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Examining the best fit for Ben Simmons in the NBA

Nov 24, 2015; Brooklyn , NY, USA; LSU Tigers forward Ben Simmons (25) drives past North Carolina State Wolfpack guard Anthony Barber (12) during the second half in the consolation game of the Legends Classic at Barclays Center. North Carolina State Wolfpack won 83-72 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

A couple of weeks ago I outlined Ben Simmons’s skill-set at this point of his development and the context within he has performed at Louisiana State.

To sum up: Simmons is an incredible passer, a relatively good scorer given his complete aversion for taking outside shots, a poor interior defender who seeks to avoid the risk of foul trouble and a perimeter defender who has shown signs that he might be best suited to become a more passable contributor on that end by guarding the outside.

At age 19, Simmons is by no means a finished product. Once he is gone from college, he will have better resources (more available time, more motivation due to clearer incentives, better coaching, better training) to work on his physical profile and develop specific areas of his skill-set.

But Simmons will be a pro next season, and the pro he will be at that time will be closer to the player he is now than the player he will be in his prime after years of experience and development. And while the team that eventually drafts him doesn’t have to rush to shape its roster based on how Simmons is expected to immediately perform, it will need to move on with its plans to build around Simmons based on what it knows of his basic nature as a player.

As we have seen at Louisiana State, building around Simmons can be complex. He is as unique a player as we’ve seen in history and while that can offer flexibility, it can also be challenging.

Simmons is a point guard. But because he stands at 6-10, a coach’s natural inclination is to move him up three positions and play him as a big. That’s especially the case in today’s small ball era, where the smartest coaches are looking to maximize space as their top priority. A smaller player no longer needs to be an impact defender or even particularly good defending bigger players to be moved up a position. All he needs to do is be able to hold his own and not get lit up, allowing your team to create more 3-point looks or less contested 2-point looks on offense, while the opponent gets stuck trying to maximize a mismatch that might not be as profitable.

I should then give up on the idea of any coach putting serious thought into playing Simmons as a point guard for long consistent stretches, especially considering there are concerns regarding whether he is even able to hold up defending other point guards on a full time basis.

Reports from the Adidas Nations last summer stated that Simmons did well defending other point guards but he is too big to navigate over ball-screens consistently. Simmons has a 7-0 wingspan to contest shots and deflect passes as a trailer but point guards with real speed could probably lose him fairly easy depending on whether the big men behind him can cut off dribble penetration.

In order to play Simmons as a point guard on offense, his team would need to have a smaller wing or a 3-and-D point guard able to effectively contain point guards on defense while also being able to help with spacing on offense. Players like Avery Bradley, Danny Green, Iman Shumpert and Patrick Beverley aren’t as easy to find as one thinks, and they command a substantial financial commitment to sign or retain.

Beverley, for example, earns $6 million a year. That’s not a contract that breaks your cap sheet but it’s not nothing when you consider he isn’t a player that actively helps out in a crisis for a team that isn’t doing as well as expected, which has been the case in Houston this season. Bradley and Shumpert were bad in New York and Boston a while back and their value wasn’t as well recognized as it is now that they are parts of 40- and 60-win teams, respectively.

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Coaches also don’t seem to like cross-matching as aggressively as they should be doing, probably because they think the pace of play is too fast to minimize the risks that emerge when players have to focus on looking for a specific assignment transitioning back to defense.

That almost guarantees Simmons is more likely to be used as a wing or a big. I think either will work out well enough, as long as Simmons has access to handling the ball from the perimeter often and there’s adequate spacing around him. He is too good a passer not to handle the ball on the pick-and-roll regularly and, more critically, he has not shown any ability to function as a weak-side threat spotting up off the ball. It’s even hard to assess how far from a passable shooter Simmons is at this point because he goes to extreme lengths not to take outside shots.

Until he develops some sort of jumper, Simmons needs to monopolize possession of the ball or be constantly involved screening for whomever has possession. Serving as a nominal wing, generally guarded by a smaller player, Simmons’s big advantage will be taking these players into the post and inversing the offense, forcing the defense to reset in a way they are used to guarding or collapse and be forced to scramble.

Simmons is not an explosive player attacking off the bounce but has proven he is consistently able to get to the rim or force the defense to collapse and create an open look for somebody else. Every player needs to help from the ecosystem he is a part of to create an advantage, though. How big of a need spacing is around him hinges on the development of his jump shot. At this point, Simmons is no threat whatsoever to pull-up from mid-range, so opponents can sag off him, and a minimum of three shooters are required to be with him on the floor so he can reasonably be expected to anchor an efficient offense. Louisiana State struggles in that regard and the result is a fairly anti-climactic unit that ranks only 46th in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy.

While stretch fours or wings big enough to pass for stretch fours aren’t that hard to find these days to hedge on the downside of having Simmons as a wing, he probably becomes a worst matchup problem for the opponent if he is the nominal “power forward” being guarded by another big.

