There’s an old adage that the best way to build around a good player is to surround them with shooters. While this is true in many situations, it tends to get thrown around a lot and grossly over-simplifies how easy it is to get that many good shooters on a roster (and also how problematic rosters like that can be defensively, but I digress).
The reality of the case of Ben Simmons, and how we can get the most value out of him, is not far off from such a scenario in which that popular wisdom would ring true. This is for more reasons than just to space the floor and give him room to work; it has far more to do with covering for Simmons’ weaknesses at the present moment. Although spacing the floor is in fact a way to get more for your money with Ben, he needs to be surrounded by shooters simply to make up for some of the shots he isn’t taking.
Simmons has so much gravity on the court it’s quite honestly impressive. He commands so much respect with the ball in his hands, even when playing in situations in which he isn’t as strong in like low post-ups. However, if he’s behind the arc, all you really need to respect are the shooters he can pass the ball to, and his own drives. Within his effective area he has so many ways to be an effective point guard, and his ability to finish around the rim is impressive for a second year player. But in order for the team to get the most out of Simmons, Simmons needs to get the most out of himself, in some regards.
As much as I hate to say things like this, Simmons really does have the upside to be the Heir to the Throne of LeBron James, but in order to take said throne, he needs to do what LeBron did for many years in his career: play to his strengths, and strive relentlessly to fix the holes in your game and become as good as you can at as many things as you can. Simmons is already so proficient at what he does, and at his size he is certainly a candidate to become a positionless player in the league today, but that will only come as he continues to become a better version of himself. So what would that look like?
Going with the less obvious area of weakness first, Simmons has got to get better at free throws. By the nature of his game, he is going to get fouled a lot in crunch-time. Think about why LeBron James is famous for choking on crunch-time free throws. You can’t take free throws in crunch-time if you don’t get fouled in crunch-time. If he’s going to be iffy at best from the line, it makes the decision to intentionally foul him a lot easier, because unlike say Embiid, there is a very good chance he doesn’t make both of them. At that point, it’s simple math.
He needs to get better at them generally as well, of course. The new NBA rules regarding freedom of movement benefit him. He is big enough, fast enough, and strong enough to get to his spots on the floor sometimes before he even needs to dribble the ball, and that presents plenty of shots at the line for him. Even something as simple as being capable of hitting a free throw on And-1’s would make a significant increase in his value, because they will happen, especially if he continues to improve at his strong areas, like attacking the rim.
The more obvious area he needs to improve in is 3-point shooting. It’s barely even the need for improvement; it’s more so the need for existence in that area of the game. The last time he shot and made a 3-pointer was at LSU, and it’s not for lack of opportunity. His lack of even attempting shots has made for some comical stills of him at the top of the key with no defenders within 4 feet. The other team simply doesn’t need to respect a shot he won’t take.
This brings me to the bottom line for Simmons 3-point shooting. He doesn’t need to shoot the lights out like JJ. He doesn’t even need to be above average, truly. As long as he has a realistic chance of making it, and the confidence to take them when he’s wide open (which he always is), the opposing teams will have to acknowledge that option.
Not only does this make the game easier for himself, but for Embiid as well. Simmons, Embiid, Butler, and 2 shooters would be so, so dangerous. Butler and Embiid can shoot, but would both benefit from having more room to work in the paint. Plus, Simmons building a shot won’t take away from his capacity to draw defenders as he drives, and kicks out to an open shooter. In fact, it will probably make it harder to react to.
I apologize for mentioning LBJ so much in an article about Ben Simmons; I hate LeBron comps, for any player, but there’s a reason he is a good analog. James is a perfect example of someone who came into the league with incredible upside, and worked year after year to not only accentuate his strengths, but to build in his weaker areas as well to become a more complete player.
Simmons is already a great player within the existing system, but he can become a player that exceeds his role within a system if he continues to develop. I’m not worried about it much either, as he’s still one of the better point guards in the league and is only in his second year.
I know it may seem like a cop-out to say the way for the Sixers to get the most out of Simmons is for Simmons to just be the best he can be, but as the youngest player of the core 3, as well as the point guard, it’s the most essential that he continues to develop in as many ways as possible. This isn’t all on his shoulders, either; the team and his teammates need to continue to support and guide him through that grind.
If he keeps working behind the scenes, once he does decide to take shots, he’ll be all the better for it. I also have a huge amount of faith in Brett Brown’s ability to be proactive in taking on challenges like this. Cheesy as it may be, the headband thing with him and Butler is an example of this. He knows that Butler is a hard worker, and if he has an investment in helping the young guys like Simmons and Embiid develop, it will be good for the locker room and for the team’s future with him, and their long-term success together. After all, Butler isn’t getting younger and he is a very experienced player. If he is going to get that 5-year deal this summer, his experience will be invaluable as a leadership tool for a guy like Ben with so much to accomplish in this league.