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Ben Simmons is playing like an elite defender

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The third-year guard has turned a significant corner defensively this season

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Philadelphia 76ers James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

For much of Ben Simmons’ career, the conversation surrounding him has involved his offensive growth — or lack thereof. It’s largely been justifiable, as Simmons still doesn’t shoot from the perimeter consistently, has only made marginal improvements as a ball-handler and doesn’t dominate as a finisher like he should at 6-foot-10. However, this discourse fails to acknowledge the other size of the ball, where he’s in the midst of a valuable evolution, though one that’s less easily discernible than simply shooting beyond the arc.

On the aggregate during his NBA career, Simmons’ defensive impact has outpaced his offensive one and it’s also where he holds the most tangible upside. We’ve seen flashes of his ceiling and it seemed as though he figured things out during last season’s playoffs, when he hounded All-Stars Kawhi Leonard and D’Angelo Russell. That level of effort and engagement has extended to the 2019-20 regular season, with Simmons enjoying a leap and looking the part of an All-Defensive First Team candidate.

The film supports this hypothesis but my eye test can only be trusted so much. Metrics also paint Simmons in an positive light and reinforce the fact that he’s no longer just good with spurts of brilliance. He’s elite. The third-year star is fourth among guards in Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (plus-1.88) and third among point guards. His multi-year DPIPM is 0.80, so it’s evident that he’s leaving a greater impact this season than in previous years through 18 games.

Despite missing two games — plus, the majority of another — he leads the NBA in steals (42), is second in steals per game (2.3) and fourth in steal rate (3.3 percent). He’s second in loose balls recovered (41), second in loose balls recovered per game (2.3), third in total deflections (72) and third in deflections per game (4.0). Last year, he was 21st in deflections per game (2.7). The juxtaposition between those final two data points is a noticeable improvement and speaks to his heightened focus off the ball.

All of Simmons’ gifts are being optimized this season. Strength, quickness, length, anticipation and IQ are harmonizing to spawn one of the NBA’s most versatile defenders. At least defensively, he’s emerging as the player everyone envisioned him to be years ago.

One of the most promising areas of growth is Simmons’ physicality in the post, which has been especially apparent since he returned from injury on Nov. 12. He’s doing a better job of using his chest/wide frame to absorb blows and relying on quick hands to disrupt his opponents’ rhythm down low. Making LaMarcus Aldridge, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Love, Julius Randle and Domantas Sabonis uncomfortable in the post is no small feat. By wrangling with them prior to the catch and ensuring they don’t establish deep position inside, Simmons is doing the work ahead of time before staying vertical and mirroring their strength.

None of these guys are Giannis Antetokounmpo, but if Simmons’ interior defense has upgraded in any capacity, that gives the Sixers a better chance to contain him. Giannis’ blend of strength and physicality is nearly impossible to match, but marginal advancements matter in a potential playoff series, even if they don’t mean Simmons has morphed into a Greek Freak stopper.

What makes those clips above so impressive is the fact that his best defensive traits reside on the perimeter. Simmons’ hands are some of the quickest in the league and in conjunction with his rare IQ/anticipation skills, the steal numbers aren’t that surprising when he’s playing this hard every night.

Aside from on the block, Simmons has executed the largest jump as an off-ball defender. More frequently, he’s stunting to stymie drives, contest jumpers or force turnovers, and he’s understanding the proper times to dig down in the post. The former is the primary reason his deflections have increased by nearly 50 percent this season; people are conscious of his dexterity and actively halt dribble penetration when he’s in the area. He’s rotating to cut off passing lanes, getting a paw on almost any ball in his orbit and operating with renewed focus and zeal. Like any defensive roamer, Simmons gambles to a fault occasionally, but generally speaking, his discretion and judgment have been superb. The combination of reaction time and physical tools is fueling this All-Defensive campaign.

This potential has long existed within Simmons. What has held him back is a tendency to gamble too often, meander around screens and not lock in away from the action. Screens remain a sticky nemesis at times, but the other two are no longer flaws in his defensive arsenal.

On-ball defense was — and is — rarely the issue with Simmons, aside from the possessions or games his effort fades. It has continued as a clear plus and Simmons wielding a revved-up motor is shackling dudes. The versatility to contain opposing wings and guards while being equipped to switch onto bigs is a unique trait. It mitigates part of his challenge navigating screens because there’s little concern about power forwards and centers exploiting him if the matchup manifests (although, in this scenario, the other defender has to be serviceable against ball-handlers, too).

Few other players in the NBA could stonewall Karl-Anthony Towns in the post, strip Damian Lillard on the perimeter and deter Jimmy Butler from shooting in his preferred area of the mid-range. Simmons has done exactly that this season — and more.

Functioning with that level of energy and drive also enables him to carry out plays made possible only by his physical gifts. Look at what he’s done recently. Some of it is genuinely special. None of this is normal.

Simmons is not a rim protector but the increased physicality illuminates his true malleability. During his first two seasons, maximizing him meant reserving 1s, 2s and 3s as his assignments, though he was tasked with every position. Now, he’s legitimately capable against 4s and has hinted at competence against some of the NBA’s bulkier, offensive-minded 5s.

Late in Saturday’s win over the Pacers, Simmons and Joel Embiid switched a ball screen. It left Simmons on Sabonis and Embiid on Malcom Brogdon. Indiana did not even consider feeding Sabonis. Brogdon was left to hoist — and miss — a deep pull-up 3 over Embiid. If Simmons had not previously drawn an offensive foul from Sabonis, there’s a chance he’s targeted. Instead, Simmons’ newfound viability in the post relegated the offense to a contested jumper. This is one way his internal development is manifesting externally for the Sixers.

Watching Simmons glide in the open floor, thread passes through a forest of limbs and seamlessly defend various positions provokes one to imagine just how good he can be with a credible jumper. Instead, he’s using the same weapons sparking those awe-inspiring plays — intelligence, speed, strength and awareness — to arrive among the company of elite defenders.

At Sixers Media Day in September, Simmons said he wanted to win Defensive Player of the Year. It’s often a time when waves of empty, optimistic declarations are vocalized. Through a quarter of the season, Simmons is conducting himself as though he’s determined to follow up on that promise. He’s not ascended to that level, but he’s assuredly closed some of the gap between fantasy and reality.

All stats accurate as of games prior to December 1.