Simmons could then take these bigs to the outside, run pick-and-roll, make them get in a stance and have to navigate a ball-screen. Those tight Josh Smith-Al Horford pick-and-rolls in Atlanta used to be money. Now imagine someone who has a legit handle that forces a big man to defend in space 25-feet away from the basket. That opponent will be able to sag off Simmons for now but simply forcing him into an uncomfortable situation he is not used to dealing with might be a huge asset for a smart coach to try exploring.

But even a coach with a less cutting edge approach should be able to integrate Simmons’ passing and off dribble capability by having him facilitate offense from the elbows, pass out of the short roll and attack off a catch-and-go.

A pick-and-pop with Simmons screening might not make opponents fear his ability to shoot on the move but simply forcing them to navigate that action could be enough to create an opening for him to attack an opponent off balance.

Him passing out of the short roll should be flat out lethal. The Clippers have a monster offense in large part due to Blake Griffin’s floor game. There aren’t many big men who can keep up with him, period, let alone after he sets a ball-screen and gets a head-start. But even less complete players who aren’t as potent putting the ball on the floor but have a feel for attacking a scrambling defense can have huge impacts. The Rockets completely destroyed the Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs last season with Smith and Terrence Jones alley-ooping to Dwight Howard all the time.

The trade-off of having Simmons as a big comes on defense. He’s shown this season he is not a particularly adept interior defender, often not making to effort to rotate in help-defense. Maybe he’s been coached to avoid foul trouble or maybe he’s being selective with his effort and will grow out of it eventually, but what we know now is that it’s probably best to pair him with a rim protector.

Yet a more critical concern might be the fact Simmons lacks the length to project as particularly effective individual defender against big men able to create their own shots. His 7-0 wingspan isn’t much in the context of his 6-10 height and makes it tough to envision him effectively contesting shots by the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Jahlil Okafor, Kristaps Porzingis and Karl Anthony Towns, Jr.

Either as a perimeter player or a big, it doesn’t seem unfair to project Simmons as the sort of defender who will need to be hidden.

FITS

Now that we’ve established Simmons’ strengths or weaknesses at this point of his development, as well as what he can be reasonably expected to bring to the table, we can try assessing how the team that drafts him can plan building around him. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton has calculated there is a 62.8 percent chance that team will be either the 76ers, the Lakers or the Celtics (via the Nets’ picks).

Philadelphia desperately needs somebody who can create a shot off the dribble, to the point that Jerry Colangelo forced Sam Hinkie to give up two real assets (even if low valued) in order to add Ish Smith (who they already had and gave up on) for half a season. But it also needs shooters.

December 30, 2015; Sacramento, CA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Ish Smith (1) celebrates with forward Nerlens Noel (4) during the fourth quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Sleep Train Arena. The 76ers defeated the Kings 110-105. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I can try making a case that they already have these shooters on the roster, in Robert Convington, Nik Stauskas, Hollis Thompson and Isaiah Canaan. But two of them have been terrible this season and the other two are mostly open-shot shooters rather than volume shot makers with gravitational pull.

It’s possible that the addition of a shot creator like Simmons results in better shots for these guys but it’s also just as possible that these four aren’t any more able to profit from the looks created by Simmons than the guys from Louisiana State. And even if what happens is something in between, you then have to deal with the fact that Stauskas and Canaan are poor defenders, Thompson is a zero at best and Covington is so-so — meaning you’ll be hard pressed to figure out a way to hide Simmons. While Convington is probably the only one who is perceived as a keep anyway, adding Simmons to this group means the 76ers will need to move on or upgrade over the other three the soonest they can in order to try making real strides.

Figuring out the right 3-and-D point guards and wings to place around Simmons is of critical importance but it won’t be Philly’s most pressing concern. That will be thinking of how to possibly manage the addition of Simmons to a squad with Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Okafor and Dario Saric already in it.

While I’d like Simmons to be given a fair look at point guard, I must give up on that idea, as I’ve mentioned above. And even if Philly actually tried that, Simmons and Okafor probably couldn’t play much together. Milwaukee has shown us this season how hard it is to build a healthy offense around a point guard who can’t shoot and a center who is neither a pick-and-pop nor a real pick-and-dive guy. Even Dallas showed us this when its offense went from one of the best of all time to merely run-of-the-mill good because of Rajon Rondo’s arrival, which was even only the case because of Dirk Nowitzki’s presence as a destroyer of help-defense principles.

That means Brett Brown would have to do incredible math to think of a way to have a rotation with all of Simmons, Saric, Noel, Okafor and Embiid on it. I could try going through the variations of how each scenario could work but the solution seems simpler: Philly will have to trade one of Noel or Okafor eventually.

