The Progression of Ben Simmons
The 76ers are back in Philadelphia after a 1-3 road trip out west. They have lost three straight games after exceeding all expectations to start the season. There is no denying that there are big problems with the Sixers, who currently remain atop of the Eastern Conference standings at 18-10, a game and a half ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Sixers’ defense is getting absolutely torched along the perimeter and the bench has underperformed in the absence of Shake Milton, who’s been out since rolling his ankle in Sacramento. Danny Green has been hit or miss and his scoring droughts are something that no NBA starter should have. Joel Embiid is still battling back tightness and missed his sixth game of the year against the Jazz. Most importantly, the Sixers are 2-8 against teams over .500.
Once Joel Embiid was ruled out against the Utah Jazz on Monday night, the odds to beat the first place team in the Western Conference plummeted. The silver linings began to appear after Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris both had career nights without Embiid and the Sixers were able to keep things competitive.
Ben Simmons scored a career-high 42 points on 15-26 shooting. The most impressive part of Simmons’ game last night was his free throw efficiency, where he made the Jazz pay for fouling him by shooting 12-13 from the line. Simmons was one rebound away from a 40+ point triple-double, adding 12 assists and nine rebounds to his career night. Tobias Harris scored a season-high 36 points and pulled in 10 rebounds in last night’s loss. Harris was 14-24 from the floor and made 3 of 5 shots from beyond the arc.
There is no doubt that Ben Simmons can affect a basketball game in almost every tracked statistical category. From his elite defense to controlling the pace of the game and being an All-NBA facilitator, Ben Simmons’ ability to control a game on every single level is something that very few NBA players are capable of doing. So why is his development as a player being ignored?
The criticism of Ben Simmons mainly comes from media and fans alike who don’t watch the Sixers on a nightly basis. There are constant cries for Ben Simmons to shoot the basketball. Social media explodes over the fact that he doesn’t score enough. The entire world seems to question their perceived lack of progression from Simmons. Media personalities foam at the mouth for the chance to mention Ben Simmons and other blogs and podcasts have found that the only way they can gain exposure and engagement online is to criticize the 24-year old point guard.
Even the worldwide leader of sports, ESPN.com, has a front page article today on their website stating that Ben Simmons “confounds even on a career night” and Tim Bontemps rambles on about how “rare” it is for Sixers fans to see Ben Simmons play aggressive. Bontemps even typed out the words that “Ben Simmons doesn’t shoot threes” and “concerns about Simmons playing with Embiid” making himself and ESPN look foolish in the process (pun intended). The blatant dislike for Ben Simmons and the Sixers team as a whole by the media is a thing of mystery that’s plagued the headlines for the past four years. Even when Ben Simmons has a career night, there are more headlines about what he didn’t do, than his performance and the progression that was actually made last night and the past 10 games of the season.
Ben Simmons is a work in progress and he should be granted the opportunity to develop on his own time. Before the trained thought of “but he’s wasting Joel Embiid’s MVP years” pops into your head, stop yourself and realize that Simmons and Embiid are both in their mid-20’s and have plenty of basketball left in the tank. Simmons isn’t wasting anything. Neither are the Sixers. Simmons improving on and off the court mentally is something that should be praised and have people excited. Because of Simmons, we have seen players like Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris progress as well.
Simmons himself has acknowledged that mentally, scoring isn’t often the first thing that comes to mind when playing basketball. The scoring mindset doesn’t come naturally to him and it’s easy for Simmons to fall back to what he’s comfortable with in passing the ball, controlling the pace of the game, and playing elite defense.
Over the last 11 games, Simmons has averaged 20 points on 60 percent shooting with 8 rebounds and 8 assists in 36 minutes. Prior to that, he was averaging 13.4 points on 51 percent shooting. Offensively, Simmons has been more aggressive as of late and is using his body in the paint to create more shots. He’s attacked the rim and looked to draw fouls and has increased his free throw percentage to 64 percent on the season. Ben Simmons’ offensive progression is often overlooked because he’s such a versatile player and if the Sixers are winning with him affecting the game in every other category, then the only number that stands out to critics is how many points he scored on any given night.
For Ben Simmons, this is a complete overhaul of how he has come to know and perform while playing basketball. He’s figuring it out and finally has the coaching staff to push him in the right direction. Against the Jazz, Doc Rivers without Joel Embiid opted to starting Mike Scott at center. By doing that, the Jazz had two options, pull Rudy Gobert out of the paint to defend Scott when he pops outside, or keep Gobert close to the basket and match him up against Ben Simmons, a player who gets the majority of his offensive production at the rim.
The Sixers coaching staff and Ben Simmons punished the Utah’s decision. Ben Simmons himself took it as a sign of disrespect. The simple fact that Ben Simmons was guarding Donovan Mitchell and being defended by Rudy Gobert should be enough to silence the critics at least for one night, but Ben Simmons with a new mentality and a frustration mounting, decided to make sure that the Jazz, winners of 19 out of their last 20 games, would pay for their decision.
“I loved when I saw Rudy was guarding me,” Simmons said. “I love being able to go at somebody like that. I felt like it was a little bit of disrespect putting him on me, but it is what it is.”
Simmons beat Gobert up and down the floor all night. He got out in transition and attacked the rim at will, barking at his teammates to give him the ball and screaming in the faces of whoever decided to get in his way while throwing down dunks at the rim. He used the pick-and-roll to his advantage and attacked open lanes to the basket. He used dribble hand-offs to keep the defense honest and forced contact on screens. Ben Simmons challenged one-on-one defenders and used a variety of hook shots to score over them. He scored 42 points while notching 12 assists and 9 rebounds. If it wasn’t for the rest of the team underperforming outside of Tobias Harris, the Sixers would have split their road trip with a 2-2 record and headed home beating the top seed in the Western Conference without Joel Embiid.
What does this mean moving forward? Really, we have no idea and that’s okay. Ideally, Simmons will be able to continue to improve his offensive contributions when Embiid returns to the lineup. They certainly won’t look like they did against the Jazz, but that’s expected, if not preferred, when you have Embiid in the lineup.
They key moving forward is the progression that we’ve seen over the last ten games from Ben Simmons. Maintain a level of aggression, keep working on shot variations in the paint, and work with teammates in creating mismatches to expose on the offensive side of the court. Ben Simmons doesn’t need to drop 40+ points per night. He doesn’t even need to score 30+ points per night. He does however, need to continue to develop just like he’s doing now and ignore anyone outside the Sixers’ locker room who try to delegitimize him at any chance they have.
Ben Simmons is a work in progress and most of us are witnessing his progression offensively right before our eyes.
Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY