Last month, an agreement between Basketball Australia, Foxtel and the ABC ensured all 60 games of the WNBL season would be shown live across the country – and Bec Cole of the Southside Flyers was an unexpected beneficiary.
The Philadelphia 76ers are five games into their 2017/18 season, and Ben Simmons is off to a dream start.
Before we look at his individual play, it must be noted that the 76ers have not been very successful as a team – they are sitting at 1-4.
However, all four losses are forgivable, having come at the hands of elite opponents in the Rockets, Wizards, Celtics and Raptors. When faced with a weaker foe in the Pistons, Philadelphia took care of business and won handily 97-86.
While this young squad needs to figure out how to secure victories, Simmons and centre Joel Embiid have been among the league’s most exciting players.
Around three weeks ago, I wrote how Simmons could take home the rookie of the year award on the back of his varied skill set. After a few games, I feel more confident than ever about my belief in the big forward.
A quick look at his box scores is enough to see that the former first overall pick has been stuffing the stat sheet – he’s putting up averages of 17 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7 assists in 34.6 minutes per game.
It’s a small sample size, but Simmons’ success isn’t just on paper. He looks poised and mature for a rookie and oozes confidence while bringing the ball up the floor to initiate the offence.
His size and athletic ability always indicated that he could be a versatile player that contributed in all aspects of the game, and it’s encouraging to see him live up to these expectations.
Simmons is playing to his strengths well. He’ll put the ball on the floor to get to the rim for high percentage shots and use his size to secure rebounds. His 208cm height simply makes him unguardable for some players who are left waving their arms helplessly in his face as he soars over them for easy lay-ins.
As the floor general, his passes have been timely and accurate, which keeps the offence operating at a crisp pace.
Against the Pistons, he became the first rookie this season to record a triple-double, as he put up 21 points, 12 rebounds, and ten assists.
Before the season started, many people were anxious to see how Simmons would perform on defence. After giving little effort on that end at LSU, he gained a reputation as a poor defender and many people were unsure of how he would handle his duties on that side of the ball in the NBA.
In my article, I stated that Simmons’ lateral quickness and size would make him a good defender if he could simply find a way to stay locked in. Through his first few games, he has proven that to be true with high energy efforts that have given opponents a lot of trouble.
ESPN writer Zach Lowe was also impressed with Simmons’ play on that end of the floor.
Ben Simmons is reeeeaaallllly good, even beyond the obvious stuff. Under control on defense, good balance/footwork when engaged.
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) October 24, 2017
People have been caught up in his offensive stats, but his defence has continued to fly under the radar. His size is allowing him to switch onto multiple positions, and his long arms are disrupting passing lanes.
If you managed to catch the 76ers versus Rockets game yesterday, there are more than a few moments in the first half where Simmons showed off his defensive skills.
He’s always had the tools to be successful on defence, and if the effort stays at this level, his potential becomes even more intriguing.
Concerns and room for improvement
My main worry for Simmons heading into the season had to do with his poor shooting ability. I was worried that his inability to prevent the defence from sagging off would hamper his offensive production.
If you look at his shot chart, you’ll see Simmons is keeping his field goal attempts mostly within 14 feet of the basket, with the overwhelming majority of them coming from inside the paint.
At the moment, he’s shooting 51 per cent from two-point range and has not yet attempted a three-pointer. I actually view this as a good thing because it shows he knows his limitations.
Some players allow their egos to get the best of them and will jack up poor shots to the detriment of their team, but Simmons has avoided falling into this trap so far. Of course, I would love to see him add even an average three-point shot to his skill set at some point.
All in all, the lack of jump shooting has not hurt him as much as I feared, and that is down to his size. I want to draw a comparison with one of this season’s most dominant players – Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo is listed at a shade taller with a bigger wingspan, but the point is that both players are huge ballhandlers with shaky jump shots.
The Bucks star is the current favourite for MVP behind his monstrous averages of 36.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.3 steals per game, and has been using his size to get to the basket at will.
Now, he’s stronger, more aggressive and more experienced than Simmons is – but it’s a blueprint of what Simmons can strive to be.
The ability to put the ball on the floor and get close to the basket with huge steps and sheer power helps make up for not being a reliable threat from outside. Simmons has appeared to recognize this, taking advantage of his size to bully smaller players and work his way to the rim.
Check out a few moments from this video to see some examples of Antetokounmpo abusing his length to score:
As Simmons adds on muscle and continues adjusting to the NBA game, I believe that he can begin to further emulate the Greek Freak’s style of play and supplement it his superior passing ability. A more refined set of post moves will also allow him to take advantage of mismatches down low.
Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that Simmons is still just 21 years old. He has plenty of time to work on his game, and he’s not going to be perfect in his rookie season. These are simply things to watch as he progresses through his career.
Another area to watch is Simmons’ free throw percentage. At the moment, he’s putting up a worrisome 61.5% from the line. Hopefully, this improves as the sample size grows larger – a big, physical player that likes to drive is going to draw a lot of fouls, and you would like to see him connecting on at least 70 per cent of his foul shots.
How’s the rookie competition?
It is obviously far too early to declare Simmons the best rookie in the NBA. However, he has separated himself from the pack as the only player to sit in the top two among rookies in scoring, rebounding and assists per game.
Preseason favourite Lonzo Ball has played well enough but hasn’t quite made the same splash that Simmons has.
In my eyes, the real competition comes from Boston’s Jayson Tatum, who was forced into playing major minutes after Gordon Hayward’s injury and has been extremely impressive.
A dark horse to watch out for is Chicago’s Lauri Markkanen, who has been fantastic offensively and recently became the first player to record ten made three-pointers through his first three games.
Ben Simmons’ blazing start has surprised even his staunchest supporters. His ability to affect all areas of the game means that he’ll always be a net positive for the 76ers, even if he’s having an off night shooting.
With each passing year, the NBA becomes more and more about versatility. It’s not enough to just be a phenomenal scorer or a bruising rebounder – a player needs a wide-ranging skill set to be considered among the best.
Simmons is showing us that he has the ability to star in the modern game. He’s running away with the rookie of the year award and demonstrating that he’ll be an All-Star selection for years to come.