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Scouting Ben Simmons

With help from 76ers coach Brett Brown, Ben Dowsett scouts rookie sensation Ben SImmons’ unique game.

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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.

Scoring

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.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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