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How Ben Simmons is making a leap

Simmons is playing the best basketball of his career thanks to a few key improvements. We look at these changes with insight from Simmons, Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers about the growth we’re seeing in his game.

Philadelphia 76ers v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Ben Simmons wasn’t his usual self to start this season. He was coming back from having knee surgery last August, he dealt with some knee soreness in early January, and was uncharacteristically quiet as a scorer through the first few weeks of the season.

Over the last month, the now three-time All-Star has gone up a level.

Simmons has continued to assert himself as the most versatile defender in the NBA (and one of the league’s best defenders altogether) all season. He can switch across every position, and routinely defends lead guards and forwards at an elite level every night, taking on any top assignments the Sixers need him to. In his latest outing on Thursday, he put together a defensive masterclass against Luka Doncic.

“I like taking those challenges, I’ve said this over and over again,” Simmons said after helping hold Doncic to 19 points, 4 assists and 7 turnovers. “Just tell me who to guard.”

The only individual accolade Simmons says he plays for is Defensive Player of the Year. He believes he should be in the running for it this season, and he isn’t wrong with the way he’s hounding multiple positions and disrupting plays off the ball.

“I love how Ben relishes taking on the toughest defensive challenge each night and the level of panic that the players he guards get on their face when he is on them,” Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey told Liberty Ballers this week.

It’s on offense where the main changes have come for Simmons as this season has progressed. Through his first 13 games of the season, he averaged 12.2 points on 8.8 field goal attempts a night. Over his last 14 games, since he exploded with a fantastic fourth quarter against Boston on January 22, he’s averaged 19 points on 12 field goal attempts per game (shooting 60.7 percent from the floor with a 64.5 true shooting percentage), 7.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists (with only 2.4 turnovers), and 1.6 steals.

Simmons has played the best basketball of his career over the last month. A heightened level of aggressiveness and developments in a few key areas have fuelled his success.

Driving with authority

Simmons playing with the kind of aggressiveness he’s displayed through the last month transforms his game. When he’s keeping his dribble alive longer, looking to attack the rim more, and either seeking out openings in between defenders or simply forcing his way through them, it takes his scoring to another level. The extra shooting and space the Sixers have added this year gives him more room to operate inside as well.

Over the last couple of weeks he’s talked about the importance of getting his mindset on the right track.

“I’ve just been working on my mentality, my mental, a lot these past few weeks,” Simmons said after he scored a career-high 42 points against the Utah Jazz on February 15. “It’s not easy to do that, to change the way you play or certain things in a game that come natural for certain people. I feel like I’m figuring it out. Obviously, my scoring has been a lot higher the last five or six games. So as long as I can keep doing that and stay locked in and keep working on my mental, I think it’s scary.”

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers has always stressed the value of everything Simmons does besides scoring. The Sixers’ coaching staff does emphasize the importance of getting in the paint early in games, creating contact, and drawing fouls, though, and Rivers believes Simmons’ recent scoring increase has come naturally for him.

By attacking downhill with drives like the those in the video below and not shying away from contact, Simmons elevates his impact and adds another jolt of creation to the Sixers’ offense. Especially when he’s powering to the rim in half-court settings. Defenders can’t drop back and hope to have the same success. When his defender sags off or a rim protector lurks by the basket, he’s proving that it won’t deter him from attacking, or encourage him to pick up his dribble early or pass back outside instead. Simmons is playing through contact far more, either utilizing his unique blend of size, strength and speed to score or draw fouls (more on the latter in a moment).

Of course, Simmons’ elite ability to drive, kick, and generate three-point opportunities for teammates can’t be overlooked. He’s the Sixers’ most important player in creating those looks by far, and stands out from most of the league. 119 of his 220 assists this season have set up teammates for three-pointers, which is tied for 3rd in the NBA — he’s only slightly behind James Harden (122) and Damian Lillard (128), who have both played at least 100 more minutes.

“I love that [Simmons] is always trying to make the right play and the small but visible celebrations he has when a player he passes to succeeds,” Morey says.

Finding an ideal balance of playmaking and assertive scoring is vital. It not only maximizes Simmons’ impact and gives the Sixers more of the creation they need, but it makes it harder for defenses to anticipate him passing out of drives so they can hang back to cover shooters. When defenses expect Simmons to force his way to the rim more often, he can command extra help and create additional space for teammates in the process. The right level of aggressiveness makes everything click for him.

