When the Philadelphia 76ers won the 2016 NBA Draft lottery, their rebuild instantly transformed. The acquisition of Australian prodigy Ben Simmons finally gave them a creative playmaker and versatile weapon.
The No. 1 pick won’t singlehandedly turn the Sixers around in his rookie year. The franchise still needs to add more dependable cogs, figure out its frontcourt of the future and establish chemistry. And Simmons himself is far from a complete player. However, the 6’10” newcomer owns a rare combination of physical prowess and inventive vision that will bring new energy to Philly.
Those familiar with Simmons’ skills and history know that he’s a special playmaking forward. He’s a remarkable passer who’s struggled as a jump-shooter. Simmons was a dominant slasher and rebounder for LSU, but his defensive effort wavered and coach Johnny Jones failed to consistently put together a winning game plan.
Simmons and the Sixers face one of the most unusual circumstances entering 2016-17. How will the 20-year-old newcomer fit into the club’s crowded frontcourt, and how will coach Brett Brown maximize his talents?
Offensive role, expectations and limitations
It’s tricky to pinpoint how Simmons’ past will translate to his NBA arrival. Philly’s starting lineup isn’t clear yet, and we don’t know how soon general manager Bryan Colangelo will trade one of its bigs. With that in mind, it’s safe to assume Brown will give Simmons the keys to the offense.
Even with the addition of ball-handlers like Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez, Simmons will serve as one of the team’s primary initiators. Philadelphia still isn’t close to sniffing a playoff spot, and Simmons’ represents perhaps their most important developmental piece. He should get plenty of reps from day one.
Colangelo noted Simmons’ versatility and transcendent playmaking vision in a recent chat with Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski:
I think that Ben Simmons can play the point guard or he can play the 4. He’s arguably one of our best players. Instinctively, he sees the floor very well…He’s coming down the floor with great speed, great agility and great vision. I truly have not seen anything like that in some time…A player with his size, strength and speed is something to get excited about.
It’s one thing to have vision. It’s another to have a 6’10” frame, passing accuracy and agile driving skills. Simmons has a knack for quickly delivering passes to teammates before the defense has a chance to react. His NBA opponents won’t be as easily manipulated as his Summer League foes, but here’s a taste of his quarterbacking instincts:
Between his ability to attack the hoop athletically and create for others, Simmons will supply Philadelphia with a ton of offense. Brown can sprinkle in a potent mix of pick-and-rolls and drive-and-dish plays for weak-side shooters.
The biggest question surrounding his rookie year is jump-shooting; Simmons’ scoring production and possession-by-possession effectiveness may be hindered by his erratic outside shot. He converted just 32 percent from the field in Summer League and only attempted one three-pointer. When NBA opponents back off and clog the middle, it will be hard for him to generate offense. Until he proves he can shoot outside the paint, his statistics and the team’s offensive attack will be in check.
While he’s not even close to a three-point threat right now, there’s at least some evidence of shooting confidence from Simmons. He had the green light to work on his mid-range jumper at Summer League, and we might see the effects of that this season.
Simmons’ form and delivery are flawed, especially when it comes to his balance and timing. Fortunately, his mechanics are polishable, and he can sporadically hit jumpers off the catch or dribble. There’s a great chance that he’ll never become a career-long liability (think Rajon Rondo or Ricky Rubio). He’ll begin to prove that this year. Expect him to scatter jumpers like these into the regular season:
For now, his scoring stat line will be modest. He may only tally 12-15 points next season, and that’s partially because he’ll be busy feeding the rock to a combination of Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric.
My projections for his 2016-17 offensive stat line? 14.2 points, 5.5 assists, 47 percent on field goals.
Defense and rebounding
Simmons has good physical attributes for defense. He doesn’t own a tremendous wingspan (6’11”), but he has all the strength, quickness and timing a coach could want from a forward stopper. At the Sixers’ media day Monday, Simmons told reporters he’s gained more than 30 pounds of muscle since his LSU season ended. That puts him right around 250 pounds.
Although he may have the quickness and strength to defend NBA slashers and post players, his effort and execution are in doubt. It takes time for most rookies to grasp the mental side of NBA defense, and he is no different—especially after exhibiting such unsteady defensive energy at LSU.
Last year, he often relied on gambling for steals or blocks instead of containing opponents. Sometimes he didn’t try to stay in front of slashers at all. Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress.com identified some key areas that may plague him early in his NBA career:
(Simmons) would rather swipe at the ball than slide. Doesn’t like to contest jumpers. Soft in rim protection situations. Gives very little resistance as a post defender.
To be fair, he may crank up his defensive effort for Brown. However, it’s reasonable to predict many of his bad habits will spill over to the pro level in the near future. On the bright side, Sixers fans will be treated to a few explosive blocks, thanks to Simmons’ bounciness and terrific timing.
After bulking up this summer, Simmons will crash the glass when opportunities arise. However, he won’t put up the gaudy stats we saw at LSU (11.8 rebounds per game). Simmons will be competing against far superior athletes this season, and he’ll share the floor with some tenacious rebounders like Noel and Embiid. Matt Haughton of CSNPhilly.com explains:
It’s not that he doesn’t possess the physical attributes to be a strong rebounder at the next level. However, playing with a slew of other big men and with all of the responsibilities he will have setting up the offense, hitting the glass could fall on the back burner for Simmons.
Expect Simmons to haul in a respectable, yet modest 6.1 boards per game next season.
These relatively underwhelming stat projections will hurt his chances to dominate the Rookie of the Year conversation. Nevertheless, Simmons will accomplish something more important than ROY next year. He, along with newcomers like Embiid, Saric and Rodriguez, will give the Sixers a more dynamic offensive punch and grind out more wins. Simmons will supply versatility and make plays that the franchise hasn’t seen in years.