As Ben Simmons warms up before an eventual win against the Jazz on Tuesday, the 76ers’ fifth straight at the time, nothing about a fairly standard group of observers stands out. Simmons is a star in the making, but he’s still a long way from drawing the kind of four-figure crowds that supernovas like Steph Curry and LeBron James regularly attract just to watch them put up jumpers hours before tip-off.
The keen eye, though, would have noticed a couple telling differences from a standard visiting player warmup. It would have picked up Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey, not usually visible at times like these, taking in Simmons’ warmup from a second-row chair. It would have noticed a couple visiting scouts, neither of whom work for the Jazz or 76ers, watching intently from the baseline. Were any of these parties necessarily on the court just for Simmons? Probably not, but you can damn well bet they’re going to watch when they can.
Even among these kinds of league people, Simmons is just emerging from a curious shroud of basketball mystery that isn’t common for first overall picks.
His pre-college days were mostly a highlight reel punctuated by occasional stops at national events like the McDonalds All-American game and the Nike Hoops Summit – talent evaluators can get a lot from these gatherings, but Simmons’ unique qualities and a, shall we say, limited commitment to the defensive side of the ball made parsing the details tougher. His year at LSU was much of the same, and the Tigers’ failure to make the NCAA tournament meant he only played a handful of games against prospects anywhere near his level. Then he missed his entire rookie season in the NBA.
So now, at 21 years old, it’s no surprise even top league thinkers with access to the best scouting data available are still craning for a look at Simmons. The kid is dominating NBA athletes night in and night out, and the league is still trying to figure out just what in the world he actually is as a basketball player.
If there’s one person who might know, it’s 6ers coach Brett Brown. Brown coached Simmons’ father, Dave, a generation ago. “That [means] two things: I’m really old, and the history and knowledge I have with his DNA and his gene pool and his background is strong,” Brown said with a laugh.
Combine that with more one-on-one time than anyone else on earth to this point, and he seems like the best guy to ask if you want to find out just what Ben Simmons is on a basketball court.
So that’s exactly what Basketball Insiders did. Let’s scout out Ben Simmons the basketball player, with a few assists from Brown and one of his peers.
Handling and Distributing
His skills as a distributor have been Simmons’ primary calling card ever since he showed up on NBA radars, and he was elite here from the moment he stepped on the court for his first regular season game.
No player in the NBA has thrown more nightly passes than Simmons. He ranks fifth in the entire league in potential assists per game, per SportVU data, trailing only Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, James Harden and John Wall (all stats are prior to Thursday night’s games unless otherwise noted). He’s also generating a top-10 figure in terms of secondary assists (“hockey assists”). The 76ers’ three-point percentage falls of a cliff when he sits compared to when he plays, this despite his own total lack of a three-point jumper.
Few players have ever entered the league with this level of passing skill; possibly none. It starts with a unique physical profile.
“You talk about quarterbacks are born? Point guards are born,” Brown said. “You take somebody that’s 6-foot-10 and really is a willing passer and wants to pass, his vision lines are different than 6-foot point guards. And it just makes him unique with the ball.”
Simmons hit the genetic lottery no doubt, but it’s how he spends the proceeds that really defines his game. His understanding of angles and space is savant-like at this age. It often takes even the most gifted passers a while to re-calibrate to NBA speed and length; Simmons walked in as one of the best in the game instantly.
Does this pass, over the longest set of arms in league history attached to Utah’s Rudy Gobert, seem easy? Maybe it does if you’re only watching how casually Simmons serves it up on the run, but is sure isn’t.
He’s quickly gotten in tune with the speed and spacing of NBA defenders, as well. He makes great use of his own body as a tool, and it’s uncommon to see players this age with this level of understanding about how their movements will affect defenders – even ones who are ostensibly multiple passes away from the central play.
Simmons looks like a seasoned vet with the way he’ll throw his passes at unexpected times to keep help defenders a half-step off-balance. Most guys would take another step to gather energy for this cross-court dime; Simmons jumps a step early and crushes a Pistons rotation:
He’s already anticipating defensive rotations to his drives, and easily has the strength to throw these kinds of high-difficulty skip passes.
