Ben Simmons can’t shoot. Just over halfway through his second impressive NBA season, it’s still the focus for a lot of people, the constant, tired talking point. When the Philadelphia 76ers suffer a bad loss or chemistry issues are blown up as if the team is going to implode any second, takes about Simmons’ jumper or arguments to trade him often appear. While it’s more than fair to say he’ll need range to elevate the Sixers’ playoff ceiling, that critique often clouds over everything else.
We all know how the exceptional nature of Simmons’ passing ability. His scoring deserves praise as well this season, especially how he’s improved in the post. He’s showing more flashes of crisp footwork, softer touch, and how effectively he can bully opponents with quick duck-ins and short post-ups under the basket. His scoring output is up to 16.6 points per game, while his True Shooting Percentage has jumped from 55.7 a season ago to 58.9. That’s worth recognizing.
But there’s more. That’s the whole allure of Simmons’ game. Even though he can’t shoot or provide go-to scoring, he has so much else to offer. It’s some of the less attractive, highlight-worthy elements of his skill set that deserve recognition as he looks to receive his first All-Star nod.
Simmons has gone up a level as a rebounder this season. His increased activity and determination to crash the boards — particularly on offense to help his value off ball — has been one of his main developments so far. Thanks to a recent rebounding surge of 10.1 per game over his last 20 outings, including a new career-high of 22, Simmons is up to a career-high 9.5 per game for the season.
2.2 of those rebounds per game come on offense. We’re seeing more and more how imposing he can be in this regard, powering past unsuspecting opponents or rising up through traffic. Whether he’s tapping the ball out for extra possessions, making smart passing reads in the blink of an eye (note the first play below to set up Joel Embiid), or finishing the play himself, Simmons is hard to contain:
This has helped Simmons’ production reach an even more historic level. His 21-point, 10-rebound, 15-assist night in the Sixers’ latest win against the San Antonio Spurs was his 20th career triple-double. Only Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson recorded more triple-doubles before turning 23.
Put Simmons’ impressive rebounding average alongside his 16.6 points and 8.3 assists, and he’s one of just five players in NBA history to average at least 16 points, nine rebounds and eight assists per game (Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson x4, and Russell Westbrook x3). Adjust his numbers to averages per 100 possessions (23.5 points, 13.4 rebounds and 11.8 assists), and Simmons is in even more rarefied air. Just two players have passed the 20/13/11 marks: Westbrook (x3) and 2018-19 Nikola Jokic.
Then, there’s everything he does at the other end of the floor.
Simmons’ defensive value is massive. Everything stems from his elite versatility. According to Krishna Narsu’s defensive versatility measurements, Simmons ranks third in the NBA. He has defended every position on at least 12.76 percent of his defensive possessions, from point guards (13.82 percent of the time) to centers (12.76 percent). Simmons switching from 1 to 5 this regularly, and doing so at a high level, is something few players can handle.
While Simmons can have occasional lapses of focus (primarily off the ball), and his steal rate has dropped a little from last season, his physical and mental tools give opponents a ton of trouble. He has the foot speed and length to switch down onto guards and bother them on the ball in ways that not many players his size can. He uses that physicality, grounded footwork, and his wide, controlled reach to shift around screens when guarding pick-and-rolls, close out to 3-point shooters in a flash, and switch onto guards to snuff out drives:
When switching up, Simmons uses his size to similar effect, with the bulk and length to deter opposing big men or provide a touch of help around the rim:
And no matter the matchup, Simmons’ fast, pesky hands can break up plays. He can do so simply by snatching the ball from opponents:
Or there are sequences like this that flash a bit of everything Simmons can do. Here, he helps over to cut off Serge Ibaka’s first roll to the rim, flies back to Kawhi Leonard to prevent a 3-pointer or drive, then springs up to snatch away the ball on Ibaka’s second dive:
Simmons’ IQ isn’t just for high-level passing reads — it translates to defense, too. He knows where to be, what teams want to do, and how to use his athleticism to stop them.
Another way Simmons can impact games without needing to shoot or touch the ball is by screening. Without a jumper, it’s a simple way for him to provide more value off the ball by actively looking to use his 6-foot-10 frame to free up shooters. When considering his explosiveness as well, it’s also why the Sixers could benefit from using his more as a roll man.
Simmons still isn’t screen crazy — it’s always been a key way for him to improve off the ball — but when he wants to, he knows how to use his body. He has more than doubled his screen assists per game from last season (0.8) with 1.7, second on the team to Embiid. Having a new playmaker in Jimmy Butler helps bring this out of Simmons more often. In addition to the occasional pick-and-roll, simple dribble hand-offs can let Butler attack downhill or step back into space at the arc depending on how defenders navigate Simmons’ screen.
Besides other designed plays where Simmons may screen for JJ Redick to flare around the arc towards an Embiid dribble hand-off, Simmons can clear out defenders when he looks to instinctively catch them off guard. That action can free up teammates, or even open up opportunities for Simmons to dive to the rim when defenses miss a switch or fall behind.
Before Paul George’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer crushed the Sixers in a 117-115 loss, the first play in the clip below shows how easily Simmons gave Butler all the space he needed to dribble into a pivotal 3-pointer:
Simmons is on a tear right now. He has averaged 17.9 points (57.5 percent shooting), 10.1 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks over his last 20 games, elevating himself in all areas with as much assertiveness as we’ve ever seen from him. Rather than having a sophomore slump, he has made some valuable improvements, from post play to rebounding.
Yes, developing a jumper is important. More than anything, that growth (beyond the flashes of mid-range post fadeaways he’s gradually introducing to his game) would elevate the ceiling for Simmons and the Sixers, easing the looming playoff concerns of spacing and the chemistry of the team’s Big 3.
But that’s not all that matters with Simmons. It doesn’t mean everything else should be taken for granted. Why not recognize what improvements he has made and everything he excels at right now, rather than focusing on the one key skill he has left to master?
One the reasons why the thought of him with a jumper is so tantalizing — and so in demand — is because he could become a player with no real weaknesses.
That’s only because he’s good at basically everything else already.