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How Ben Simmons thrives without shooting threes

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Ben Simmons already had an outstanding rookie year. How much more should we expect?

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

For Liberty Ballers and CelticsBlog Celtics/Sixers Week, I had a conversation with Alex Kungu of Celtics Blog to discuss Ben Simmons, covering everything from how he dominates without a three-pointer to his potential moving forward. Make sure you’re following Alex on Twitter @Kungu_NBA, and you can find me @TomWestNBA.

Tom West: When looking at how Ben Simmons thrives without needing a jump shot, or even the slightest threat of one to keep defenders guessing what he wants to do, how can you not mention his passing first? He walked into the NBA with the talent and vision to be one of the top passers in the league and fully delivered.

Rookies — or, should I say, players in general — hardly ever have such an advanced combination of awareness, timing, accuracy and feel for the game. Simmons is a terror in transition. When he snags a rebound and opts to tear through defenses to attack the rim or kick to shooters, scrambling opponents often get lost. His poise and decision making in half court settings reached an even higher level as the year went on, culminating in a tear of 10.4 assists to just three turnovers through the Sixers’ 16-game win streak to close the regular season. Put all of that playmaking ability in an explosive, 6’10” machine, and he’s a nightmare to stop.

Alex Kungu: To add to that a bit, one thing I loved about Simmons’ passing is he wasn’t just a guy who only passed for the assist, and was overall a fantastic ball-mover. He was first in the NBA in passes made, and was clearly the engine of the Sixers’ 4th-ranked pace. The Sixers did a fantastic job limiting his lack of shooting by surrounding him with dead-eye gunners that defenses couldn’t help off of. I think as Simmons gets more comfortable shooting in the 12-15 ft range, he’ll open up a little more stuff for himself, but honestly, because he’s such an athletic freak, teams are going to opt to always pack the paint against him and lean toward forcing the shot.

In the playoffs, I think we saw the pros and cons of Simmons highlighted brightly. Against Miami, he showed that he can push around feisty, but smaller defenders, while also blowing by bigger defenders, and that he wouldn’t be rattled by physical play. Against Boston, he showed that if you had a player that was big enough to stay in front of him and quick enough to deter him to the rim, you could contain, and at times completely, take him out of the game. The theme being if you can limit the athleticism advantage Simmons has, you can limit him.

Do you think it’s as simple as “he just needs to shoot it”?

Tom: I totally agree. As the Celtics showed us in the playoffs, forcing him to shoot a few mid-range jumpers (or not shoot at all most of the time) can drastically limit him when you have a bunch of long, switchy defenders to throw at him. While the “shoot a 3, you coward!” crowd are focusing on three-pointers, Simmons adding a mid-range game alone — sprinkling in a few more elbow pull-ups, floaters, left-handed runners, and better post play to his game — will go a long way to diversifying his scoring and making him less predictable.

As for whether he just needs to shoot it, I think that could be the case to an extent. It’s something that’s helped someone like Marcus Smart catch more attention from defenders despite his inefficiency -- he’s always willing to shoot, he’s going to make a few, and he takes enough pull-ups to keep opponents guessing somewhat. That helps. If Simmons starts taking some threes, that *may* encourage defenders to step out a little farther to create space for himself and others. After all, he has to start shooting at some point.

However, defenders should know Simmons will want that so he can burst past with drives inside. And until he looks remotely comfortable shooting from distance (at anywhere near decent efficiency), I don’t think defenses are going to play him too differently.

If he doesn’t add a three-pointer this season (or at least a consistent mid-range jumper), do you think he’ll face a few more struggles in the regular season at all, or will his difficulty just wait until the postseason?

Alex: I think the regular season and the postseason are just two different games. The regular season is a marathon where guys are just trying to get through the 82, and you’ll often hear coaches say they’re mostly focused on their own team. Simmons came into the league with a reputation as a non-shooter and teams actually adjusted to that during the year. The problem is that he’s so talented that it’s not just about giving him space, you have to have players that can give him enough room to avoid the running starts, and strong enough to stifle any interior attacks. On top of that, your defense has to move as a unit and not allow him to get out in transition at all. Outside of the elite squads, that type of discipline and personnel are just not a combination that a lot of teams are blessed with, so I still expect him to have a bunch of success during the first 82.

As for the postseason, teams will be much more prepared to handle him, and I don’t think he can get away with being the same player outside of maybe the first round, and even that depends upon the opposing matchup.

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Tom: They are completely different. Even for teams who think they might have a better understanding now of how to handle Simmons when the regular season starts, it took a perfect combination of long, versatile athletes and possibly the NBA’s best coach in a playoff setting (something new to Simmons) to actually slow him down. That won’t be the case for other teams.