He’s generating nearly two assists per night just from drives to the basket, per Second Spectrum data. Among high-volume drivers, only LeBron turns the ball over less often: Simmons has committed just seven turnovers on 182 drives, a mind-blowing figure for a player ostensibly still adjusting to this pace – and even more impressive when you remember that every defense he faces is playing him to drive every time he has the ball.
To get at what really drives his ability to run as a 6-foot-10 point guard from his first NBA game, though, you have to look at an even more foundational skill: Simmons’ handle. Jazz coach Quin Snyder described it best.
“There’s not many guys that big that are able to handle the ball as effectively as he is against smaller guys,” Snyder said. “Usually a point guard can disrupt a bigger guy guarding the ball. There’s a lot of guys that can handle the ball, but it’s a three-man handling it against a three-man.
“If you have a smaller guy on him, he’s capable of going into the post, he sees over him. If you have a bigger guy on him, his ball skills – both passing and dribbling – they’re superior. I think it’s safe to say he’s one of the best passers in the league. And for his size, I don’t know that anybody handles the ball better.”
This is where we see one difference (among many) between Simmons and a player like Nikola Jokic, another all-world passer who’s a lot bigger than most guys who get that designation. Jokic handles the ball better than most his size, but he can still be ripped by quicker hands; Simmons is running right at smaller guards and outright daring them to try and swipe away. Add in crazy acceleration and speed for his size, and you’ve got a guy poised to be the most lethal passer since LeBron himself.
Defense, Rebounding and Transition
Much is made of Simmons’ jumper as the ultimate test of his eventual ceiling, and there’s no doubt it’s important (more on this in a bit). To hear Brown speak about it, though, the way he defends and rebounds the ball could be even more vital. Brown knows what kind of ceiling there is in his DNA, after all.
“His dad competed – he was from Harlem, New York City,” Brown said. “He could have been a linebacker, he could have been a prizefighter. He chose to play basketball. And I see the world through that lens [with Ben].”
It’s a constant task for Brown to stay on Simmons defensively. He readily admits the huge minutes and role he’s placed on his rookie contribute to the possessions Simmons will take off on this end from time to time, though eventually that will be on Simmons himself to eliminate.
He did that basically every possession at LSU, though, and those worried that this would be the case at the next level can mostly rest easy. He’s no worse than other high-volume handlers who occasionally take a rest on defense; his combination of IQ and physical skills make up a lot of ground when he lags behind, though one worries about developing negative habits.
But when he’s locked in, he might have one of the highest defensive ceilings in the league among young guys. Look at the raw ground he covers to block a thoroughly unsuspecting Raul Neto:
It’s not just physical feats, either. The best examples of his defensive ceiling come when he combines these with his high-level basketball IQ.
Watch Simmons for this entire defensive possession (he starts out in the lower middle of your screen):
That’s scary intelligence, man. Look at how Simmons is positioned when Ricky Rubio starts his fateful drive:
He’s not even facing him! Somehow, though, he has the presence of mind to abandon his man in an instant. Simmons even goes for a flat-footed reach-in, probably not a great idea:
Does any of that matter? Nope. The jets are back on when he needs them.
“I think he can be elite. I think that it’s easier for him to be elite defensively than [it has been for him] offensively,” Brown said. “When he puts his mind to it, and he sits in a stance, and he’s a 6-ten – and he is 6-foot-10 – athlete with a wingspan and hands and athleticism, [plus] the quickness that he has. That’s a gamechanger. And that’s a multi-purpose defender.”
Quietly, though, Simmons’ greatest strength in a skill profile chock full of them might be his rebounding.
Consider Russell Westbrook, who at one point during his historic triple-double season became the subject of a curious debate. As the year went on, it became clear that Westbrook’s Thunder teammates were taking every opportunity they could to “gift” him rebounds – that is, to box out their man but do nothing else, allowing Russ to swoop in and grab the board uncontested. As the thinking goes, the idea was to pad Westbrook’s rebounding stats and let him chase history.
