Ben Simmons has improved this season. It’s a simple statement that some may disagree with when focusing on his jumper and ignoring other details of his game. Saying Simmons has shown no (or very little) progression this season, or even since entering the NBA, is a surprisingly popular take. But he has — at both ends of the floor.
Before going further, it’s important to stress that criticism of Simmons’ biggest flaw is justified. He’s made just 2 three-pointers this season and has attempted even fewer shots from mid-range than before. It’s puzzling that he hasn’t taken more threes at this point. His form and amount of practice should be enough for him to at least try corner threes on a remotely regular basis. It’s now been 32 games since Brett Brown’s public request in early December that he wanted Simmons to take at least one three-pointer a game, and Simmons hasn’t attempted a single one since. There’s no denying how a few corner threes alone could help his value off the ball and the Philadelphia 76ers’ offensive ceiling. At some point, Simmons needs to shoot. He or the Sixers won’t reach their full potential without it.
However, as true as all of this is, it doesn’t change the fact that Simmons can still improve without a jump shot. And he’s been proving it this season.
Finishing and aggressiveness
Simmons has been scoring as well as ever — if not better — recently. Over the last 15 games he's averaged 21.9 points on 63 percent shooting (with a 66.1 True Shooting Percentage), along with 9.1 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals. He ended this pre All-Star break run with a season-high in field goal attempts (22) against the Clippers, tallying 26 points on 12-of-22 shooting in the Sixers’ strong home win.
Consistent aggressiveness has always been a key way for Simmons to unlock more of his ability. He still has moments where he passes up an opportunity to attack or doesn't exploit a mismatch, but he's been noticeably more assertive for a while now.
Whether he's attacking on face-up moves, in transition, or driving out of pick-and-rolls (including the short pick-and-rolls that the Sixers run effectively with him and Joel Embiid from the post — in more space when Al Horford is playing off the bench), he's been finding plenty of success. Being more physical has been a key part of all this. Simmons has been more comfortable attacking through contact this season, powering past defenders at the perimeter or big men waiting to contest at the rim. A couple of recent poster dunks, which have always been a rare sight for Simmons, are some of the most eye-catching examples of this.
While a more aggressive approach has made the biggest difference for Simmons, he's refined his finishing somewhat in a few ways, too. For one, his touch has looked a little softer this season. Even though some of the same issues still occur — from picking up his dribble too early to not using his left hand enough — there haven't been as many awkward floaters or layups clanging off the rim/backboard. More often, Simmons has demonstrated controlled touch to finish off glass, or drop in hook shots and runners.
He’s also shown some more composed and creative ball handling and footwork. For instance, using more euro steps, changes of direction, hesitations, and occasional spins to beat his man and force his way to the rim.
While Simmons' finishing is still a bit limited in terms of his explosiveness and high-level complexity, all of this helps.
The other essential part of Simmons’ elevated aggressiveness and physicality is how it’s increased his free throw rate.
Free throw rate
Before even thinking about a mid-range game or three-pointers, a high free throw rate is something Simmons has been missing. Low confidence due to worries of his inefficiency when at the line has likely played a key part in this. Over the last couple of months Simmons’ willingness to embrace contact has clearly changed.
His average of 7.4 free throw attempts over the last 15 games (making 69.4 percent) is the best kind of run of free throw shooting he's had in his career, in terms of efficiency and volume. Even when looking back further through the last 30 games, he’s still averaged 6.4 attempts, making 65.3 percent. He's now at a career-high in free throw attempt rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt) for the season.
When he’s more willing to seek out contact and generate scoring opportunities at the line, it’s a real help. It cuts down on passive possessions where the defense can reset or he passes back outside, and it expands his scoring arsenal.
The higher efficiency at the line may not be sustainable or a sign of lasting improvement — a much bigger sample size is needed for that. However, the fact Simmons is simply getting to the line more and playing through contact is a valuable change.
Combine Simmons' free throw and finishing improvements, and the result is a career-high True Shooting Percentage of 60.7 this season, up from 58.2 a year ago. He also has a career-high in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (1.8).
Screening and rolling
Simmons has always had the potential to do more as a screener and roll man. He's just hardly been utilized in this way before. Brett Brown has never used much pick-and-roll anyway and he's generally lacked the right personnel, and Simmons has had his own weaknesses in terms of consistently setting solid screens and rolling to the rim with purpose.
This season, Simmons has been unleashed far more as a roll man and he's been showing what he's capable of.
This has primarily been on display since the Sixers' first game of 2020 on January 3 against the Houston Rockets, when the Sixers used Simmons in a host of pick-and-rolls to send him barrelling downhill. Simmons racked up 29 points that game. And while his usage as a roll man has still been a bit up and down, he's been setting stronger screens this season and rolling decisively. Simmons' 6'10" frame can clear defenders out the way pretty easily, and once he gets a head of steam he can fly down the lane in a hurry. He's getting to the rim and converting well once he gets there. Again, this is another way his growing comfort to play through contact and get to the free throw line helps him.
If a defense helps off shooters in the corner, Simmons also has the vision to find his teammates on passes out of short rolls as well.
Not all the credit for this development is on Simmons. Brett Brown finally giving Simmons more usage as a roll man has helped put this in place, but Simmons has still delivered.
Moving forward, some adjustments can help Simmons continue to succeed in this area, too. If Brown maintains his decision to play Al Horford off the bench, Simmons will be spending less time alongside two centers and can enjoy more minutes in smaller lineups with more shooting. This will only open up wider driving lanes and create more room in the paint for Simmons to roll inside, both as a finisher and short-roll passer thanks to more surrounding shooters. Alec Burks also provides some extra ball handling and pick-and-roll creation off the bench to work with Simmons. I wrote about all these changes in detail here.
