(First posted at RealGM)
In a vacuum, Simmons is the most talented player in the draft.
He possesses a very diverse combination of size and skill-set, standing at six-foot-10 with a 240-pound frame while moving and seeing the court as a perimeter player.
Despite his size, Simmons very obviously prefers running offense from the perimeter, having full view of the defense in front of him and creating out of dribble penetration.
Simmons is an above average scorer but not an exceptional one as of now. Though he’s only shown glimpses of being able to attack rim protection with explosiveness elevating out of one foot, his big frame invites a lot of contact in traffic (earning him 10.3 foul shots per 40 minutes last season) and he’s shown nice touch on non-dunk finishes against length at the basket (converting 75.2% of his 210 shots at the basket, via hoop-math).
But Simmons can’t shoot at all at this point of his development, which allows the opponent sag off a few feet in isolation or duck under screens in the pick-and-roll. He can eat up that space in a split-second when he makes his move but with his defender aware he only needs to worry about holding his ground foul line down, Simmons is limited in his ability to get by people.
He still managed to penetrate the lane without much trouble at the college level because of his long strides and ability to maintain his balance through contact, which constantly drew help even as he didn’t blow by his man that often and unlocked his remarkable passing on the move. Thanks to his vantage point, Simmons can see over defenders in traffic and has proven to have excellent court vision to take advantage of a collapsing defense – almost always looking to create an open three-point shot for a spot-up shooter.
There’s concern Simmons won’t be as successful causing that sort of chaos to get people open at the pro level, where the on-ball defenders are quicker, stronger and more properly instructed to prevent rotations and the weak-side defenders are lengthier and more instinctual. But he is the sort of passer who anticipates passing lanes a second ahead they come open and proved himself able to create a corner three-point shot without even needing to actually bend the defense, often whipping passes to those shooters at the edges as soon as he noticed 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.
A couple of decades ago, there would be coaches – with the memory of Magic Johnson still fresh on their minds – who would have him play as a straight up point guard. A decade ago – in the Era of LeBron James, Lamar Odom and Boris Diaw, Simmons would start his career as a small forward. But in the smallball Era, Simmons will be the nominal power forward – with teams more generally aware that the proper way to fill a lineup is with at least all three perimeter players being able to hit a three-pointer off the catch.
And while playing Simmons as a point guard would offer the advantage of having him post up opposing point guards and inversing the offense, the best way of maximizing Simmons in this day and age really seems to be forcing a big guy to try getting low in a stance, out there in space and navigating a ball screen, which they are simply not used to doing yet.
The template would be the way Golden State used Draymond Green this season, with him initiating offense from the perimeter more; running 4-1 and 4-2 pick-and-rolls with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson screening for him, then popping to a general open space around the arc. When they played the Clippers midseason with Andrew Bogut out and Green started at center, poor DeAndre Jordan had no chance of making himself useful to contain these plays.
That could more easily be done if Simmons is a “power forward” because it suggests he’ll also be defending an opposing big, stationed close to the basket, which gives him easier access to the defensive glass. While his in-play effort on that end is suspect (more on that in a second), Simmons is an excellent defensive rebounder – collecting 27.7% amount of opponents’ misses last season, according to our stats database. From there, he can trigger outlet passes, speed up the court or jog it up and set the half-court offense.
If Luke Walton internalized most of the concepts he was exposed to coaching in Steve Kerr’s staff, Simmons’ best fit would be with the Lakers, as he is a more dynamic player than Green off the bounce and would have a version of Curry to play pick-and-roll with in DeAngelo Russell.
He’s likely to play for Brett Brown, though. It’s unclear how creative a coach Brown is at this point, because he’s never really been given the opportunity to show it. But even if Brown is mostly a follower of Greg Popovich’s line of thought, adhering to more classic principles, Simmons should be very productive as well.
His passing skills could also be put into full use out of the short roll the way Tiago Splitter excelled at or from the elbows and the low post like Diaw, considering he’s a scoring threat diving all the way to the rim, hunting for his own shot with his back to the basket and in the offensive glass.
Simmons didn’t screen in the pick-and-roll much at Louisiana State but when he did and was given the ball in condition to do something with it, he showed soft hands to catch the ball on the move and the ability to play above the rim as a target for lobs.
Simmons isn’t a particularly impressive post scorer, lacking power moves and a turnaround-fadeaway jumper at this point. But he has strength to establish enough of a position to work with in the block and get a decent look on turnarond hooks, with pretty good touch.
But whether he is on the ball from the perimeter and in the post or screening for the ball, one thing is definite: Simmons needs to be involved in the strong-side, due to his inability to shoot even off the catch at this point of his development. It’s even hard to tell how far from a passable shooter Simmons is because he went to extreme lengths not to take outside shots at Louisiana State. Whichever team drafts him is probably assuming it will have to build his shot from scratch.
In that sense, the best way to hide his shooting would be actually playing him as a center, given he has the size for it. The problem with that option is there is another end to the court, where Simmons was very subpar in college.
He was very inept protecting the interior; often failing to provide adequate help in time and at times even avoiding stepping into the front of the rim to challenge a drive in order not to risk picking up a foul. Simmons was also soft defending in pick-and-roll, as he didn’t put a lot of effort into contesting mid-range jumpers.
It’s possible Simmons was coached to keep himself out of foul trouble or that he was simply a 19-year-old being selective with his effort once it was clear his team’s season wasn’t headed in the right direction.
But even if he had performed at peak effort, there would still be concerns over how impactful a player Simmons can ever really be on defense as a big due to his length. His seven-foot wingspan isn’t much in the context of his six-foot-10 height and he struggled to contest turnaround shots by true big men such as Henry Ellenson, Luke Fischer and DeMarcus Daniels in college.
Simmons should be able to offer switch-ability, though. All that fluidity moving in space he’s shown on offense should translate into an ability to develop into at least a passable individual defender in the perimeter if he puts in the effort, especially considering he’s shown flashes of being a more credible defender on the outside in the past – like in the game against North Florida.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara