One common critique of Ben Simmons’ game is inconsistent aggression. At times, he’s an unstoppable freight train, hurtling past opponents towards the rim. At others, he picks up his dribble too early or fails to attack mismatches, falling into more passive spells of play. With the Philadelphia 76ers’ acquisition of Jimmy Butler, a new star who would force Simmons to spend more time off ball, there were understandable questions of exactly how well they’d fit. But 13 games in, Simmons and Butler have been thriving together, and Simmons has actually upped his aggression.
In the 12 games since Butler’s debut with the Sixers (an unsurprisingly awkward feel-it-out game), Simmons has averaged 16.6 points (63.1 percent shooting), 9.1 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. Besides just developing chemistry with his new co-star at an impressive rate — whether it’s through dribble hand-offs, breakaway connections in transition, Butler’s strong cutting, or the occasional pick-and-roll — Simmons has been showcasing everything in his repertoire with the kind of attitude that always increases his impact.
Entering this season, one of the key ways for Simmons to improve was post play. Despite a wealth of size and athleticism at 6’10”, he lacked the footwork, left-hand ability, or touch around the basket to be of much use on the block. Right-handed jump hooks were his crutch. Fast forward to now and his post-ups are still a work in progress — he’s going to be developing all of those weaknesses for a while — but he’s clearly better. Climbing from the 17th percentile on post-ups as a rookie to the 49th is one of his best numbers on the season thus far.
One way he has taken a step forward is by seeking out better spots to go to work. Quick duck-ins under the basket have always been an ideal way for Simmons to establish deep positioning and rely on his physical prowess, rather than touch or range farther from the basket (he has made a mere three shots from beyond 10 feet, but that’s a topic for another day).
Now, he’s looking to do that more, showing how effectively he can seal off his man, hunt for mismatches when possible, and create quick layups or hook shots. Having a new playmaker to find him in Jimmy Butler helps, too (it's part of the reason Simmons' percentage of assisted field goals has increased from 34.4 last season to 41.7 this year):
What’s more impressive is how Simmons has been attacking in the best way he knows how: by facing up from the elbows/mid-post and either barreling through people or sweeping across the lane, armed with size and speed that’s hard for many defenders to handle. One way or another, he can often find mismatches against smaller defenders or opposing fours who can't match his acceleration:
Simmons’ early outburst against Detroit on December 10 (11 first quarter points on 5-of-5 shooting) was the latest example of him at his best. He could bully the smaller Bruce Brown, or leave Jon Leuer hopeless when building up speed from the basket.
Some of this face-up success likely accounts for Simmons’ elevated efficiency in isolation this season as well, jumping from the 56th percentile on iso plays in 2017-18 to the 77th currently. On his 8.6 drives per game, he’s shooting 50.6 percent (up from 46.3 percent last season). When he wants to be a weapon downhill, it changes the way he can collapse defenses.
Simmons has also done more damage with cleaner footwork and a few fakes here and there — not to mention increased comfort to go to his left hand a little more often around the basket. Post-ups like the first one in particular are encouraging. An up-and-under move going into a left-handed finish is nothing jaw-dropping, but it's something we've hardly seen from Simmons before. On December 2, he had his way scoring inside against Memphis’ sixth-ranked defense (19 points on 8-of-10 shooting):
The aggressive scoring isn’t without fault, though. He ranks in the 24th percentile for transition plays largely because he’s turning the ball over 29.1 percent of the time, forcing too many passes that are either careless or overly ambitious even for his rare talents. But, of course, he’s always going to have unstoppable spells where his playmaking wizardry does click or he puts his head down and explodes to the rim himself:
His defense shouldn’t be overlooked either. Simmons has generally been highly engaged on that end of the floor, with Butler's intense presence and their new headband “brotherhood” as a likely factor to some degree.
“They are defensive brothers,” Brett Brown said at a press conference at the start of December. “They are blood brothers. That band to me signifies a bonding, a defensive bonding. I’ve asked Jimmy to put Ben under his wing and really help Ben be all he can be defensively.”
Simmons has been rebounding at a high level and switching all around the floor as usual, playing hard on the ball with a solid stance and nippy footwork. He also comes away with plenty of disruptive plays around the perimeter and when providing extra help at the rim.
Simmons’ early chemistry with Butler is one thing. They've been spending almost all of their minutes together (Butler has played 379 of his 415 Sixers minutes with Simmons) and connecting in a variety of ways. Even though Butler doesn't get as many creative opportunities while sharing the floor so much with Simmons, they've been great together, with defensive versatility that's incredibly valuable at the other end of the floor as well. Their impact on that end has been especially important as they’re required to lead the defense when Joel Embiid is on the bench.
But beyond all of that, Simmons' individual play has gone up a notch lately. If he’s using his unique skill set with this kind of assertiveness to accompany Butler’s impact and Embiid’s MVP campaign, then the Sixers can continue to surpass expectations in the adjustment stage of the Jimmy Butler era.