PHILADELPHIA — The NBA is supposed to be more difficult than college, right? At least that's what David Patrick, a TCU assistant coach who previously worked at LSU, had always heard until a recent conversation with his godson.
Things are working out a bit differently for Ben Simmons.
Patrick caught up with Simmons recently in Dallas following a late-October game between Simmons' Philadelphia 76ers and the Mavericks. He wanted to know how Simmons, who he also coached at LSU, was processing his first few weeks in the NBA. He was surprised by what he heard.
"He said he felt the game in the NBA was easier for him to control than in college, because he has the ball in his hands at the point of attack," Patrick told B/R. "Part of that is the talent around him. Part of that is the load he had to carry at LSU."
Less than a month into his NBA career, Simmons already has established himself as a physical force—a player capable of plowing into the paint possession after possession. Defenders quick enough to keep up with him can't deal with the impact of his 6'10", 230-pound chiseled body. Defenders strong enough to match his size can't handle his speed or skill.
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All of which was predictable, because Simmons is one of the most impressive prospects to rise through the ranks this century. But it's also surprising, because as talented as Simmons is, his game contains a major flaw: The guy can't shoot.
Or, to be more flattering, in the words of Hawks assistant coach Darvin Ham, who pointed out that Simmons has taken a few more jumpers recently and watched Simmons run circles around his team last week: "He's somewhere between not being able to shoot and being a streaky shooter, because he can make them from mid-range, but it's far from consistent."
This, of course, is nothing new. Simmons launched just three three-pointers during his lone season at LSU and made one. And now through his first nine games in the NBA, he's attempted only six shots (not counting full-court heaves) from above the foul line.
And in the era of pace and space, when players who can't shoot are banished to the end of the bench, it begs the question: How is it possible for a 21-year-old rookie point guard who is both unable and seemingly uninterested in shooting from the perimeter to dominate the game at the highest level?
With every game he plays, and every box score he fills, Simmons—like Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee—is convincing those watching him that there are ways to circumvent this flaw.
Here's the secret: You need once-in-a-generation physical gifts, sure, and those tools have to be paired with a brain as polished as the body.
"[Simmons] is a really gifted player," Sixers guard J.J. Redick said. "But one of the reasons he has the chance to be so good is because he's intelligent, he's smart."
And in the NBA—unlike in college—where you're surrounded by physical studs and freed from the burden of carrying the entire load, Simmons is in a position to leverage that gift.
Simmons has always believed point guard to be his best position.
"I feel more comfortable bringing the ball up," he told B/R over the summer. "I feel limited if you put me at the 4 position"—which happened often at LSU—"I don't feel I can help as much."
But there's more to it, and it goes back to the way Simmons spent his time last year.
He might not have been on the floor in what should have been his rookie season, because of a broken foot, but that doesn't mean he wasn't working on his craft. He spent hours in the office of Sixers head coach Brett Brown, breaking down game film and discussing X's and O's. Brown had Simmons text him thoughts during road games—a method for his future point guard to start thinking as if he were on the court.
"I think I learned a lot more than I would have if I were playing," Simmons said. "It just gave me an opportunity to sit back and learn the game—things like the way the game's run, taking shots with a certain amount of time on the clock, all from sitting there and watching film every day, getting in a routine—just things I need to make sure I stay on top of."
And sure, this is the sort of thing you'd expect someone in Simmons' position to say, sort of like how players always return from the offseason boasting about the muscle they added or weight they shed. But when Simmons talks about the way he's able to see the game and feel its rhythms, he's offering a window into why he's so special.
As his mom, Julie, explains it: He's like a musician who can play a song after hearing it just once. In the NBA, the songs are the schemes opponents deploy against him.
Take, for example, the counters he's deployed against defenders who switch when defending his pick-and-rolls. Switching keeps a man on Simmons at all times, and if the new defender is slower, he can just sag back toward the hoop and concede the jumper.