Simmons isn’t just elevating his scoring when he’s on the floor without Joel Embiid, either. He’s maintaining this level of play next to his co-star, helping the Sixers record a +14.48 net rating this season when they’re together — a result of their individual growth and a better supporting cast.

Simmons’ increased willingness and ability to play through contact has led directly into another area of improvement as well: more free throw attempts.

Free throw rate

Simmons said during training camp that he wanted to get to the free throw line a lot more this year. Doc Rivers recently explained that the plan heading into the season was for Simmons to attempt 10 free throws per game. It’s an ambitious target that only a few players in the league can actually maintain, but one that Simmons can pursue each night if he wants to play with the right mindset.

He’s trending in the right direction. Over his last 14 games, Simmons is averaging 6.2 free throw attempts per game (making 71.3 percent), taking him to a career-high 5.6 attempts for the season. His free throw attempt rate (the number of free throws he attempts per field goal attempt) has soared to a career-high .536 — a significant jump from his previous best of .461 last season, and well above the .342 he recorded as a rookie.

Plays like the following are extremely encouraging for the Sixers’ offense and Simmons’ individual efficiency. Even when there aren’t clear driving lanes for him, he’s looking to create more opportunities to generate points by forcing his way through contact instead. It adds another dynamic to his play in both transition and half-court settings.

Simmons’ free throw percentage for the season is now a career-high 67.5 percent. It’s giving his overall efficiency a solid boost, helping him towards a career-high true shooting percentage of 60.6.

He believes his increase in percentage and attempts go hand in hand. He’s been working closely with Sixers assistant coach Sam Cassell on all areas of his game this season, including free throw shooting.

“I can relate to him,” Simmons says. “We talk every day. We have a great relationship and it’s only growing. He’s helping me a lot with my game and running this team.”

“Me and Sam work every day on [my free throw shooting]. Just taking my time, getting into the rhythm. And knowing if I do miss, why I miss. I think that was big. So I’m confident going to the line. I love getting those free throws and having that confidence to knock them down, especially if I’m going to shoot 10 or 12 in a game.”

Screening and rim rolling

Simmons has been deployed differently off the ball this season. The Sixers are setting him up on the move more often with the way he’s cutting, and he’s been screening far more.

“He’s setting way more picks [this season],” Rivers says. “Even with the ball, his dribble hand-offs are flipped to picks and rolls. We have him rolling way more than he’s ever done.”

Simmons started growing in these areas later last season, showcasing improved screening and more purpose as a roller. Now, he and the Sixers are building on it. It’s something Rivers and the coaching staff have wanted to implement, from off-ball screens to spring shooters open, to increased usage as the screener in dribble hand-offs and pick-and-rolls.

There are simple benefits to Simmons’ screening in these situations that raise his off-ball value. In dribble hand-offs (DHOs), when his defender is dropping back into the paint and unable to switch outside, a strong screen can remove the defender of his DHO partner and let them take the ball into space to shoot. Having a new elite marksman in Seth Curry gives him an ideal partner to work with. When Curry’s gravity off a screen draws a second defender, it can open space for Simmons to dive inside.

When using pick-and-rolls, if Simmons’ defender is sagging off or other teams are using drop coverage to keep their rim protector by the paint, utilizing Simmons’ size and strength as a screener gives the Sixers another option to get guards open. His pick-and-roll chemistry with Shake Milton in particular has been growing lately. Add in Simmons’ athleticism to dive inside as a scorer and his short-roll passing ability, and there are plenty of perks to using him more as a screener.

“I think Ben’s ability to screen and roll, and DHO with power,” Rivers said when discussing the value of Simmons’ screening and career night against the Jazz. “It’s not just, I don’t know what to call it, the basic DHOs. He did it with great timing and power. It just creates so much stress, defensively, on [other] teams, and it was the most of the season [against Utah] by him. He’s been doing it all year, but not to the extent that he did it [against Utah]. And I thought what he found by doing it, he was the scorer in a lot of them.”

