Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons have consistently started together, but the experiment has not worked. What can they change in order to coexist?
Markelle Fultz was supposed to be the perfect complement to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid when he came out of the University of Washington, but even with his rehabilitated jump shot, he has struggled to coexist with the ball-dominant Australian point guard. The Philadelphia 76ers invested too much into both players, so giving up on the experiment would hurt the team in the long term. But there are some immediate steps the two players and coach Brett Brown can take to help the two play together effectively.
The last thing the Sixers want is for Simmons’ presence with the ball to have a LeBron James-type effect on Fultz. For instance, once Kevin Love joined LeBron in Cleveland, the five-time All-Star went from having the Timberwolves run their offense through him at the elbow which yielded great results to becoming a glorified three-point specialist. Philly needs to give the second-year combo guard his fair share of the ball, but not at the expense of winning games.
When Simmons played for LSU, he drew comparisons to Draymond Green, and the Sixers can use the Australian in a similar role so Fultz can have the ball in his hands. Brown can place 6-foot-10 point guard right on the baseline at the dunker spot and have him cut around the basket, post up, and be a threat behind the opponents’ help defender once Fultz or another Sixers ball-handler causes a defensive breakdown.
The 2018 Rookie of the Year can serve as a playmaker without the ball: his huge frame makes him an effective screener, and he can run off-ball screens for shooters like J.J. Redick and Landry Shamet, on-ball screens for Fultz, and reverse pick-and-rolls with Joel Embiid.
Simmons would not spend all game in that off-ball role as he is still far and away the team’s strongest playmaker. Since he has played better than Fultz, the Washington product needs to adjust to playing with Simmons, too, while not permanently changing his play style. As a 6-foot-4 guard, Fultz is also perfectly capable of running reverse pick-and-rolls for Simmons or whoever else handles the ball at any given time for the Philadelphia 76ers, similar to what LeBron and Rajon Rondo have been doing in Los Angeles this season.
Fultz is one of the few starters in the NBA this season with more total field goal attempts than points scored, and while that will be a major concern for Philly if his shots don’t start falling next year, Brown needs to stick with him for the near future. Benching him this early would destroy the confidence the team worked all last season and this past summer to rebuild, and the fact he is not afraid to take so many shots should only make Sixers fans happy considering what the 20-year-old has gone through over the past 18 months.
Opponents have laid off of him pretty consistently this season, so he could step out the perimeter and serve as a spot-up shooter at times as long as Brown does not limit him to just that role. The coach should spot minutes between Simmons and Fultz so at least one is on the floor at all times, which would give both players plenty of time to pull the strings of the offense without another ball-dominant guard with them.
Keith Pompey put it best: Fultz is both the starting shooting guard and the backup point guard. Splitting his minutes between these roles will let Fultz develop in both guard spots, and letting him be the primary option on offense when he runs with the reserves will also help his confidence.
Brown needs to pair Fultz with Redick in the backcourt consistently, as Redick would give ‘Kelle an experienced scorer to defer to when necessary. That means Landry Shamet would get time with Simmons and Embiid, which will have him see more open looks, so it’s a win for everyone involved in terms of developing the team’s young talent.
Wilson Chandler saw his first 10 minutes of action as a Sixer during Saturday’s game against the Pistons, and his presence at small forward will let Fultz cover guards almost exclusively as the veteran forward continues his return from a hamstring injury.
Through nine games this season, only one percent of his minutes have come at point guard, whereas 55 percent of his minutes have come at the two and 42 percent have come at small forward, according to Basketball-Reference. Brown has used three-guard lineups that do not include Simmons on multiple occasions this season, so Chandler’s return will stop that and give Fultz a much easier time on defense as a result.
Fultz has improved immensely on the defensive end over the past couple games: his plus/minus has jumped from -7.6, which was worst on the team as of Nov. 1, to -3.4, good for third-worst on the team after Saturday’s game. He posted a plus/minus of +13 against Detroit, tied with Shamet for best on the team. He only managed four points, and that aspect of his game has to improve due to his responsibilities as starting shooting guard and backup point guard.
The advanced stats he has posted over the past couple contests give cause for excitement, and if he becomes a more efficient scorer, he will fit in perfectly next to the Australian point guard. He has a long way to go as a scorer, but if the shots have started to fall for Lonzo Ball after his wildly inefficient rookie year, then they will fall for Markelle eventually and he will become the perfect backcourt partner to the Fresh Prince as a result.