With the selection of Ben Simmons as the first pick tonight, the Sixers have given themselves a second chance at a Top 5 NBA player and league-altering superstar. If the team can pair him with a healthy Joel Embiid, they could have a 1-2 punch in the frontcourt unmatched since the Duncan-Robinson pairing at the turn of the century. Even without Embiid's continued health, Simmons has the potential to be a franchise-altering centerpiece, who can single-handedly drag the Sixers to the top of the Eastern Conference if he reaches his considerable ceiling.
The allure with Simmons obviously starts with his incredible handle for a 6'10 forward and his generational passing vision. It is not an overstatement to say that he is the best passer coming into the NBA above 6'8 since LeBron James. He was that good at LSU. ESPN ran a piece by Luke Knox earlier this week that had some wonderful graphics showing the extent to which he excelled as a passer. He is adept at passing in transition, out of the pick and roll, or out of post-ups, demonstrating better passing numbers than his guard compatriots.
More than simply being an unselfish player, Simmons has outstanding vision. He makes some reads that most players wouldn't even know existed. The play that most stands out to me from the season was against North Florida.
... I mean. That's nuts. He's making a pass in traffic with his off-hand, BEHIND HIS HEAD, to a wide open corner shooter. No other player in college basketball could have made that play this season. Arguably, only John Wall could have made that play in the last 6 years, and he's 6 inches shorter than Simmons.
It's not only the vision and physical tools that are outstanding, though. When he posts up, he swings passes out to teammates as the defense is beginning to rotate towards him. His read is a full rotation ahead of the defense. (Thanks to YouTube user Tobias Go-To-Guys for most of these videos).
He can do this with either hand, and in all offensive situations. This one might be even prettier. Again, notice how the defense hasn't even fully rotated to double him, and he has already picked out the open shooter:
Here he is with an outlet pass Kevin Love would be proud of:
He doesn't dribble, he just turns, sees the open man, and places a pass right on the money. With the Sixers' desire to run, and play uptempo (assuming that remains a desire with Colangelo having replaced Hinkie), Simmons will constantly find teammates for easy looks at the hoop.
From Knox's article on ESPN, he averaged 7.5 assists per 100 possessions. Compared to big men in the NBA standing greater than 6'9, only Giannis Antetokounmpo, at 6.2 assists per 100 possessions, and Pau Gasol (6.4) really compare.
Passing is great, but it doesn't make a superstar on its own. The great news is that Simmons was also an incredibly efficient scorer. The worries about the jump shot are legitimate, but because of his handle, outlier mobility, strength, ambidexterity, and touch, he is an enormous challenge to contain. He has a comfortable right hook shot in the post, and he's got the athleticism to elevate over smaller defenders and toss in short floaters. But probably his most common manner of scoring is through face up drives. Because he has such a strong handle and an elite first step for a player of his size and strength, Simmons gets going downhill very easily, and converts with aplomb.
Simmons struggled at times to beat defenders who sagged 10 feet off of him in college, but as his shot improves, he gets involved in more sophisticated plays, and he benefits from improved spacing at the NBA level, I expect this problem to be alleviated somewhat.
Simmons was also an outstanding rebounder. He has great, although not elite, jumping ability for a big man, he has a strong, developed body, and he was textbook at boxing out his opponents when he decided to be. His 18.2% total rebound percentage almost matched Karl-Anthony Towns' output from the year before. Bringing those kinds of rebounding chops to the 76ers will help to make up for Noel's and Okafor's own deficiencies as rebounders, and could make the Sixers a terror if Embiid ever gets healthy.
It's the defensive side of the ball where Simmons has the most questions. While he has outstanding size for a power forward, his wingspan is a little below average, at only 6'11, and it shows in his poor block numbers. Simmons only accrued 27 blocks this year despite playing somewhat of a center role on defense for LSU, and BLK% of 2.5 suggests he'll never be a rim protector. Beyond that, many have questioned his desire to play defense, and it's not hard to tell that he takes plays off on that end relatively often.
I am among the more bullish evaluators of Simmons' defense, largely because of his elite lateral quickness, very quick hands, and outstanding basketball IQ. When I watched Simmons play defense, he doesn't strike me as not understanding where to be, or as being slow to react-- he simply chooses not to make the rotation sometimes. This isn't encouraging in that you would ideally prefer for your star player to put in his maximum effort on defense at all times, but when you shoulder the type of offensive burden that Simmons has at every stop in his career, it is more understandable that he should want to save himself on defense sometimes.
Moreover, when you watch Simmons, you can see him flip a switch and decide he wants to defend. Suddenly, his feet move a little more quickly, and he forces a dribbler into the baseline or draws a charge. To my eye, he understands where to be and has the tools to get there, it's just a matter of putting in the effort. This is differs from Jahlil Okafor, for example, because Okafor doesn't fully grasp rotations and also doesn't have the foot speed to make up for his slow decision making. While both suffer from a lack of effort, one is eminently more correctable than the either.
It can also be seen in Simmons' defensive numbers at LSU. His DBPM, while not outstanding, was above average for a power forward prospect at 5.3. Simmons' DRtg of 98.4 was also considerably below LSU's team rating of 104.9. Both of these are the type of positive indicators that Okafor lacks, to go along with the understanding of the game, and the foot speed to stick with any player he wants.
His hands, foot speed, and IQ make Simmons an outstanding defensive prospect, in my mind. Several times a game, he'll engage fully on defense, and implode a team's entire offensive possession. Here, he uses quick hands to almost generate a steal, then switches onto Cat Freaking Barber, one of the fastest point guards in the entire NCAA, and rises to swat his shot at the hoop. While the block is out of the ordinary for Simmons, the rest is not.
Here, he starts in Cody Martin's grille, playing to prevent the shot, but easily slides in front of Martin's drive, despite unfavorable starting position, contests the shot, and pokes the ball away.
And Simmons' hands may be the best part about his defensive prospects. His 3.1% steal rate was outstanding regardless of position, but was elite among power forwards. A frontcourt pairing of Noel and Simmons could generate steals, arguably the most valuable play in basketball, at historical rates.
Simmons is an outstanding prospect, and thoroughly deserving of the number one pick. If he can improve his jumper to acceptable levels and put in effort on defense, he has a chance to be a perennial MVP contender. All we need to do now is relax and come along for the ride. The Sixers' future has never looked brighter.