Note: All stats and figures are as of January 26, 2019, prior to Philadelphia’s game in Denver.
A disclaimer: I’ve put together a few of these observation pieces throughout the season and while it’s been wildly sporadic to this point, my goal is to make this a weekly column. It helps organize my thoughts in a coherent manner and it’s just a fun thing to do. So if I’m a man of my word — I’d like to think I am — expect these every week from me moving forward.
Let’s dive in.
Ben Simmons as a roll man — and his cameos as a volleyball player
Ask most NBA writers or analysts about ways to unlock Simmons’ versatility and they’ll point to his potential as a screener in pick-and-rolls. He’s chiseled, he’s turbo-charged, he’s one of the league’s trickiest passers. All of it makes sense, especially now that Jimmy Butler — a star with off-the-bounce zest — is in town. Since Butler joined the Philadelphia 76ers, Simmons has operated more as an on-ball screener. But a look into Synergy reveals he has registered just nine possessions as a roll man this year, a number that doesn’t harmonize with the eye test.
From my vantage point, a large part of that is because of a philosophical divide in how most expect Simmons to be utilized after screening and how the Sixers actually practice it. Rather than glide to the rim and draw defenders close, Simmons tends to feel the smaller defender on his hip or back and lay into him, establishing position. The goal, more often than not, seems to be to prompt a switch and generate paint touches. I’d be willing to bet Synergy labels possessions like these as post-ups rather than pick-and-rolls for Simmons:
Simmons certainly sports the ability to thrive as a roll man, particularly off quick dribble handoffs in semi-transition, but he is still developing in that role. There are many possessions when he screens and either searches out a post-up or just meanders, struggling to add value. Both habits clog the floor for ball handlers and reveal some of his off-ball flaws. Whether or not turning pick-and-rolls into post-ups is a product of Simmons’ delayed growth curve as a roll man, or his lack of dynamic instincts as the result of that approach, is tough to discern. Either way, it’s worth noting that he is utilized as a screener frequently, just not in the form most expect or want.
This next observation isn’t particularly insightful, so I apologize. It’s merely a trend I enjoy watching play out most games. Simmons loves spiking offensive rebounds with unrelenting gusto and force. He is the 6-foot-5 kid in high school gym class with zero volleyball skills who pounces on any opportunity to hammer the ball into oblivion:
These are not just novel plays with scant impact. When Simmons is on the floor, Philadelphia snags 28.4 percent of available offensive rebounds. Without him, it grabs just 25.9 percent. Among players still on the Sixers, only Joel Embiid has a more drastic on-off chasm (minimum 20 minutes played per game). This is one of the areas where stationing him at the dunker’s spot proves beneficial. He is around the rim, positioned with a 7-foot wingspan to produce more offensive possessions and out-leap defenders. If he were spotted up at the 3-point line, it’s less likely he would be available to affect the offensive rebound battle to such a high degree.
Landry Shamet growing defensively
While Shamet remains a negative on defense, allowing dribble penetration, getting out-muscled by most ball-handlers and targeted in the post, there have been signs of improvement in recent weeks. Study him all season and it was clear that he could develop into a serviceable defender at some stage of his career. He’s smart, has decent size at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, and is reasonably quick — especially when not caught flat-footed.
In 12 games since January 1, the Sixers are posting a 100.8 defensive rating with Shamet on the floor and a 107.8 mark when he heads to the bench. Prior to that, Philly was bleeding 109.9 points per 100 possessions with Shamet and surrendering just 101.0 without him. Those stark differences are not the be-all, end-all in regards to defensive growth but hint at an upward trend.
And it’s not like Shamet is playing all of his minutes next to defensive stalwarts like Simmons, Embiid, or Butler. Here are all his two-man pairings since the turn of the calendar:
And here they are prior to January 1:
Shamet is snaking and fighting around screens with newfound verve, using his length as a nuisance against shorter ball handlers, containing drives with zippy footwork, and displaying increased awareness off the ball:
This recent sample of games isn’t likely to continue all year and there’s still a high probability he serves as a liability at some point in the playoffs. But this is progress. He is a better defender now than he was three months ago. An offseason in the weight room will help mitigate some of his strength deficiencies, while sustained rotation minutes will foster a higher basketball IQ. Shamet continues to look the part of a high-value first-rounder.
JJ Redick’s odd relationship with the paint
Only 13 percent of Redick’s shots come at the rim — third percentile among combo players, per Cleaning the Glass — and for seemingly good reason. Nearly every time he floats into a congested paint, it’s an adventure.
He takes off from awkward angles:
Attempts wrong-footed layups:
And stops short to brace for contact, flicking up mini-runners:
Redick is shooting 62 percent in the restricted area (77th percentile), his best mark since 2013-14, so the off-beat approach has yielded above-average returns to this point. But nothing ever feels secure or predictable for him in there. Maybe that’s why 56 percent of his looks come beyond the arc. The key isn’t always fun for 6-foot-4, athletically limited 34-year-olds.