(First posted at Upside & Motor)
Ben Simmons is a point guard.
But because of his size (six-foot-10, 240 pounds), he’ll probably forever be misplaced as a wing or a big.
Thankfully, Louisiana State coach Johnny Jones has at least found a middle ground. Jones has played Simmons as a point guard on offense and a big man on defense. He has then excelled on one end but been exposed on the other, and LSU has been mediocre (they will likely miss the NCAA Tournament), raising concerns over how much of a transcending talent is Simmons really and how exactly can you build the right team around him.
His best skill is still his passing, and we have been able to witness his brilliance as a shot creator a lot more in college than in high school.
Montverde used Simmons mostly as a post player in the half-court, looking to leverage his size with his back to the basket. He has done so some in college as well, though mostly against lesser matchups. Simmons primarily looks to assist cutters and spot-up shooters from the low post, although has also shown some ability to act as a scorer when the opponent leaves him in an island against these lesser matchups – which was the case in his 43-point performance against North Florida.
But Louisiana State started the season going the opposite way, designing an offense that relied on Simmons to handle the ball on the perimeter with three and sometimes four three-point shooters spotting-up around him.
In the half-court, Simmons is almost always looking to create a corner three-point shot. He has shown great feel for taking advantage of a collapsing defense and his height helps him see over the top. But he has proven able to do so without even needing to attack off the dribble. Simmons is very perceptive when he’s surveying the defense and will often whip a pass to the corner as soon as he notices an opponent easing his stance for a split-second or focusing a little too soon on taking an extra step inside to help crowd the interior on a potential dribble drive, no bending the defense needed. He does so always on target, with the shooter receiving the ball in his shooting pocket, in position to pull the trigger as quickly as he can before the closeout.
According to basketball-reference, Simmons has assisted on 31.4 percent of Louisiana State’s scores in his 372 minutes, while only turning it over on 13.1 percent of the time he’s on the floor, which is quite low in the context of his 25 percent usage rate. And that assist rate should actually be higher. The Tigers have hit just 33 percent of their three-point shots at this point, despite enjoying good open looks arranged by Simmons.
Creating such good looks for himself has been a little more challenging, though.
As you must have read it or watched it by now, Simmons is a notoriously poor shooter. Not only that, he is a remarkably unwilling outside shooter. According to hoop-math, Simmons has missed 67 percent of his 62 two-point jump-shots. And that’s even a bit misleading, since most of these two-point “jump-shots” are actually floaters, turnaround hooks or short-range toss-ups.
As far as actual jump-shots go, Simmons goes to extreme lengths not to attempt them. There was a play in the game against Marquette where Tim Quarterman drove and drew help from Simmons’ man, leaving him open for a potential catch-and-shoot 15-footer but Simmons didn’t even look at the basket, immediately dribbling his way out of the arc and resetting.
Whenever he has attempted an outside shot, one is then able to see why Simmons has no confidence in his jump-shot. He sets a short base, then elevates with little fluidity, very mechanically, to the point it seems like a push-up shot, with absolutely no touch.
Because of that, opponents have felt very comfortable sagging way off him. Henry Ellenson stood at the foul line when Simmons dribbled outside the arc. He was also able to double Quarterman aggressively on a pick-and-pop where Simmons screened and then stood still beyond the arc. In the game against Houston, Danrad Knowles backed off a couple of steps when Simmons caught the ball in the middle of the Cougars’ zone.
With every opponent giving him a cushion, he has been unable to blow past most defenders in isolation and then attack the basket with explosiveness. He is quick and can go side-to-side to force the opponent off balance but when these defenders have managed to keep him in front or forced him to the side of the basket, Simmons has often tried awkward-looking floaters and short-range toss-ups with his right hand, instead of stepping-back and pulling-up from the in-between area.
In fact, despite having a strong preference for going left, which is his strong hand, Simmons more often than not attempts finishing with his right hand. As explained by SI’s Luke Winn, Simmons feels he can draw more fouls that way, as his large frame invites contact.
And he’s been correct so far, as he’s averaged 7.7 free throws per 40 minutes – with a quarter of his points on the season coming from the charity stripe. Simmons has converted 73% of his foul shots so far, appearing to be more comfortable with his mechanics in this instance, which allows you to hold out hope that he will one day develop into a passable live-ball jump-shooter.
