It was December 5th — in a game versus the then-first-place Toronto Raptors — and Ben Simmons was cooking.
Well, cooking by his definition. He had two points and two assists. His two buckets came via duck-in bunnies (right-handed, mind you), and the two assists were zippy cross-court heaves.
On one play, he grabbed the rebound, dribbled to half court, whirred by Kyle Lowry, and stared past the long-limbed, defensive menace Kawhi Leonard.
Jimmy Butler never signaled for the basketball. His arms didn’t flail in the air; they popped up right as Simmons wraps the ball behind his back. Butler sneaks behind the pack of Raptors like Chris Pratt in Jurassic World. When Simmons pinpoints Butler isn’t obvious, either. Maybe it was after he twirled the ball around Landry Shamet, as his chin lifted. Could have been when he looked over the top of Lowry’s head. Or when he broke into the second line of defense. Whatever the moment, Simmons ultimately found Butler.
That’s the story of Ben Simmons. Simmons dishes out 7.5 assists per game and 10 assists per 100 possessions through his first two seasons, placing him in the company of 15 players (Sherman Douglas, Tim Hardaway, Mark Jackson, Jason Kidd, Brevin Knight, Stephon Marbury, Nate McMillan, Chris Paul, Damon Stoudamire, Jamaal Tinsley, and John Wall).
The list essentially consists of young players two traits: 1) innate passing, and 2) an inability to shoot. Four of the 15 players made 10 or fewer 3-pointers in both seasons. John Wall made three his second season, 31 fewer than his rookie season. Former Charlotte Bobcats point guard, Brevin Knight, even attempted fewer triples than Ben Simmons (12 to 15).
A trend, therefore, is made clear: young, elite passers tend to miss shots. Passing is their survival tactic, a unique skill which allows them to carve out a defined role in a world filled with shooters and scorers. A way to thrive in a league in which 31.9 3-point attempts are taken per game, double the amount 15 years ago.
Simmons is a different beast, however. Here are the quartet of passing skills that separate him from the pack.
Post-ups for days
At 6-foot-11, 238 pounds, Ben Simmons is a matchup nightmare for just about anyone. In the post, that statement rings especially true.
Too big for guards, too fast for centers, too much of both for forwards, his feline-like instincts are impossible to match. Always one move ahead, he flings one-handed passes to cutters.
While Simmons prefers to find cutters out of the post, he understands that forcing post-passes doesn’t work all the time.
Defenses will do anything in their power to stop him. Sometimes, that means swarming with double teams. It also translates to clogging the lane with “helpside” defense.
But Simmons counters either decision with instinctual prowess. He, first, probes defenders by slowly dribbling. Then, he threads the needle to the corner shooter with a southpaw sidewinder, or “retreat-dribbles” and tosses a bounce pass off his back foot.
The play above shows how the Australian guard understands his surroundings. He knows the strongside defender, John Collins, isn’t going to “dig” because he is guarding one of the best catch-and-shoot players of all-time, JJ Redick. Simmons feels Huerter on his hip, forcing him to his weak right hand. He also knows spinning right would allow Bembry to rotate. Most importantly, Simmons sees Jeremy Lin, the weak-side defender, creeping farther onto helpside.
Timing is everything. Throwing the ball too early would allow the weak side defender to tip the ball, but throwing it too late would force helpside to rotate, which, in turn, would shut the window.
Simmons throws the pass right before Dewayne Dedmon has time to rotate, and before Jeremy Lin can think of intercepting.
There are few players who can make this read. Only the Golden State Warriors forward-trio of DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, in fact, have a higher assist percentage in the post than Ben Simmons for players with four or more post-ups per game, according to NBA.com’s tracking data.
Those players exist in a friendlier ecosystem. Steve Kerr deploys a free-flowing, pass-centric offense which promotes off-ball action. The low-post split for a Stephen Curry triple provides one example. Most of Brett Brown’s offense, on the other hand, consists of either handoffs or post-touches for Joel Embiid. There isn’t much versatility, but Simmons makes it less predictable.
The play also caters to Simmons’ strengths. His weakness is his jump shot, but he operates best in the grey area — not too close, yet not too far from the rim. Simmons, in pick-and-rolls — whether as the screener or ball-handler — tends to be clunky. Put him too close to the rim, though — the short corner for example — and the lane clogs up.
When Ben Simmons makes advanced reads from the post position, he not only diversifies the Sixers’ offense, but maximizes his own repertoire.
All it takes is one look.
Joel Embiid swivels his head; Ben Simmons unfurls a high-arcing lob pass.
These plays stem from a single play in the Sixers’ horns-based offense. First, the guard sets a cross-screen on the big man’s defender. Then, the big-man banana cuts to the rim. In short, it works. It leaves the defense with two options: 1) switch the screen, or 2) stay-home.
The Oklahoma City Thunder chose the latter and faced the consequences. Steven Adams “top-locked” (or face-guarded) the cutter, Embiid. That put him in “trailing” position, while Paul George stayed on the screener, Butler.
Simmons makes the finest of details look extraordinary. First, he searches for a better angle, dribbling once to the right. He finds it and proceeds to lob the ball over the outstretched arms of Adams and George.
On a later play, Simmons hesitates, pump-fakes, and in doing so, freezes potential defensive player of the year, Paul George.
Other teams switch the cross-screen, but it doesn’t matter.
Despite being unable to hit the broad side of a barn on his jump shot, Simmons is able to impact the game with additional room to operate.
While capitalizing on defenders gifting him room is a positive, it’s the uncanny ability to literally “pass his teammates open” which renders Simmons one-of-a-kind. Use his dump-off pass as evidence.
He leverages a big frame to create angles. He dives to the middle of the court, walling off help-side defenders like a moving screen. He proceeds to twist his left arm behind his back to pass. Saying eyes are in the back of Simmons’ head is no hyperbole.
The further he strides into the lane, the more of a threat he becomes; defenses have to respect him. He preys on the extra attention.
The end result is four scattered defenders, all of whom can only wonder what the hell hit them.
He puts defenders in compromising positions. Should Siakam switch this faux-screen? How about Ibaka? By the time Siakam does decide to switch, Butler has him backpedaling.
Passes to cutters
Another way in which Simmons creates opportunities for his teammates is when they move off-the-ball.
There is a reason the 76ers test well in NBA.com’s off-ball scoring play types (top-five in both cutting (1.30 PPP) and off-screen (1.03 PPP) scoring efficiency), that is, the synergy between Redick and Simmons.
Tethering Redick to Simmons is practically necessary for the Sixers, leveraging the former’s gravity-inducing floor-spacing qualities. In lineups with Simmons on the court, and without Redick, the offense posts a 102.4 offensive rating, 7.2 points worse than when both share the floor. To put that number into perspective, it melts them from the 16th-best offense to the worst offense, two points worse than the New York Knicks (um, who start Kevin Knox).
Simmons zips the ball through the air before Redick even arrives at his destination.
These are the four main types of passes Simmons makes, all of which make up for his lack of shooting pedigree. Simmons is one of those truly elite passers that doesn’t need a jump shot to be effective.
Passing has always come naturally for him, but he’s adding to his repertoire. He’s chucked passes off-the-backboard to himself, inbounded the ball off unsuspecting opponents’ backs, and ignited fast breaks by tipping deflections. A willingness to be himself enables him to reach his current ceiling, while also elevating the Sixers offense in which he operates.