There’s no question this was part of the tactic, but it also served another, more legitimate purpose: Getting the ball in Westbrook’s hands sooner. As one of the preeminent transition threats in the league, it absolutely suits Westbrook to have the ball as soon as possible after an opponent miss – more time to catch the defense running back and find some easy points.
Simmons, on the other hand, is 6-foot-10. He doesn’t need any box-out help to approach double-digit rebounds per night. The 76ers’ rebounding percentage plummets from a robust 53.7 percent when Simmons plays to an ugly 48.1 percent when he sits – the former would be a top-five figure in the league, while the latter would be a bottom-10 mark.
This was what stuck out to multiple scouts during the draft scouting process, even more than his insane physical skill or his remarkable passing IQ. When asked about his first impressions of Simmons pre-draft, one Western Conference executive simply raised his hands over his head to mimic a rebound. Simmons is already a fearsome transition presence; the 76ers are scoring a ridiculous 1.78 points per-possession on his transition sequences (including passes), per Synergy Sports, in the league’s 94th percentile. Having the ball in his hands right away after as many misses as possible just cuts out a middle-man that slows him down.
And from there, it’s mismatch heaven. Simmons is often guarding different guys than those who are checking him on the other end, and teams are scrambling to get in his way before it’s too late.
“Sometimes the mismatch looks like it’s a mismatch on Simmons, and it’s really a mismatch somewhere else as well,” Snyder said.
Here’s what he’s talking about: Look at the panic Simmons induces as he barrels into the frontcourt after a miss.
Let’s pause things again and take a look at just how jumbled Simmons can make a retreating defense. As he crosses midcourt, all five Pacers players on the floor are singularly fixated on him – and therefore not on J.J. Redick, one of the best three-point shooters in league history, standing wide open a simple pass away:
All of this is unlocked by Simmons’ rebounding. The faster he has the ball in his hands, the faster he can create this kind of chaos – and nothing is faster than just getting it yourself. It won’t ever get the play that his passing or his developing jumper do, but it’s just as important to his success.
Yes, Simmons’ jumper is a bit broken. He probably is using the wrong hand; this is something that’s been covered ad nauseam, perhaps best so to this eye by The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor. It’s also an ongoing situation, one O’Connor continues to track.
And while there’s no doubt a more reliable J could up his ceiling even further, there’s mounting evidence that Simmons will be able to succeed even if it remains iffy. Simmons plays on his toes, both literally and figuratively – as an exercise, watch a stretch with him on the floor sometime and see how often the heels of his feet ever touch the ground when he has the ball.
He has an incredible first step for someone his size, but it’s the recognition and the way he uses it so early in his career that really stands out. He’s being guarded here by Wesley Matthews, certainly not a slow guy; watch him wait patiently for Matthews to slightly alter his stance in anticipation of a ball screen, then use that microscopic window to blow by him for a dunk.
Simmons is already aware of what his size and length can mean, even when teams beg him to shoot jumpers. The 76ers will set picks crazy low for him, even nearly inside the paint sometimes, and he’s adept at using spins and other dribble moves to get himself a bit closer to the hoop.
Once he’s in the general range, he’s got a bit of early-career Blake Griffin in him. Simmons knows he can finish if he’s anywhere close – he’s shooting nearly 70 percent within three feet of the rim – so he simply bumps and contorts his way into the neighborhood, then figures the rest out later once he’s in the air.
The best part of everything we’ve been over here? There’s still so much more to come. Simmons has skipped many of the hurdles guys at his experience level usually have to navigate; a “redshirt” year, as Brown likes to call it, helped some, but that’s far from covering it all. If Simmons can grow at a similar rate to what you expect from guys drafted in his range, his ceiling is almost limitless. The picture is already starting to come into focus.
There will be struggles. Good opponents will game plan for him and do a better job making him uncomfortable than anyone has so far. His effort level on defense definitely comes and goes, and that has to improve. But Simmons has already set such a high baseline that he’s got plenty of room for error.
