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Giannis as Milwaukee’s small-ball center offers Ben Simmons a blueprint for superstardom

When will we see Ben Simmons, point-center, fully unleashed?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

This is the second in our two-part series comparing Ben Simmons to Giannis Antetokounmpo. For Brian Murphy’s part one, read here.

With new head coach Mike Budenholzer in tow, Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo has transformed into a serious MVP candidate. Currently, he is snatching 24% more rebounds, dishing 20% more assists, and scoring 4% more points per shot attempt than last season. If the season maintains its course, Giannis will be the first player ever to average 25 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists. Aside from statistics though, Giannis offers a visual representation of the tectonic shift of modernity in basketball.

Rewind to a few years ago, when the thought of Giannis morphing into a superstar was still a theory. Former Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd had a hypothesis: use the 19-year-old exclusively as a point guard. What followed was a steep learning curve, but the highlights of full-court eurostep finishes kept fans and media alike salivating for more.

During his first season at point guard, Giannis’ sloppy footwork and loose handles were exposed. As a result, he turned the ball over plenty, recording a 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio (sandwiched between O.J. Mayo and Kendall Marshall). However, the Bucks organization was willing to sacrifice the bumps and bruises for the potential of long-term yields.

Giannis increased his sickening 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio to a healthier 1.8 the next season. And while that ratio has bobbed the last two seasons (1.6 and 1.4), Giannis has sprouted into a top-notch creator — peaking at six assists per game this season.

In his first year as Bucks head coach, Mike Budenholzer has already ignited a revolution — the team’s offensive rating jumping from 108.8 last year to 113.2 this season — beginning with experimenting with Giannis at center.

Fans of the Philadelphia 76ers are hoping Ben Simmons — who has similar strengths and weaknesses as Giannis — can emulate the same growth curve. The best path to Simmons reaching the new level is by utilizing him at the center position when Joel Embiid is out of the game.

Wedge the Screener

When Jimmy Butler joined the 76ers, fans’ excitement stirred around the idea of a Butler-Simmons pick-and-roll. The idea was simple: Butler is a talented creator who excels as a pick-and-roll ball handler, while Simmons theoretically presents a mismatch when teams switch the on-ball screen.

With the knowledge of Simmons’ dominance down low (the careening right hook comes to mind), and renowned allergy to shooting, you would think an easy way to alleviate spacing issues would be to roll him into the lane as much as possible. For one reason or another, though, that hasn’t happened.

Giannis, on the other hand, is getting those opportunities as a roll man. His success stems from Budenholzer’s play calls that induce him rolling to the rim flanked by a bounty of snipers.

One play in particular that leverages his length is called “wedge roll 5.” The play provides a simple example of how the Sixers can capitalize on the similarly-built Simmons rolling to the hoop for a bucket or a pocket-pass in the short-roll.

The wedge screen negates teams’ “Ice” strategy — forcing baseline — on ball-screens.

Why does it work?

Because defending this action creates a pick-your-poison scenario. The first poison is to switch the wedge screen, which then allows Giannis to pin the guard defender on the roll or on a re-post on the block (Kevin Knox in the example below).

The second is to not switch the wedge screen, causing the ball defender (Mudiay) to trail the ball-handler (Bledsoe), who, with room to operate, snakes the screen and wiggles through the teeth of the defense.

When this play isn’t applying pressure to the ice approach, the ensuing pick-and-roll is flooding help-side players into unchartered waters.

Here, the help-side did little to buoy Milwaukee’s vicious attack. Noah Vonleh chose not to switch the wedge screen this time, sticking to Giannis like Elmer’s glue. Next, Vonleh “aggressively dropped” — teams do this to force the roll man to shoot and allow the ball-defender to recover — which forced Mudiay to play a game of cat and mouse with Bledsoe and chase him around the ball-screen. In the end, Kanter rotated down to help on Bledsoe’s downhill attack.

This time, Bledsoe denies the screen, but New York can’t account for him because Giannis has a larger target sprawled across his chest. When the Greek Freak is rolling to the hoop, help-side has to keep a periphery on him, which splices open driving layups.

Take this next play, for example: Robinson drops and Hardaway is chasing again, and Mudiay — who was keen of Milwaukee’s past two help-side induced mishaps — planted himself too far on help-side towards the ball-handler (Brogdon), freeing up the swing pass. (Side note: this would also be an opportune time to “7 pass” to Middleton, being that Simmons prefers direct high-low post-up opportunities.)

The end result is Bledsoe 1-2 stepping into a crisp swing pass from Brogdon and knocking down the 3-pointer.

In the above sequence, it’s not difficult to imagine Philadelphia’s pieces falling into place: Redick (or Shamet) as the shooter at the top of the arc, and Butler and Simmons wreaking havoc in the pick-and-roll. In the same way the Bucks utilize “Wedge Roll 5” with Giannis, Philadelphia should use Simmons.

It’s easy to draw comparisons between Brett Brown and Budenholzer because they coached together in San Antonio — from whom they derive their current ‘pace and space’ offenses. But the league is constantly evolving, and Brown realizes as much.

“When you look at our sport, it is increasingly growing to a five-out sport. If it isn’t that, it’s a four-out, one-in sport. It’s not even my opinion, just look at the sport,” Brett Brown said after the report that Joel Embiid was growing frustrated with his newfound role. “With Ben [Simmons] being more capable in that low zone, you know, you’re always trying to put players where they can succeed.”

The Implications of Playing Simmons at Center

In terms of defense, Simmons at the center position is not the be-all, end-all to the Sixers’ backup center issues. Whereas Amir Johnson and Mike Muscala get burned in drop coverage and in the post as a whole, Simmons is a quick-twitch defender, who alleviates pressure on the help-side defense as a result.

Offensively, Simmons has shown enough chops in the post to hold down the fort — with an increase from the 17th percentile to the 49th percentile — and vision as a short-roller to earn himself more opportunities as a small-ball big.

With Embiid’s tires gaining substantial traction lately and Muscala and Johnson severely limited due to their respective roles, Simmons can be an option when Brett Brown feels his team needs a heavy dose of flair.

If Simmons plays center and the Sixers utilize the wedge screen going into him as a roll man, the floor will clear like a tarmac for Simmons to launch into the realm of superstardom.

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