Simmons is smart, though, and it's taken him fewer than 10 games to figure out how to beat switches. He'll call for a re-screen, often below the foul line, a spot he's comfortable pulling up from if left open. If the players switch again, he's in a prime position to post the smaller defender.
Other times, he and his screener will anticipate the switch and defeat it with a quick slip.
Reads like these are why Simmons is 11th in the NBA in assist percentage, according to NBA.com. Perhaps most impressive, though, is that he's often able to make these adjustments within a single game.
This is exactly what happened last week in Philadelphia against the Hawks. Simmons struggled in the first half. Atlanta sagged off him when he had the ball, taking away his driving lanes, and stuck to him when he was away from it, preventing him from finding easy duck-ins at the rim or crashing the boards. He scored just four points on six shots and dished out just three assists in the first half.
Then came halftime, and Simmons reemerged from the locker room looking once again like the player who'd been overpowering opponents. Only one player in the NBA (Dennis Schroder) drives to the basket more frequently than Simmons, and only six create more points per game off those drives, per NBA.com.
He attacked the rim each time down the floor, plowing into the paint possession after possession. He finished with crafty right-handed floaters and powerful left-handed attacks punctuated by soft kisses off the glass. He corralled defensive rebounds—something he does at a rate better as strong as traditional big men—and triggered one-man fast breaks. He fired perfectly placed and timed passes into the hands of teammates dotting the three-point arc.
"You saw at the beginning of the game, they were packing the paint," Redick told B/R in the locker room after the game. "But he figured it out, ran at different angles and he tried to get out in transition."
Later that night, Simmons tried to explain how he was able to flip from sleepy to explosive over halftime.
"It's like, I'll come down and sit on the bench after the first half, and I look up [at the scoreboard] and see that I have four points and think, What could I have done better? Could I have been more aggressive?" he said. "But at same time, I'm not trying to be the guy who takes shots just to take them. I'm trying to make sure I get the best shot."
Those, he said, came in bunches in the second half.
Again, this might sound simple and obvious, but it's a principle some players take years to learn. The entire Spurs offensive blueprint is built on the premise of turning down good shots in search of great ones. That Simmons now plays for a Gregg Popovich disciple in Brown is no coincidence.
"The way he plays at his own pace, he's a special player. He doesn't force anything either. He mans our team and runs it," Sixers point guard T.J. McConnell said. "I know teams have tried to speed him up, by like picking him up full-court and things like that, but Ben won't allow it. Even on the breaks, he's always in control."
Some people call this poise. Others call it basketball IQ. Whatever it is, it's allowed Simmons to become one of the most electrifying and proficient talents in the NBA, even with an incomplete skill set.
Of course, things are bound to become more difficult as the season and his career progress. As one general manager told B/R, "Let's see what happens when teams start playing him the second time around." Basketball, after all, is a game of reads and counter-reads, and so maybe opponents will soon draw up new and more complex ways to make Simmons sweat.
But every now and then, a player comes along who leaves teams feeling helpless. Simmons recently met one.
It was July in Las Vegas and Simmons was roaming the floor of Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack Center in advance of a Sixers summer league game when he saw one of the sport's legends approaching. It was Magic Johnson, the Hall of Fame point guard and current Los Angeles Lakers president.
Simmons loves Magic. Legends like him, he says, are the only types of players he becomes excited to meet. And also, Magic was the prototype for the player Simmons is: a 6'9" point guard with a preternatural feel for the game, and also not much of an outside shot. Simmons and Brown studied film of Magic together last year.
Does Simmons see any similarities between Magic and himself?
"I modeled my game after him" Simmons said. "A big guy who can play the point—only I'm bigger and faster."
Remember that analogy Simmons' mom made between him and a musician? That might be where the Magic comparison is most noticeable so far.
Yes, a jumper would take his game to the next level, give him another tool to lean on. But for now, he's dominating without it because he's got a little Magic in him. A little of that ability to play the league by ear.