“You could see it,” Brown says. “But how was it going to translate on an NBA court? And I see it clearly now. You wished and you hoped, but you didn’t know, and I feel like now I know.”
NBA Daily: Credit Ujiri And Raptors For Taking The Risk
Perhaps emboldened by OKC’s ability to retain Paul George, the Raptors are taking a gamble of their own.
In any given NBA season, at the most, there are only five legitimate title contenders in play. The rest of the league could be considered as either on the rise, middle of the pack or in the hunt for a lottery pick.
There are far too many teams around the league that are content with solely making the playoffs while not seriously contending for a title. This is why the Toronto Raptors organization along with team president Masai Ujiri should be given credit for taking the ultimate gamble in acquiring a top-five player, even one who could amount to a one-year rental.
The Raptors shipped four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran wing Danny Green.
The move is the ultimate gamble for an organization that has turned itself into a perennial playoff presence with five consecutive postseason appearances and three straight 50-win campaigns. DeRozan, 28, was locked under contract the next three seasons and the organization could have theoretically decided to ride the DeRozan and fellow All-Star guard Kyle Lowry duo until the proverbial wheels fell off.
But instead, Ujiri unexpectedly shipped their star player, who wanted to be in Toronto long-term, to acquire Leonard who reportedly has his eyes dead set on joining one of the Los Angeles franchises once he hits free agency in 2019.
Think about this for a moment.
While Toronto has served as LeBron James’ playoff punching bag as of late, make no mistake, Raptors basketball is undoubtedly experiencing the peak of its golden era.
Sure, the team’s former stars such as Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh will likely go down in history considered better than DeRozan (and Lowry). But none of the aforementioned players led the franchise to a 50-win season while with the organization. None of those guys led the Raptors to a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. DeRozan was a vital cog in breaking new ground while with the team, defiantly re-signing with the Raptors despite overtures from his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in 2016.
Perhaps emboldened by the success the Oklahoma City Thunder recently had in taking a similar risk last summer, the Raptors took the gamble. The Thunder traded for All-Star forward Paul George, who also reportedly also had Los Angeles dreams, last summer, and were able to convince the wing to re-sign earlier this month to a long-term deal.
Toronto has never been a free agency hot spot and the aforementioned stars all forced their way out of town early in their careers. What if Leonard doesn’t buy the soup Ujiri is cooking? There are already some reports stating the forward has no desire to play with the Raptors at all.
Even if this is the case, Ujiri and company still have options. Leonard can still be dealt before next February’s trade deadline. Ujiri could theoretically create a bidding war between the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers for Leonard’s services with an attractive.
At the bare minimum, the Raptors are all-in this season for a championship run in an Eastern Conference no longer facing the talents of LeBron James. If things don’t work out, DeRozan’s $54 million owed after this season is off the books. Lowry will be owed $33 million in 2020 but could potentially be an attractive expiring contract. All of this to say, the Raptors are simultaneously preparing for a title run and bracing for a rebuild of their current roster.
Far too many teams become content with just making the playoffs and not rocking the boat. Ujiri took his shot to boost the Raptors up the league’s hierarchy. The ultimate risk. Much respect for taking it.
NBA Daily: Quality Free Agents Still Available
Many quality free agents are still available nearly three weeks into free agency, writes James Blancarte.
With the NBA Summer League over and training camps a few months away, the NBA would normally be quiet this time of year. Apparently the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors didn’t get the memo as they agreed to a trade centered around Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan. Additionally, Carmelo Anthony has finally been traded to relieve the Oklahoma City Thunder from a tremendous tax burden.
As the dust settles from these trades, many free agents continue to wait in the wings. The list includes many talented players who will eventually make their way back onto an NBA team’s roster. Some will return to the team they played for last year, which is especially likely for restricted free agents (e.g., Marcus Smart). Some may, for a variety of reasons, not return to an NBA roster. Last year Rodney Stuckey sat the year out and used the time to improve his health in order to make a comeback this year. Former All-Star center Roy Hibbert just announced his retirement at age 31 after not being active last season.