And this doesn’t only have to be the case when Simmons is on the floor without Embiid. With Embiid shooting a career-high 40.5 percent from three this season and burning opponents with his 51.3 percent stroke from mid-range, his jump shot has never commanded more attention. It’s easily possible to use Embiid as a spacer next to Simmons’ screening and rolling. Defenses can’t ignore the threat Embiid poses to dribble inside the arc with his trusty one-dribble, hesitation pull-ups, either. As long as the Sixers accompany Simmons with a few reliable shooters (players like Tobias Harris, Shake Milton and new additions Seth Curry and Danny Green), they can support his short-roll passing, too.

It also helps that Simmons and Embiid’s partnership and communication has grown this season.

“We both see different things,” Simmons said after the Sixers defeated the Celtics on January 22. “So for me and Jo, I think the relationship continues to grow. We talk a lot more now in terms of being on the floor and certain things we say. Knowing where he wants the ball, all the sets, and just getting a good flow in the game, and just trying to read it the right way.”

“The other day he texted me and said, ‘I missed you too many times on your duck-ins. I’m going to find you.’ Little things like that, it continues to help the team chemistry grow.”

Overall, Simmons says the team’s chemistry is better than it’s ever been since he came to Philly.

Whatever action he’s using in their offense this season, he’s comfortable with how he can attack. “I’m just a player,” Simmons says. “I try to read the defense and if I see a mismatch, I try to make it tough on them. I feel like my IQ is pretty high. I play at a high level with my IQ and just try to make the right plays every time.”

Moving forward, Rivers wants to ensure that Simmons continues to embrace this level of physicality and productivity as a screener. A couple of days after Simmons’ career game against the Jazz, Rivers personally sent Simmons film to highlight what he can do as a screener and what the team needs from him in that regard every game.

“A lot of teams don’t have a guy like Ben, a 6’9, 6’10” guy dribbling the ball at them with power or stepping up in pick-and-rolls,” Rivers says. “And if you’re rolling and he gets it, he can pass. There’s not a lot of teams that have that option and we do. I just want him to see that option every night.”

Post-ups and face-ups

Simmons may not have many go-to moves or advanced footwork in the post, but his touch and control have been on point lately. After ranking in the 39th percentile or below in post-up scoring efficiency in each of the last two seasons, he’s shot all the way up to the 88th percentile this season. Yes, this number is based on a small sample. Simmons has only shot 34 times out of post-ups so far with 21 makes, according to Synergy Sports (he has 92 post-up possessions when including passes, where he ranks in the 79th percentile). His isolation scoring is also efficient (82nd percentile), but based on a tiny sample (8-of-11 shooting, per Synergy Sports).

Nevertheless, encouraging signs of growth are there.

Again, Simmons’ physicality stands out when he’s looking to attack smaller defenders or use his strength to back down opponents. His touch around the basket with turnaround hooks has been smooth, and he’s started looking particularly comfortable going to a running righty hook when moving through the lane — a useful move if he can maintain it in his arsenal.

This has helped Simmons attempt a career-high 37.9 percent of his shots from between 3-10 feet (up from 30.4 percent last season), while making a career-high 44.1 percent of them (up from 36.5 percent a year ago). When you factor in his rising free throw percentage as well, his touch certainly seems to be improving. A more reliable post game would be yet another valuable addition to his game as a half-court scorer.

“I think I’m just figuring it out,” Simmons says. “I always typically have a mismatch and I’m getting into a groove, I’m getting comfortable in the low post, and just going to work.”

We saw signs of growth from Simmons in some of these areas last season when he went on a tear through January and February of 2020. It’s something I wrote about at the time, and again when previewing the Sixers’ changes for 2020-21. That stretch of play last year — helped by the Sixers’ roster upgrades — provided an excellent framework for Simmons to build upon entering this season. Now he’s proving he’s capable of doing just that.

“I thought he wanted to [take on his new role] right away,” Rivers says. “We told him, ‘we’re putting the ball in your hands more.’ You could tell he wanted to do it right away [at the start of the season], it just took a couple weeks for him to see what we needed him to do. I think he knows exactly now and he’s doing it, and it’s been great for us.”

Simmons is accompanying top-tier defense with an offensive leap. If he can continue this upward trend, it’ll go a long way to ensuring he and the Sixers can raise their ceiling as much as possible.

“I’m just getting back to who I am,” Simmons says. “Working on my mental. I’d say that’s the biggest thing, my mental. Overall just being who I am and knowing what I’m capable of.”

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