Enjoy the Ride as Ben Simmons Evolves
Everything Ben Simmons does is under a microscope. It’s been that way since high school when he starred at Montverde and was the presumed top pick in the 2016 NBA draft before he ever took the floor for LSU.
But you didn’t have to strain your eyes too hard Monday night when Simmons dropped a career-high 42 points in a loss to the hottest team in the NBA. It was a performance unlike any other he’d produced in his career. With Joel Embiid out of the lineup, the most aggressive version of Simmons manifested.
It wasn’t just the 42 points, either. It was the efficiency (15 of 26, 57.7 percent), the frequency and accuracy of his free throws (12 of 13), and how he still played the game the right way (12 assists, nine rebounds). He committed four turnovers, but with his usage and production Monday, Doc Rivers will live with that.
While he may have set a career-high in Utah, Simmons’ scoring has gotten a big bump recently. Over his last seven games, he’s averaging 21.3 points on 63.8 percent shooting. He’s also been solid from the line, hitting over 70 percent.
So, what’s changed?
“Honestly, I’ve just been working on my mentality these last few weeks,” Simmons said postgame. “It’s not easy to do that, to change the way you play or certain things in the game that come natural for certain people. I feel like I’m figuring it out. Obviously, my scoring’s been a lot higher the past five, six games. As long as I can keep doing that and stay locked in and keep working on my mental, I think it’s scary.”
There’s no doubt this Sixers team is flawed. Simmons, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris are playing the best basketball of their careers, but they could use some help. The bench, especially with Shake Milton out with a left ankle sprain, had a brutal road trip. The team as a whole is simply not taking and making enough threes.
Against the Jazz, the Sixers were just 8 of 23 from beyond the arc – that’s after taking just six threes in the first half. They took just 17 threes in Phoenix, 27 in Portland and 20 in Sacramento. On the season, the Sixers take the third-fewest threes in the league at 28.9 per game. They can win games averaging that number and making them at a decent clip, but they need to fire way more than they did on the West Coast.
While Simmons didn’t attempt a three – or really any shot outside of 10 feet – that’s not really part of the problem. Simmons still dished out 12 assists and continues to be one of the best in the league at creating three-point opportunities for others.
The closest offensive parallel for Simmons has always been reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. What Simmons did Monday is what the Greek Freak has done in becoming great. When defenses give him space, he eats it up and plays 1-on-1 at the rim. Antetokounmpo’s evolution has not come because he’s taking more threes. He indeed has, but he’s shot just 28.4 percent from three over the last three seasons. Opponents are still daring him to shoot them and every time he does, the defense wins.
While many have overanalyzed the lack of an outside shot from Simmons, it boils down to something simple: He’s always looking for the best play. Simmons knows he’s not a good outside shooter. So instead of chucking up low percentage shots, he’d rather get the ball to Embiid in the post or drive and kick to Harris of Seth Curry for three. It’s an aspect of his game he’s working on, but an element that isn’t good enough yet to help the team win.
The aggressive mindset is welcome, though. Simmons always wants to make the high-percentage play, but in recent games, has realized that him looking to score can be a high-percentage play – even if he’s sharing the floor with an MVP candidate.
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Simmons is still just 24 years old. He’s made two All-Stars teams without having a scoring night like he did Monday. All of this and we haven’t even touched on the fact that he is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
With social media, we all tend to be reactionary. It feels like Sixers fans sometimes live and die based on every Simmons performance.
Maybe instead of looking through a microscope, we need to use a much wider lens as Simmons continues to grow.