The list of available restricted free agents has seriously dwindled now nearly three weeks into the free agency period. RFAs such as Marcus Smart (back to the Boston Celtics) and Jabari Parker (to the Chicago Bulls) have recently signed new contracts. These signings, among others, leaves Houston Rockets RFA center Clint Capela and Los Angeles Clippers RFA center Montrezl Harrell as two of the bigger names left on the board.
Available Restricted Free Agents:
Clint Capela is coming off of his best and most efficient season averaging 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks in 27.5 minutes a game (all career highs) and he is only 24 years old. Capela also spearheaded a defense that, when combined with James Harden’s offensive mastery, pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals. Reports are that Capela has turned down an initial offer to re-sign for well below his max. While the clock ticks on the Rockets and Capela, Capela finds himself in what remains a punitive free agent market. The Sacramento Kings is the only other team capable of immediately signing Capela to a competitive contract to lure him away from the Rockets. To make matters worse, the Kings have been committed to stocking their roster with as many big men as possible making them a less-than-ideal suitor for Capela’s services.
Montrezl Harrell won’t generate as many headlines as the other RFAs that have been in the news lately but don’t sleep on him. In a season that never went according to plan for the Clippers, Harrell was one of the bright spots for the team. Harrell, acquired by the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade, showed tenacity on offense as he served as a strong offensive rebounder, floor runner and helped the Clippers weather a five-game stretch where center DeAndre Jordan was unavailable. Harrell played especially well in place of Jordan. However, working against Harrell is the Clipper’s roster crunch. The team has 18 players on the roster, not counting Harrell. If the Clippers do ultimately decide to bring back Harrell, the Clippers will have to make several moves to clear roster spots.
Cleveland Cavaliers RFA wing Rodney Hood also remains available. Utah Jazz fans can relate to the ups and downs of cheering for Hood who has flashes of brilliant play but remains inconsistent. Hood was acquired during last season to help bolster the Cavaliers’ championship run. However, Hood’s scoring, three-point shooting, overall statistics and minutes went down significantly due to his uneven play. While Hood is still a capable player, his time with the Cavaliers did not end well, which has impacted his stock around the league. It didn’t help Hood’s cause when he was benched in the postseason and he subsequently refused to enter the game when instructed to. The Kings, in need of help on the wing, could be a suitor for Hood’s services. However, Cleveland could match any such offer as the franchise continues to build a new team after the loss of LeBron James.
Available Unrestricted Free Agents:
The group of remaining unrestricted free agents is a mixed bag. As mentioned above, there is at least a chance that one of these players may not even make a roster when the dust settles this offseason. Dwyane Wade has bounced around the league the last few years with stints with the Bulls, Cavaliers and a most recent return to the Miami HEAT under his belt. Wade remains capable of spurts of offense and is a fan favorite in Miami. The most obvious result here is a return to Miami. However, Wade himself commented regarding a potential return or possibly retirement.
“When I get back from China, I’ll focus on that [decision],” Wade said while in China. “The basketball will take care of itself. I’ll sit down and figure that out once I get back from this tour at some point.”
Michael Beasley remains unsigned despite a strong outing last season for the New York Knicks. Beasley started 30 of 74 games played. His numbers don’t jump off the boxscore: 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists in 22.3 minutes. However, these are some of the best numbers he’s put up in years and the most consistent he has played since 2012-13. The Knicks may likely move on from Beasley but he remains a viable scorer who could come off the bench and start in a pinch for many teams if the price is right.
Jamal Crawford and Nick Young
Jamal Crawford and Nick Young remain unsigned veterans who offer potential teams a scoring punch off the bench. Young has the benefit of showing that he contributed in spurts to the Warrior’s championship season while not becoming a distraction. Both are known for knocking down difficult outside shots but can be inefficient scorers and potential liabilities on defense.
