NBA

Is this a new version of Ben Simmons?

Is this a new version of Ben Simmons?
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For all of the focus that Ben Simmons’ unwillingness to shoot jumpers received during his exit from the Philadelphia 76ers, in retrospect the concern was a bit overblown from the fantasy basketball perspective. After all, in his four seasons with the 76ers, Simmons averaged a respectable 15.9 PPG on 11.6 FGA.

His jumper had always been suspect, making only 14.7% of his 3-point attempts during those years, but he was willing to utilize his size and athleticism to attack and finish in the paint.

In fact, his ability to threaten defenses off the bounce as a scorer made his passes more effective because he drew the defense and was able to create open looks for others. Simmons led the NBA in assists that led to made 3-pointers in two different seasons as a result of this phenomenon.

What, then, are we to make of Simmons’ shot chart since joining the Brooklyn Nets this season? Through the first three games, Simmons is averaging only 5.7 PPG on a paltry 4.3 FGA.

There are some caveats that must at least be mentioned. First, he has only averaged 28 MPG, because he has crowded out in two of those three games.

He could understandably be rusty, after having sat out an entire season before returning to an entirely new roster featuring two ultra-primary scorers.

And Simmons’ expected role since being traded to the Nets was to be a facilitator on offense that set up Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in places they liked to score from, dedicating the larger part of his energy to being an elite defensive anchor.

That’s all understandable, but… 4.3 shots per game? In the words of King George in the play « Hamilton »: « I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do. » But, from reading the tea leaves of the few public interviews that Simmons has done in recent months, I believe we have to accept that he may be shooting so sparingly on purpose.

Simmons seems to be aware of the criticism that he received on his way off of the 76ers. How could he not? He also seems to be leaning into it. Doubling down on the notion that he can be a great player without shooting, that he can in effect be a new-age version of the Draymond Green who helped power the Golden State Warriors at the start of their dynasty.

Can he?

While on the surface there may be some similarities in situation — point power-forward and defensive anchor, playing with two other elite shooter-scorers (one of whom may be Kevin Durant) — even Draymond shot significantly more than Simmons has this season .

In the four seasons between 2014-15 and 2017-18 in which the Warriors won three championships, Green averaged 11.8 PPG on 9.3 FGA, more than twice as many shots as Simmons is taking thus far. Also, Green was a willing shooter from 3-point range, making 1.2 3PG on 33.4 3P%. Not a great shooter, but at least a credible threat to make defenses pay if they sagged off him.

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And, ultimately, that last part is the biggest danger if Simmons really plans to try to play without shooting at all. He has to at least threaten defenses with his scoring; otherwise, why would opposing defenses ever react to him? Why would they ever sag onto him, creating the passing lanes and angles that set up open jumpers for teammates?

Through three games, Simmons has still averaged 7.0 APG, not significantly below his 76ers career average of 7.7 APG, but that’s with defenses still reacting to him the way they always have. Will that continue if he keeps averaging 10 fewer PPG (5.7 PPG vs. 15.9 PPG in Philly) on seven fewer shots per game? Eventually opposing coaches will react accordingly and start playing him entirely to pass.

That’s why, more than any other reason, I expect that this Simmons-the-non-shooter experiment can only last for so long in its present form. Simmons is a proud player, and his teammates seem to have his back in helping him prove that he can be a strong player while doing it his way.

But Nets head coach Steve Nash was an MVP-level point guard and floor general in his playing days. He understands what is required to play the position at a high level, and he was elite at using the threat of scoring as a means to create great looks for teammates.

Simmons can score. He can even score in bunches, even without possessing or trying to utilize any sort of jump shot. During his last season with the 76ers, from the last game in January until the last game of February, Simmons averaged 21.0 PPG on 13.1 FGA. During that span of games, he dropped 42 points on Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert’s Jazz while shooting 15-for-26 from the field.

On a much smaller stage, it was a performance reminiscent of another oversized point guard that didn’t have much jumper when he entered the league — Magic Johnson, in his famous 1980 Finals performance without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In fact, the Magic template is what many hoped/believed that Simmons would develop into in his career. Based on early returns in Brooklyn, that’s not a path that Simmons is currently on in his Nets tenure.

Where does that leave him? He’s no longer trying to be Magic, but not even Draymond attempted to play without shooting or attacking at all. Perhaps, then, the best template for what Simmons may ultimately end up doing as a scorer this season is the version of Rajon Rondo that played on the early Big Three Boston Celtics teams from 2007-08 through 2008-09.

During those two seasons, playing on a team featuring other Hall of Fame-caliber scoring threats, Rondo averaged 11.3 PPG on 9.4 FGA, but was as close to a non-threat from deep as possible while making 0.1 3PG on 29.9% 3P%. Rondo didn’t even pretend to have a jumper, but he did probe the defense and finish when possible in the paint.

Simmons is a good eight inches taller than Rondo and is a dramatically more proven scorer than Rondo was at that point in his career. Even if the Nets are content to not force him to shoot, at some point they’ll need him to at least remain a credible enough threat to score that opposing teams can’t completely cheat away from him.

It’s unlikely he’ll end up averaging fewer than five field goal attempts per game for the season. He may average single digits, or low double digits on seven or eight shots per game, but he has to do at least that in order to effectively do his job as a table-setter on a team with two all-time scorers like KD and Kyrie.

Outside of scoring, Simmons’ other stats should eventually settle into their averages. He’s only got one steal and two blocks total in the first three games, but I chalk that up to timing. He’s still 6-foot-10 and an elite athlete with excellent defensive instincts … the steals and blocks will come.

He’ll always be able to crash the boards, and as long as opposing teams maintain even a modicum of respect for his ability to threaten them off the dribble, his assists should stay as well.

If he settles in as a high triple-single, averaging 8-9 PPG, 7-8 APG, 7-8 RPG, 1.5 — 2 SPG and almost 1 BPG, Simmons would still be worthy of starting in most fantasy basketball formats. If, instead, he were to persist in shooting four times per game, it would also affect his assists and overall game because at some point Nash would be forced to play him more limited minutes.

That’d be disastrous for the Nets’ team aspirations, as well as Simmons’ fantasy production, so it’s unlikely to get to that point. But, given the way the last 18 months have gone for Simmons’ career, it can’t be ruled out, either.

For now, Simmons remains in the top 75 of our fantasy basketball points rankings, but at this level of uncertainty, if you can trade Simmons for a similar level of value, it might be wise to make that move.

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