It’s been so long since Embiid has played ball that I don’t think enough people remember how incredible a prospect he looked to be at Kansas. If he ever makes it back to the court and looks anything close to what he was expected to be (neither of which is a sure development, I understand), Embiid is still the closest thing to superstar No. 1 the 76ers have been looking for, even if you all of a sudden add Simmons into the mix. I think as long as Embiid is under contract you have to wait and hope, even if he is a massive headache in the meantime.

Dec 22, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (L) and forward Nerlens Noel (R) work out prior to a game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever Embiid returns, it no longer becomes attainable to try developing all three of these centers. It’s probably even a stretch trying two of them at the same time but the uncertainty regarding Embiid’s long term help means you have to keep at least one as a fallback plan.

Okafor has been exactly whom we thought he’d be — a terrific post scorer from the get-go and a poor interior defender. Meanwhile Noel, who was good and seemed clearly headed in the right direction last season, has regressed in part due to Okafor’s presence. He was a good rim protector, anchoring a defense that almost finished in the top 10, and a pick-and-dive threat who even showed some ability to take opposing centers off the dribble on short straight-line drives.

Okafor is already a good scorer and could help impact an offense a lot more than we’ve seen so far with the proper shooting around him. But I think Noel is the one they’d have to keep because of the need to surround Simmons with as many capable defenders and space creators as they can. Noel is not only the better, more impactful defender but his threat to play above the rim as a target for lobs has to be accounted more than Okafor spotting up in the baseline or from 18-feet when he is not posting up.

With that in mind, it’s also hard to think how Saric fits with Simmons. The Croatian is, in a way, the exact same player as the Australian — he is also a 6-10 point guard who isn’t allowed to play that position. In fact, Anadolu Efes has mostly deployed him as a pure stretch four. Saric’s shooting has improved over the years but having him spot up off the ball isn’t the best possible way to maximize his high basketball IQ. He is also a limited defender, one who puts in a lot of effort but is nonetheless expected to struggle against NBA-caliber athleticism.

Maybe having these two combo forwards with tremendous passing instincts could provide incredible flexibility for the offense to whip the ball around from side to side frenetically and one of them always forcing an opposing big to defend in the perimeter or taking a smaller player into the post to force the defense to collapse. Then on defense, whomever of Embiid and Noel is at center can shut down the rim and you spend a lot of money on the right 3-and-D prospects to play with them.

Or the whole thing is a disaster when Saric can’t shoot well enough to space the floor for Simmons to work on the ball and neither guy can defend as a second big, eventually leading to Saric getting traded as well.

Simmons’ arrival would also affect Jerami Grant. He has regressed shooting this season after showing signs he was headed in the right direction in the second half of last season, but Grant has proven he has potential to develop into an impact defender, especially defending close to the basket as a weak-side shot blocking threat. In this scenario where Simmons lands in Philly, smart teams should call Philly right away to check and see if the price to get Grant is reasonable.

Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, the Lakers wouldn’t have as many things to figure out upon Simmons’ arrival. D’Angelo Russell is the only untouchable building block the roster currently possesses and his skill-set can work fine with Simmons’.

In fact, a Russell-Simmons pick-and-roll could be very diverse; Russell can pull-up, Simmons can roll hard, Simmons can short roll and alley-oop or hit a spot-up shooter. Simmons also brings to the table the opportunity to run a big-small pick-and-roll and that would be great with Russell, who could catch-and-shoot from 3-point range or attack a closeout and get to the basket or pass on the move. Obviously, though, the Lakers will need a better coach than Byron Scott to think about these strategies.

Simmons’ potential addition would likely result on L.A. eventually moving on from Julius Randle. Randle should be a real good post scorer and can handle the ball in the perimeter fairly well but obviously not as well as Simmons and he can’t shoot, aside from the fact that a Simmons-Randle frontcourt pairing probably wouldn’t be able to protect the basket at all.

But other than Randle’s presence, the Lakers should have plenty of roster and financial flexibility over the ensuing couple of summers to adjust their roster in whichever way they need around Simmons and Russell as a solid foundation.

The Celtics are by far the best possible short-term fit for Simmons, though. Danny Ainge has built a team extremely flexible in terms of roster composition. Just about any player can be traded if need be.

But perhaps even better, most of the players on the team can be kept and adjust to the style of play that fits what’s better for the superstar (or in this case, superstar prospect) they eventually get. Guys like Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko, Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson would be the exact kinds of players a team needs to surround Simmons with.

And Brad Stevens is probably the one coach out there who would come the closest to playing Simmons at point guard, if he agrees with me that this is the best way to maximize his shot creation. Hell, he has done it with Evan Turner, after all.

Rafael Uehara

Rafael Uehara is a contributor at Upside & Motor. More from him can be read at basketballscouting.wordpress.com, his personal blog, and bballbreakdown.com, where he's also a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter @rafael_uehara.