A few notable big men remain available as well. Phoenix Center Alex Len never became the elite big man the Suns had hoped for when they used the fifth pick in the 2013 draft to acquire him. However he remains a serviceable player. For his career, Len averages 7.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes. He is somewhat mobile and could be a strong option for a team looking for a backup center. Centers Al Jefferson and Jahill Okafor can both score the basketball but have to directly combat the notion that they have become antiquated. The modern game calls for mobile centers that shoot reliably from the outside to stretch the floor, are efficient on offense, can guard the rim as well as being at least somewhat capale of covering ball handlers on switches. Okafar and Jefferson don’t fit that profile and will have to convince potential suitors that despite their meager contributions over the last few seasons that they can sufficiently adapt to the modern game and make a positive impact.
NBA: Kawhi Leonard for DeMar DeRozan Makes Sense
In an unexpected move, DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard swapped teams, and it makes complete sense.
The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio is finally over.
In the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, news broke via Twitter that Leonard was about to be shipped across the Canadian border to the Toronto Raptors for — get this — DeMar DeRozan.
Leonard, and his deteriorated relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, dominated the offseason headlines, and while reports constantly whizzed around about where the All-Star small forward would wind up — maybe Los Angeles, maybe Philadelphia, maybe Boston — his final destination is one that came completely out of left field (despite the current odds).
While many people viewed the situation with Leonard as a chance for San Antonio to start fresh and plan for the future, the Spurs appeared to have no interest in that avenue. The entirety of the deal, Leonard and Danny Green for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick displays a win-now outcome for each party.
After winning 59 games and obtaining the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors eventually were bounced by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a sweeping fashion. Dwane Casey, the 2017-18 Coach of the Year, was fired after not being able to extend the franchises’ best season to an NBA Finals appearance. It appeared, with LeBron moving West, that the Raptors were going to run it back one more time to see if they could finally break through to the game’s biggest stage.
On the other side, the Spurs were coming off of a season in which they won 47 games and were two games out of the Western Conference’s third seed — all of which they achieved without Leonard. In the waning years of Gregg Popovich’s career, it appeared his team was still talented enough, and system still effective enough, to make relevant noise in the playoffs without a superstar player.
At its core, this deal comes down to each team swapping their best player for the other’s. Leonard gets out of San Antonio, to a team whose core won 59 games in the East. DeRozan gets the benefit of fitting into a system with the best head coach in the league, on a very competitive roster.
Now, it remains to be seen how happy each player will be in their situations. Reports surfaced early Wednesday morning that both players were dissatisfied with the trade outcome. But, as we all know, winning cures everything.
On the Spurs’ front, it’s interesting how little they considered trade packages for future picks and quality role players. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported San Antonio rebuffed offers from the Sixers and Celtics that were centered around future assets, in turn focusing their trade efforts on the likes of Ben Simmons, and the Celtics’ young core. Instead of landing a handful of assets or players that may not materialize until Popovich is gone, the Spurs reeled in a player who is a year removed from averaging 27 points per game. Oh, by the way, he’s also under contract for the next three seasons.
DeRozan keeps the Spurs relevant. Maybe he doesn’t help them beat the Golden State Warriors (in fact, he most certainly doesn’t), but he allows his new team the chance to win meaningful games in the postseason over the next three years.
From everything that’s been reported, there was no way Popovich was going to commit the final few years of his NBA life to a rebuild. With a man like that at the helm, and a star player like DeRozan under contract, who knows what other tricks San Antonio might have up its sleeve.
Up in Toronto, if the Raptors can convince Leonard to play this season, their core plus an upgrade on the wing might finally be enough to break through to the Finals. New head coach Nick Nurse suddenly has a player widely regarded as a top-five talent in the league on his roster to accompany a deep and talented core. Although, just like in San Antonio, Leonard might not add enough to the Raptors to dethrone the Warriors. However, he suddenly has a better supporting cast to try and give Golden State a run for its money.
Plus, given Toronto’s inability to get out of the East, a Finals appearance in its own right would be considered a success next season.
All around, maybe this wasn’t the deal we expected to get Leonard out of San Antonio, but digesting the move from all angles, it appears to be the most sensible.