During Brett Brown’s time in Philadelphia, there’s been one position he’s routinely referred to as the hardest, most demanding in the NBA.
And who on the 76ers’ 2017-2018 roster will be tapped to assume this challenging assignment?
Ben Simmons, in his first season, no less.
At least that’s the direction the organization appeared to be leaning in April, when the subject was last addressed in depth publicly. Fast forward five months, and the Sixers finally find themselves on the cusp of being able to assess this long-held hunch.
Simmons, in his limited action at summer league a year ago, and one season at LSU, certainly did enough to show that he could, perhaps, one day evolve into a premiere facilitator.
There was his passing touch, of course, clearly elite…
…and also his vision, enhanced by a 6-foot-10 frame that allows Simmons to periscope over foes (see him at work against Malcolm Miller, 3 inches smaller, at the 2016 Utah Jazz Summer League).
Add up some of Simmons’ most advanced gifts, and the reasons for the Sixers putting him on a point guard development path can be easily explained, especially by Brown.
“I always thought about him [as a point guard] almost right from the beginning,” the rising fifth-year head coach said this spring, during his end-of-season press conference.
Brown’s conviction was only reinforced the past 12 months, while Simmons’ right foot fracture was on the mend. The injury, sustained last September, cost the 2016 No. 1 pick all of what would have been his true rookie campaign.
Simmons’ ensuing recovery plan, charted by Brown and the Sixers’ medical staff, followed a three-pronged approach. It was during the film-study component of the program (the other two prongs revolved around physical rehab and jump shooting) that Simmons, according to Brown, displayed the aptitude and instincts tailor-made for a lead guard role.
“He wants the ball, and he loves to pass,” said Brown, who coached Simmons’ father, Dave, in Australia’s professional leagues.
Watching volumes of cut ups and clips gave Brown all the evidence he needed to determine that point guard possibilities were promising for the younger Simmons.
“When you go back to my main responsibility coaching a guy, [it’s] how can you put him in a position to experience the most success, either individually, or helping the team” Brown said in April. “It’s my judgment, now, that I want to try this. I feel like this is where [Simmons] can help our team the most first from the offensive standpoint, and that really has been the evolution of where we are, and where we were in regards to the decision to try to grow him.”
So, there’s your background info on why the Sixers feel obligated to test Simmons at the point.
Now, having covered that ground, we can dive deeper into a couple of residual subplots of the Simmons-as-point guard pursuit, like, for starters, how long might it take for him to get acclimated at the position?
Comments from the Sixers’ top basketball executive at the same April news conference Brown spoke at yielded insight on the matter, and reflected expectations rooted in patience.
“I think that the question about whether or not Ben Simmons is a point guard or not, that will play itself out over time,” said Bryan Colangelo, alluding to the demanding nature of the position, and the talent Simmons will be forced to consistently go up against. “I don’t think there’s going to be a quick answer there.”
From a fit standpoint, Colangelo indicated strongly back in April that Simmons possesses important, necessary tools to succeed at one guard – the drive-and-dish game, downhill speed, finishing prowess, and a 240-plus pound body that’s tough to cover.
Fine-tuning Simmons’ shot remains a point of emphasis, and while he might not boast the same degree of marksmanship that some more traditionally-built point guards do, the Sixers are banking on a bolstered cache of weapons to balance things out.
Returning cast members like Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington (all average or above average shooters, statistically) will be at Simmons’ disposal, as will newcomers Markelle Fultz and free agent JJ Redick. Fultz hit 41.3 percent of his threes as a college freshman, while Redick’s on pace to go down as one of the most accurate and prolific 3-point shooters of all time. Veteran combo guard Jerryd Bayless, whose shooting efficiency has improved up over the course of his career, will be in the mix this year, as well.
Defensively, Colangelo thinks Simmons has the chops, between his athleticism, long wingspan, wide base, and quick feet. If situational match-ups present problems, the Sixers hope the positionless qualities of their roster will help.
“I think Ben will show you he can guard most point guards in this league” Colangelo said. “It’s just learning the angles, learning the personnel, learning their tendencies. But, he’s been doing a lot of film study, so he’ll probably have a leg up on a lot of that.”
From a physical standpoint, Simmons seems to be ready. A quick thumb scroll through his Instagram account can confirm that.
Simmons spent plenty of his summer at the Sixers’ training complex in Camden, sharpening his game through both individual drills, and collective exercises. In June, he was part of a large contingent of players who packed the gym for a series of voluntary group workouts, which recently started back up again in advance of training camp.
Reports on Simmons’ progress have been of the positive variety.
Behind Simmons, the Sixers have several other viable ball-handling options in their stable, in Fultz, Bayless, and T.J. McConnell.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out,” Colangelo said, “but when you’ve got someone with [Simmons’] unique skillset – his size, strength, power.
“He’s a transformational type of player, potentially, at [the point guard] spot.”
Check back over the next couple of days for new installments to our ‘Unpacking for Camp’ series.