The Philadelphia 76ers need to unlock Ben Simmons as a screener and roll man. It’s not a new idea, and it’s one that I’ve been talking and writing about for a while. As we look ahead to the return of the 2019-20 NBA season, and consider ways the Sixers can improve, how a now-healthy Simmons is utilized is key.
Simmons had some improvements to make as a roller this season, from his screen setting to his assertiveness rolling down the lane. It didn’t help that he’d hardly been used in this role before, and was playing in an offense poorly built to maximize his talents. He set harder screens and rolled with purpose more often this season, though, and Brett Brown gave him more opportunities as a roll man as the season progressed.
Simmons’ increased aggressiveness to drive, attack mismatches, screen, and roll was a vital part of his development. All of this helped fuel his monstrous surge late in the season, before he was sidelined with nerve impingement in his lower back. Over his last 20 healthy games through January and February, Simmons averaged 21.2 points on 61.3 percent shooting and upped his free throw rate to 6.9 attempts per game, making 67.9 percent.
Simmons’ game against Houston on January 3 felt like a bit of a turning point. It was perhaps the most we’d ever seen Simmons used as an off-ball, screening/rolling/cutting force at the time, and he was brilliant. He scored 29 points on 13-of-20 shooting that night, and displayed signs of growing chemistry with Josh Richardson as the pick-and-roll ball handler.
Ben Simmons had a great game against Houston (29 PTS, 13/20 FG, 13 REB, 11 AST, 3 STL, 4 BLK).— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) January 4, 2020
Quality defense as usual, aggressive attacking the rim and offensive glass, pushed the pace, and he worked really well as a screener/roller pic.twitter.com/Mda40XlQXs
Richardson isn’t a great playmaker. He was overworked when asked to serve as backup point guard this season, and he simply isn’t an advanced decision-maker — he’ll miss some more complex passing reads and make others too slowly, giving defenses time to recover and take away potential openings for Simmons to score inside. Nevertheless, Simmons and Richardson showed how they can work together.
Even when pairing Simmons’ screening with others — like backup point guard Raul Neto — he was able to display his potential. Another one of Simmons’ best games came on January 20 against the Nets. He erupted for 34 points on 12-of-14 shooting, 12 rebounds, 12 assists, 5 steals and 2 blocks, and again was featured prominently as a roll man.
As his usage in this role grew, Simmons was able to make clear developments. And thanks to his unique blend of size, strength, speed, finishing (which he continued to improve this year), and sharp short roll passing, he has the potential to keep doing more.
In a conference call with media earlier this week, Sixers head coach Brett Brown stressed that he wants to use Simmons more in a variety of ways off the ball. It’s something we’ve heard before and reinforces that Brown will continue to use Simmons differently, as he already was this season.
When Simmons himself was asked about his pick-and-roll play in a call with reporters this week, he mentioned how comfortable he is playing in any role, including working more as a roll man.
“I feel like I have a very high IQ on the court and see things a lot differently,” Simmons said. “I’m able to pass the ball very well, so that’s always a threat. But I love playing the pick-and-roll, situational pick-and-pop, whatever it is. It just gives us so many different options. It’s tough to guard.”
“Wherever you put me or whatever situation it is, I feel like my IQ is high enough to make plays.”
Using Simmons more alongside additional ball handlers like Shake Milton is important, too. Milton only spent 223 of his 611 total minutes with Simmons this year. A fair amount of Milton’s late-season breakout and increase in playing time came after Simmons’ back injury. Brett Brown has already mentioned that Milton will have a bigger role when play resumes and that he wants to use him more with Simmons as a pick-and-roll duo. While Milton isn’t too explosive with the ball in a lead role and he isn’t an overly advanced playmaker, his consistent poise and smart decision-making stood out this season.
Milton also has the threat of his quick-trigger shooting to partner with his playmaking when used in pick-and-rolls with Simmons, and his star teammate has complete confidence in him.
“He’s been great,” Simmons said when discussing what he’s seen from Milton. “He finished very strong [before the season was suspended]. His confidence is just going through the roof now, and I’ve seen since the day I met him he’s put in so much work to where his game is just transforming every day. I’m happy to play with him, I love the way he plays. He can knock down shots, gets to the rim, he has a high IQ, and he plays hard. So from the day meeting him to now, he’s grown so much.”
There are other ways to get creative with Simmons as well. Just before the season was suspended, Simmons was used more in snug (low) pick-and-rolls with Joel Embiid.
Good spacing with three strong, surrounding shooters is essential, and the play shouldn’t be overused either. But it’s a unique way to bully defenses with their combination of size and finishing ability. If Embiid sets a solid screen and angles himself correctly to ensure Simmons’ defender can’t get past (there’s not much going under a screen can do against a drive this close to the rim), it’s hard to stop Simmons from tearing across the lane and finishing when he’s already so close to the basket.
Embiid and Simmons used this to great effect in their win against the Clippers on February 11.
Dribble hand-offs can’t be forgotten either. When Simmons’ defenders sag off him, it can be a good chance to set up teammates to take the ball out of a hand-off and step into open jumpers, so long as Simmons sets a strong screen. The Sixers have limited players who are comfortable shooting off movement or after a couple of dribbles, so this another way he can work with Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, and perhaps even the team’s new signing, Ryan Broekhoff, whenever he gets a chance to play.
Simmons’ pick-and-roll ability can’t truly be maximized on a roster that lacks more high-level ball handlers and floor spacers to complement him. There’s no avoiding it. But there’s no doubt Simmons can still continue to do more. Increasing his opportunities and giving him enough minutes alongside Milton can help bring out his best.
Simmons seems to have an ideal approach when it comes to how he’s used this way off the ball, and he has good health on his side, too. He mentioned in his call with reporters that he’s adjusted his training since the season was suspended and has implemented pilates into his training almost every day. He’s added strength as well, and feels more explosive and in control when he’s on the court.
“I feel a lot more control when I’m out there on the floor and know what I’m capable of with my body, and it just feels very good. Overall I just feel like I’m back to 100 percent, and it’s a good feeling.”
Hopefully for the Sixers, all of this is a recipe for his success as a screener and roll man when the season resumes.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.