his mismatch potential.
When Simmons receives the ball in transition, it often results in an easy deuce for the Sixers.
In the first clip, Bradley Beal had position to draw a charge on Simmons, but the rookie forward used his impressive body control to slide past Beal and stretch out for a finger roll. When a half-court defense can’t get set, he seeks to attack off the catch and drive right to the basket, figuring he’ll either draw a foul or glide in for a layup. He won’t pull up from three-point range in transition a la Stephen Curry, but that doesn’t make him any less unguardable when on the run.
Simmons has proved surprisingly adept at creating offense for himself off the dribble in half-court sets, too.
In theory, defenders should slink off screens and dare Simmons to shoot from deep, but running a two-man action with him and a fellow big man complicates that equation. When Dario Saric set a screen on Otto Porter Jr. and forced Marcin Gortat to switch onto Simmons, the rookie blew right past Gortat and worked his way to the rim. The Wizards also tried not switching on a Simmons pick-and-pop, with Kelly Oubre Jr. drawing the assignment the whole way, but Simmons again used the space created by a Joel Embiid screen to slash into the paint and drive to the basket.
As opposing teams get more tape on Simmons, they’ll begin to learn certain tendencies of his and force him to come up with counters. If weak-side defenders wall off the middle of the paint, those blow-by drives off pick-and-pops will begin to result in turnovers. However, Simmons is crafty enough in isolation to abuse one-on-one situations, too.
Already armed with a surprisingly effective array of hook shots, turnarounds and floaters, Simmons’ lack of a jump shot doesn’t prevent him from generating offense for himself. Much like Milwaukee Bucks do-it-all forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Simmons’ combination of length and athleticism makes him a nightmarish mismatch for all but a handful of players throughout the league. His passing ability only further complicates matters for opponents, too.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”76ers” title=”More Philadelphia 76ers articles” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
It’s difficult to imagine a better frontcourt complement to Simmons than Embiid, a shot-blocking, three-point shooting 7-footer. As the league shifts toward smaller lineups, the Sixers have zagged by amassing versatile bigs who are damn near impossible to defend when paired together in pick-and-pops.
Simmons is already lethal in drive-and-kick situations as well. If an opponent double-teams him en route to the basket, he’ll find an open shooter spotting up around the perimeter for a wide-open three-point look.
For a rookie, his command of the Sixers’ offense is second to none. Having shooters like Robert Covington (48.6 percent from three-point range), J.J. Redick (39.3 percent) and Jerryd Bayless (50.0 percent) gives him the outlet options necessary to maximize his effectiveness, and Fultz should only further help once he steals his shooting ability back from the Monstars.
“I knew Ben was really good, but if he keeps that up, he’s going to be really special,” Sixers guard T.J. McConnell told Bleacher Report’s Yaron Weitzman after the team’s season-opening loss to the Wizards. “He plays at his own pace, he didn’t force anything, ran the show—he played like he’s been in the league for six to seven years.”
As Micah Adams of ESPN Stats & Info noted, Simmons is on a historic pace as a passer through five games:
Ben Simmons wracks up dimes like no player his size ever has***
***Non-Wilt Chamberlain Era*** pic.twitter.com/cTjF1AmTKO
— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) October 26, 2017
Between Embiid’s stellar debut last season and the Sixers’ gamble on trading up for Fultz, Simmons flew somewhat under the radar this offseason, particularly for a former No. 1 overall pick. After his sensational first week-and-a-half of the 2017-18 regular season, however, he’ll be anonymous no longer.
Embiid may hold the key to the Sixers’ championship upside, but Simmons isn’t far behind.