Simmons the roll man should be here to say. It's a valuable part of Simmons' unique skill set that the Sixers need to keep unlocking.
Simmons was always capable of reaching a higher level defensively. We saw it in the playoffs last season as he smothered D’Angelo Russell in the first round, and did about as much as is humanly possible against Kawhi Leonard in the second round.
Consistent engagement was the main ingredient for Simmons to get there on a more permanent basis. This season, with increased intensity and off-ball alertness, Simmons has made the jump to become one of the best defenders in the NBA.
Simmons’ versatility is always what stands out most. From guys like Bradley Beal and Trae Young, to Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard, Simmons’ rare combination of speed, lateral quickness, size, and strength make him a menace on the ball against guards and forwards.
According to a metric from Krishna Narsu, Simmons ranks 2nd in versatility, which measures how often a player spends guarding each position. Simmons spends a nearly equal amount of time defending point guards, shooting guards and small forwards, and even covers centers for 9.6 percent of his possessions. While a team’s defensive scheme plays into this metric and can rate certain players higher than their actual effectiveness if they’re in a switch-heavy system, the Sixers are able to let Simmons switch across all positions because he’s so good at it.
Simmons isn’t a rim protector or a full-time defensive center. It’s one of the reasons why small-ball lineups with him at the 5 haven’t been very effective in the past. That said, more than pretty much anyone in the league, Simmons can switch across every position. He can switch onto opposing centers when need be, and has enough size and strength to bang with them in the post and hold his own.
This also makes Simmons a nightmare for opponents to deal with in pick-and-rolls. He can hound ball handlers outside and reach around screens to contest, or switch and break up potential rolls or mismatches for opposing centers inside.
What makes Simmons’ ‘switchy-ness’ even more impressive is that he’s often covering the top perimeter threat on the opposing team. According to another metric by Krishna Narsu, at the 44-game mark of the season, Simmons ranked 2nd in the NBA in possessions guarding an opponent’s number one option.
Simmons' responsibility — in terms of handling top perimeter assignments and dealing with multiple positions — is as tough as anyone's, and he’s still defending on the ball at an elite level.
He's also been more disruptive off the ball than ever. After being prone to more lapses in this area in the past, he’s been more engaged and aware this season. He has the speed and reach to explode into passing lanes, and sharper anticipation to read plays ahead of time. He’s leading the league in steals with 2.2 per game and ranks 2nd in deflections per game at 4.1.
Simmons has come up with huge defensive plays in big moments, too. His two game-changing steals in the final 15 seconds of a November 30 game against the Indiana Pacers stand out, as he snatched a pass from TJ Warren and broke up an inbounds play like it was nothing:
All of this is even more impressive given Simmons’ workload. He's averaging 36.3 minutes per game and ranks 3rd in the NBA in total minutes at 1,926.
It’s surprising that advanced defensive metrics and on/off numbers don’t paint Simmons in such a positive light. The Sixers’ defense has allowed 4.8 more points per 100 possessions when Simmons is on the floor compared to when he’s on the bench. Meanwhile, multiple impact metrics don’t rate him highly, such as BBall Index’s Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus which places him 102nd (DPIPM is a metric that combines box score numbers with luck-adjusted on/off data, such as opposing free throw and three-point percentage, to create an estimate of how much value a player adds to their team).
However, looking at players such as Simmons, who so clearly have a positive impact on defense when watching on an every-game basis, is a reminder that "catch all" defensive impact metrics shouldn't be relied upon too much. More gets missed by these metrics than their offensive counterparts. And when looking at on/off numbers, it’s crucial to note these numbers are a reflection of the players surrounding Simmons as well. For instance, he’s only spent 784 of his 1,926 minutes with Embiid this season, and there’s always a significant drop to the team’s defense when Embiid is on the bench. In lineups without Simmons, Embiid is often present to lift up the team.
When considering Simmons’ case for Defensive Player of the Year, it won’t be easy for him to win. It’s difficult for primarily perimeter based defenders to match the impact an elite center can have by shutting down the paint and locking down the back line of an entire defense. Centers have historically dominated the Defensive Player of the Year award (Kawhi Leonard's wins in 2015 and 2016 with some of the best perimeter defense we’ve seen is a recent exception, followed by Draymond Green in 2017 as a unique forward who thrived at center). Now Rudy Gobert, the league’s best rim protector, has won the last two. Even when just focusing on the Sixers, Embiid is still comfortably the team’s most impactful defender when healthy and engaged. And as brilliant as Simmons has been, his intensity has dipped slightly at times in recent weeks — at least compared to how he started the season.
Nevertheless, whether or not Simmons achieves his offseason goal of winning Defensive Player of the Year, he’s at least in the conversation. And when it comes to All-Defensive squads, he should be on his way to the First Team at this rate. He’s been that good with his effort, nearly unmatched versatility and disruptive play all over the floor.
Last summer following the playoffs, I wrote a piece examining Simmons' game and the key areas he could improve in besides his jumper. The main areas I focused on were his finishing, inconsistent aggressiveness, ability (and usage) as a screener and roll man, and more consistency as a defender to build on what he showed in the playoffs. While there are clearly still ways he can continue to develop, he deserves credit taking a step forward in these areas.
There's no denying that adding a jump shot is by far the most important development Simmons can make. It’s just possible to acknowledge his flaws and recognize his growth, because he’s been making some real improvements this season.