For many fans, I think the Boston series has clouded over just how brilliant Simmons was before then, including the first round against Miami. He took on the aggressive, seventh-ranked defense, and a top coach in Erik Spoelstra, in his first trip to the playoffs and averaged 18.2 points on 50 percent shooting for the series with ease. Embiid wasn’t around to help in the first two games either.

Sure, Simmons’ scoring arsenal is highly limited. But some seem to have forgotten that he can actually score. 15.8 points on 54.5 percent shooting (yes, a lack of jumpers helps his field goal percentage) in the regular season isn’t bad at all. His handle is terrific for someone his size, giving him the ability to power past guards on switches or crossover slower bigs. His efficiency at the rim (a stellar 74.4 percent within three feet) speaks volumes about just how deadly he is inside, seeing as every defender already knows that’s where he wants to go. As you said, he typically just punishes teams that sit back and let him hit full speed. And if he stops favoring his right hand so heavily when attacking the paint and adds a few more tricks, he’ll be even harder to stop.

Alex: So, a big part of predicting how well the Sixers will be comes from how much better Simmons will be from year one to two. Based on his skill set, he appears to have the same strengths and weaknesses from college, but used the year he was out with injuries to better prepare his body so he can translate those skills to the next level. With Jayson Tatum, some people have claimed that because he’s so skilled now, he’s already who he is as a player. Is there any chance that this is just how Simmons is as a player, and if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Tom: There’s an argument to Simmons being who he is, but I don’t think so. If that is the case, it would be disappointing but it isn’t necessarily the worst thing either, because Simmons is still really damn good. We haven’t even mentioned the fact that he’s a terrific defender as well, which caught everyone by surprise — he has instincts very few rookies have, the size and strength to cover forwards and the quickness to switch down and hang in front of guards. And if, worst case scenario, he doesn’t improve much offensively, it’s not the end of the world. He’s still a top-25 talent right now, and even though he’ll face more problems in the playoffs (which would certainly limit the ceiling of him and the Sixers), he does so many other things well at both ends of the floor that there’s only so much you can complain if he doesn’t add much range to his game.

But I’m not worrying too much about that, because I am expecting him to develop. Primarily because it’s not just all about whether he can add a three-pointer or not. Besides some of the interior scoring that we’ve mentioned and how he uses both hands, there are ways he can improve off the ball which I wrote about after the playoffs. For instance, working more as an off-ball screener rather than watching plays or hanging around the baseline, cutting with more frequency, and even just attacking mismatches when they’re presented to him. Maybe if things work out with Fultz, having another playmaker around can unlock those off-ball abilities from Simmons. And if Simmons can ever develop a 3-pointer, the sky really is the limit. He’ll be able to do almost anything he wants.

As someone who watches a lot of Tatum and has considered this claim, where do you stand on Simmons?

Alex: As a fan of the league, Simmons’ potential is exciting because he’s literally a modern day Magic Johnson. What scares me about projecting his development, though, is that when it comes to shooting in general, there’s just a complete unwillingness to even attempt. It makes me wonder if he’s a guy who already sees himself as a top-25 talent and doesn’t feel the need to really add more to his game. I’m not banking on it though. He’s still so young, and he has such a great coach in Brett, that they’ll take baby steps with him while providing him a lineup that plays to his strengths.

But to close, let’s get some predictions: what’s a realistic stat line for Simmons and do you see him making his first All-Star and All-NBA teams this year?

Tom: 17.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 1.8 steals, 1 block. Ultimately, the numbers I’ve gone for are very similar to his rookie season, mainly with just a slight uptick in scoring thanks to some personal development. There are only so many rebounds he can grab in the Sixers’ massive lineups next to Embiid, and Fultz providing an extra dose of playmaking (I’m expecting him to have a big bounce back season) could put a limit on how many assists Simmons can rack up.

I’m not sure Simmons is going to make the leap to All-NBA next season, but I’m going to say that he gets his first All-Star nod. Even with Gordon Hayward healthy and potentially ready to snag another spot, the Eastern Conference is still weak in comparison to the West in terms of star talent. At the very least, there’s no way Goran Dragic beats out Simmons again when the sophomore reiterates how much he can do and (ideally) shows some growth on a top-3 Eastern team.

Your predictions?

Alex: I admittedly am not as locked into the team as you are, but I think averages of 16/7/7 are right in line with improvements as a free throw shooter. At this stage, he’s a lock in my opinion to be an All-Star, but I think the All-NBA bid will fall just short. Overall, that’s an amazing year for a guy only in his second season.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.