As a live-ball finisher, I honestly think Simmons’ touch is only OK on those off-balance driving semi-layups. Feels like he leaves a lot of and-one opportunities on the table. He is also so-so from the post, where he’s almost always looking for a turnaround, right-handed jump-hook after a couple of bumps with the opponent or a face-up drive, since he isn’t the sort of player who looks to get physical on power moves and the turnaround, jump-shot isn’t an option at all for him.
But whenever Quarterman or Josh Gray have created something in the half-court on their own, Simmons has proven to have good hands to catch the ball on the move via cuts or diving down the lane out of the pick-and-roll. Though he has blown some easy lay-ins at rim level, it’s hard to argue with his 76% shooting on 75 attempts at the basket so far. Despite not always relying on his explosiveness, Simmons has flashed the ability to finish with power, leaping out of one foot or two feet, best seen in transition – which is where he excels the best.
Simmons is terrific on grab-and-go’s, collecting the defensive board and sprinting up the court to ignite the offense. He can then feed a runout with an on the money outlet pass, run the lane and play above the rim as a target for lobs, pass ahead and then receive back on the secondary break to attack a scrambling defense or change gears in the open court and blow by everyone to finish at the rim.
Those open court runs are fueled by Simmons’ prolificacy on the defensive glass – where he has collected 28.4 percent of opponents’ misses. Some of it is due to positioning – Simmons plays center quite a bit, always spotted close to the rim, on lineups where his tallest teammate is six-foot-six. But he has also shown some improvement from high school in this skill, as he used to rely quite a bit on Noah Dickerson’s boxout prowess at Montverde, while at LSU he’s been more disciplined looking to put his body on an opponent.
But perhaps more impressive has been his impact on the offensive glass. Simmons doesn’t have a real long wingspan (seven-foot) to rebound outside of his area but is a very quick leaper, flashing “second jump-ability” to fight for tipped balls around the basket. He has collected almost 12 percent of LSU’s misses, which is more impressive than it sounds when you consider he’s the triggerman of the offense and isn’t often parked below the rim just waiting to go after a miss.
The biggest gap in Simmons’ skill-set is his defense, at least the way he’s been asked to play in college.
As mentioned above, Simmons has often played center and as such, he has displayed an ineptitude to protect the interior. He has played poor help defense, often failing to provide adequate help in time, at times even avoiding stepping into the front of the rim to challenge a driver in order not to risk picking up a foul. His pick-and-roll defense as a big man has also been soft, as he hasn’t put a lot of effort into contesting mid-range jump-shots.
Maybe Simmons has been coached to keep himself out of foul trouble. That sure seems the case because Simmons has put in the effort in situations where the play comes to him, flashing a willingness to draw charges and picking up 15 blocks in 11 games when he finds himself well positioned – showcasing the ability to leap out of two feet quite quickly. Or it might simply be that a 19-year-old is choosing to be selective with his effort.
But even performing at peak effort, there’s concern regarding how impactful a player Simmons can be on defense as a big due to his physical profile. He struggled to contest turnaround shots by true big men such as Henry Ellenson, Luke Fischer and DeMarcus Daniels due to his lack of elite length for a big man. His seven-foot wingspan isn’t much in the context of his six-foot-10 height.
His length is a lot more impactful when Simmons has contested shots by smaller players in the perimeter, though. Generally speaking, he has always been a more effective defender as a perimeter player. Simmons impressed those who saw him defend actual point guards at the Adidas Nations and worked hard to navigate over picks at the Nike Hoop Summit. He showed nice lateral quickness to stay in front of Ellenson and Cody Martin when they took him off the dribble and was very engaged in the game against North Florida, when LSU switched aggressively and he picked up the point of attack a couple of times – though no smaller guard from North Florida really tried testing going around him.
Simmons is probably too big to go over screens against the pick-and-roll on a consistent basis, though, and would probably be manipulated out of the way by pro point guards with some ease. If a team were to try playing him as a point guard, it would probably need a Danny Green-, Iman Shumpert-, Avery Bradley-sort of wing who can defend point guards in his place full time. Simmons could then be hidden on a weaker threat around the perimeter, and his length can become more of an asset helping shut down passing lanes.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara