One of the stories of the young-ish NBA season has been the revitalization of the Milwaukee Bucks offensively under the direction of new head coach, Mike Budenholzer. In each of the previous four seasons, the Bucks ranked in the bottom five of the league in terms of what percentage of their looks came from beyond the three point line. This year, they’ve made a complete 180 on that trend, currently sitting second in the NBA with 44.4% of their shots coming from long range.
No one has benefited more from Budenholzer’s arrival than Milwaukee superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finds himself near the top of the early MVP standings along with Sixers star Joel Embiid. Antetokounmpo is averaging career highs across the box score, including the number of 3-pointers he attempts per game (2.5), despite only connecting on 11.9% of those tries. This change in Antetokounmpo’s game has caught the attention of some Sixers fans, who have compared it to the lack of shooting from Ben Simmons.
Since debuting last season, comparisons between Simmons and the Greek Freak have been plentiful, and on many levels they make sense — both players are gifted athletes who see the game on a higher level than most, have the height of a modern big with the skills of a point guard, and struggle to shoot the ball.
The difference in regard to that last point is that Antetokounmpo has at least been willing to take shots. With the success the Bucks are having thus far this season, Sixers fans have been asking: even if Ben Simmons found himself with the same woeful percentage as Antetokounmpo, would the Sixers offense benefit today if Simmons started launching from deep?
Early on in Simmons’ rookie season, it became apparent that he was unwilling to shoot 3-pointers, so many Sixers fans began to clamour for Simmons to work on his mid-range game. Simmons obliged, and ended up shooting 46% of his shots in the mid-range area of the court.
The issue, though, is that he only made 37% of those attempts.
This season, much to the chagrin of some fans (but to the benefit of the offense), Simmons has dropped his mid-range frequency down to 30%, increasing his number of shots at the rim from 54% up to 70% of his total attempts. Antetokounmpo has gone through a similar transformation in his game so far this season. After shooting 37% of his shots from the mid-range last year, he’s down to just 23% in 2018-19, while shooting 66% of his shots at the rim.
Since cutting back on his mid-range, Antetokounmpo has had a slight, but noticeable, increase in his 3-pointers, with 14.1% of his total shots coming from deep (up from 10.0% last season). For a player leading the league in dunks, it seems like a bit of a waste to spend time shooting threes when you’re only connecting on 11.9% of them — almost like giving the defense a break.
To some extent, it is just that, like the play below where Andre Drummond gives Antetokounmpo acres of space and pulls off a late contest on the three ball.
Players like Antetokounmpo and Simmons can become extreme matchup problems for defenses and will often find themselves with smaller players trying to guard them on the perimeter. Unlike Drummond, Chandler Hutchinson doesn’t have the length to pull off the late contest that Drummond does.
Although Hutchinson’s close perimeter defense caused the miss on the 3-point attempt, it has no effect on Antetokounmpo when he decides to put his head down and roll to the rim.
This is where the addition of even a putrid 3-point shot could potentially benefit Ben Simmons.
Ben Simmons is conservatively a top-30 player in the world and one of the most creative passers in the league today. Yet, with the ball in his hands in both screen grabs above, there is not a single defensive player even looking at him.
Too often, defenses are able to dismiss Simmons as a threat from beyond the arc, giving poor defenders the ability to make up for their lack of strength, size, and speed on Simmons, just because they know that he is not even going to think about attempting a shot from deep.
Simmons’ complete lack of a jumper also makes half court actions run for his teammates all too predictable, allowing defenders to completely sell out on stopping his pass once he picks up his dribble.
For Simmons to be considered an elite player and reach his full potential, he doesn’t necessarily have to develop a good or even consistent jump shot, but he does need to be enough of a threat from beyond the arc for defenders to view him as a threat.
Antetokounmpo is not alone in his uptick in 3-point shots, as everyone from Jusuf Nurkic to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has been hoisting from beyond the arc, contributing to the offensive explosion the league has experienced this season.
As the team’s point guard, Ben Simmons holds the keys to Philadelphia’s offense — if the Sixers want to shift their game into the next gear, it will ultimately be Simmons who has to flip the switch.