With a starless free agency and no likely trade for Jimmy Butler on the horizon, development is the way for the Philadelphia 76ers to take a step forward. For the Sixers to hit their 2019 upside, a lot rests on the shoulders of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz.
For Simmons, the focus of many will be 3-pointers until we see him embrace them beyond a few hopeful half-court heaves. To the disappointment of some fans, though, he’s basically ruled out the idea of hitting 3s this season. However, it doesn’t rule out mid-range growth, and there’s still a host of ways for him to improve beyond a 3-point shot, including his post game.
His struggles in the post last season can pretty much be summed up in one ugly number: he ranked in the 13th percentile on post-ups (scoring a mere 0.69 points per possession).
Whenever Simmons found some success in the post, it generally only came through a couple of avenues: quick finishes after finding deep positioning and right-handed jump hooks.
He’s best when he embraces his physicality. He has the strength to overpower and back down guards and plenty of wings. Finding consistency on his touch will be vital, but when he forces his way to the basket, he’s shown signs of the upside he has with his feel near the rim and size to float the ball over opponents:
Despite flashes of success, though, Simmons’ post play is limited to say the least. For all the size and strength he possesses, he didn’t have the footwork or diversity to maximize it.
However, as Sixers fans will be pleased to hear, it sounds like he may have been putting in the necessary training this offseason to start addressing just that.
“Everyday was different,” Simmons said at Sixers media day when talking about his offseason workouts. “Could be footwork one day. Touch around the rim another day... Getting a lot of shots up and reps, and just trying to correct some things.”
Brett Brown has made some of his aims for Simmons crystal clear, including his post play.
“His jump shot’s not going to define him,” Brown said, per Dan Gelston of the Associated Press. “At some point, it will sure help. But I have aspirations, ambitions for him where I want him to feature on an all-defensive team. I personally want to post him more.”
Predictability may be a bigger flaw in the post than anywhere else on the floor. A player might only have one or two go-to dribble moves when eying up their man at the arc, but if they have so much explosiveness that they can blow past guys anyway, it doesn’t matter quite as much. If you only have one move in the post and no footwork to stand your ground and manoeuvre around your man, it’s far easier to be held one way and defended.
Consistent touch was an issue for Simmons. At times, his right-handed hooks looked soft, a shot smaller defenders shouldn’t be able to stop. At other times, it was clunky and forced.
He’d often get held at bay by his defender, even by guards at times. Without a trusty left hand or the nimble, creative footwork to do anything too surprising, he became much easier to guard. The result was too many misses where he lost ground to his opponent, picked up his dribble, and settled for long, difficult righty hooks:
This is partly why his field goal percentage fell off even more than you might expect in the paint. In the restricted area, he shot a stellar 71 percent. In the paint outside of the restricted area, that number plummeted to 39.6. Not being able to routinely exploit mismatches against smaller players is something that held him back.
These the kind of scenarios where Simmons needs to stay poised, keep his dribble alive and look for a secondary move if he isn’t going to pass. Cleaner footwork would be a major help with this. If he’s able to experiment with more fakes, up-and-unders, and running hooks across the lane to keep defenders guessing, it won’t be so easy to force him out of his comfort zone.
Another key development he needs to make is the use of his left hand. He heavily favored his right hand inside all season, which, as you’d expect, encouraged him to go right in the post almost every time. We saw more of the same against playoff defenses — excluding two-handed dunks and tips, he shot 9-of-31 with his left (primarily upping those numbers through jumpers) and 38-of-83 with his right through the postseason. Simmons will continue to rack up too many misses like those above if defenders can always force him one way.
Increasing his off-ball movement is something else to work on. Despite ranking in the 88th percentile on cuts, he wasn’t always active enough off the ball to maximize the explosiveness he has to soar to the rim.
These are the kinds of plays that can help with that, giving him not just quick layups at times, but far better positioning to make his life easier with short post-ups. In moderation — as defenses won’t be caught off guard all the time by a player who won’t spot up from 3 — initiating plays this close to the rim removes the obstacle of needing to beat opponents with footwork somewhat:
Furthermore, with Markelle Fultz set to have a notable role this season, having a new playmaker around should help Simmons off the ball. It can encourage more activity from him as a rim roller and cutter, creating more chances for him to seek out openings around the basket to drop in quick finishes.
“I look forward to using [Simmons] as a screener,” Brown added to the Associated Press, “and giving Markelle the ball and let him roll out of it, that Blake Griffin-sort of half-roll and go to dunk.”
Another way for Simmons to improve could be attacking from the mid-post more often. Using more face-up moves or posting up with runners across the lane is an easy way for Simmons to unleash his speed to get the best of defenders, rather than relying on strength and footwork alone to bang on the low block too much. We saw moments when sweeping to the basket looked easy for him:
Again, to avoid predictability, this is where using his left hand more and any extra range will help keep defenders guessing. The latter will be essential in upping his ceiling as a scorer. But even if players back off him a little from the mid post, he still has a powerful first step and speed to fly to the rim. And, dare I say, draw more fouls to make the most of his tightened free throw form? Brown has mentioned that he wants to see Simmons get to the line more.
At day one of training camp, Brown also said that Simmons has been working to be more confident as a scorer, per The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann. “The reality of the summer was going to be looking at the rim and if people backed off you, to find a way to feel confident, comfortable on punishing that,” Brown said. “And I think that he’s getting there.” If that is the case, more assertiveness from the mid post would be one way to show it.
Four-out lineups that surround Simmons with shooting could be the best way to coax this out of him. In these scenarios — think of an accompanying quarter of J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Mike Muscala — Simmons can attack inside to provide another dynamic to groups with the necessary spacing to keep defenses stretched around him.
Being supported by a host of shooters will open up extra windows for Simmons to flourish as a passer from the post as well. The more often funky sets like this are used — where point guards post up as passers, guards screen, and power forwards flare off them to shoot — the better:
At this point, there's only so critical you can be of Simmons’ post game given all the other talents he brings to the table. He’s 22 years old. Not every young player can be a post maestro like fellow Sixer Joel Embiid.
Nevertheless, to diversify a half-court scoring arsenal that will still lack 3-point range, an elevated post game would be a valuable weapon to have. Given the adjustments he can make, his training this summer, and how Brett Brown wants to use him, making it come to fruition should be a point of emphasis over the coming months.