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Leading Guards: Simmons, Young Winning in Different Ways

The two point guards in the Eastern Conference second-round matchup are vastly different. While their size and skillsets are polar opposites, their dynamic play is spearheading their championship aspirations.

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Players are often compared to one another, especially when they play the same position. That typically involves players that have the same skillsets and playing styles. Those two things could not be more different between the point guards facing one another in the second round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

The Atlanta Hawks will face the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, and while the spotlight will understandably be on Joel Embiid, the real focus will be on Ben Simmons and Trae Young. Despite being the floor generals, the two guards will not be defending one another in this series. That doesn’t take away the fact that their teams will go as they go, as they try to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Listed at 6-foot-11 and 240 pounds, Simmons has a clear size advantage over Young, who is ten inches shorter and a generous 180 pounds. Simmons, a three-time All-Star, was the top overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft but missed his entire rookie season nursing a foot injury. Young went fifth overall in the loaded 2018 class and has emerged as a transcendent player in the first postseason play of his career.

Both of these young players struggled on losing teams as they began their professional careers, but now they are winning when it matters most. The supporting cast surrounding them is a major reason for their success, but their play on the court has been phenomenal this season. What makes it so interesting is their contrasting styles of play.

The comparisons to Stephen Curry have always been there for Young, even during his days in college at Oklahoma. He has unlimited range, a quick first step off the ball, and has always been a threat when driving to the basket. His floaters in the paint are nearly unstoppable when he has lob threats like Clint Capela, John Collins and De’Andre Hunter.

Young’s skillset is a stark contrast to that of Simmons, who is at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to shooting the basketball. The unwillingness to take perimeter shots of any kind has always been the knock on him, even before he arrived on the LSU campus. His lack of desire to even work on that part of his game has turned off many coaches, but he has shown that he doesn’t need to have a solid jumper to be effective.

Whether it is leading the fast break, setting up and running a halfcourt offense, or simply running a pick-and-roll, Simmons has been a thorn in the side of opposing defenses. His elite passing and ability to make the right decision in transition plays has vaulted the ceiling for Philadelphia’s offense. When many doubters said that he and Embiid simply could not work together, he found a way to prove them wrong.

As good as Simmons is with the ball in his hands, he actually doesn’t keep it for very long. Simmons had a 26.4 Usage Rating in the regular season, which was tied for 91st in the league. Looking at Young, his Usage Rating was a staggering 40.4 which was second in the entire league only behind Luka Doncic. Embiid (39.4) was actually closer, ranking just behind him in third. Most of Atlanta’s offense is driven through Young’s hands, and for good reason.

Despite his scoring going down this season, Young averaged career-highs in assists, free-throw shooting and overall field goal percentage. His shot attempts dropped significantly, largely because he had so many other weapons around him. Floor spacers like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter and Lou Williams have been crucial to their success on offense. Now Young is trusting them, which has paid dividends for Nate McMillan’s team.

Simmons has not seen the statistical improvement that Young has had this season, but he is miles ahead of Young on the defensive end of the floor. Known as a liability on defense, Young simply does not have the tools to even be an average defender. Simmons on the other hand is the ideal build for an elite defender. He has been just that, stopping opposing teams’ best players on a nightly basis, regardless of the position. On the perimeter or inside the paint, Simmons has demonstrated the ability to match up against anyone.

After leading the league in steals last season, Simmons has progressed even more this year under Doc Rivers. While the head coach gets the credit, it is actually assistant Dan Burke that should be getting the praise. After joining the 76ers coaching staff after 22 years with the Indiana Pacers as their defensive guru, Burke has transformed this group into arguably the league’s best defensive team.

Philadelphia had the second-best defensive rating this season because of the weapons they have on their roster. Guys like Embiid, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and George Hill have all bought into Burke’s system. Leading the way is Simmons, who is one of the three finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. It is just another prime example of his exceptional value.

In terms of on-court play translating to team success, both of these players have been exceptional. Young’s 2.22 Real Plus-Minus in the regular season ranked him 45th in the league but Simmons finished ahead of him in 17th with a 3.67 rating. They are both getting to the same destination, just taking different routes to get there.

Both of these teams are oozing with talent, from top to bottom. Each team ranks inside the top three in terms of blocks in the postseason. It is interesting to note that Philadelphia shoots the most free throws per game while Atlanta shoots the fewest of all 16 teams that made the playoffs. That being said, the Hawks rank fifth in free-throw percentage while the 76ers are 15th in that category. That is a direct reflection on these two players.

Young shot 89 percent from the free-throw line in the regular season, compared to just 61 percent for Simmons. Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks put the hack-a-Simmons strategy into play during their first-round series against Philadelphia. It worked to a certain extent, but Rivers was okay with leaving Simmons in the game. Ultimately, it worked out but it will be interesting to see if that is something that McMillan opts to duplicate in this series.

The proverbial saying “there is more than one way to skin a cat” means there is more than one way of achieving a goal. Both Daryl Morey and Travis Schlenk deserve credit for their work this offseason. Philadelphia and Atlanta are just two examples of how to find success utilizing their talented point guards. That is not to say that one is better than the other, but only one of them will advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, while the other goes home.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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