The NBA season is currently in the fatty middle of its schedule, and 45 or so games in, it feels as if there’s not a whole lot left to discover. The Pacers are surprisingly good, I guess, and the Thunder are finally on track. The Magic are just as diarrheal as they’ve been for the past half decade. By this point, you know about Australian angle maestro Ben Simmons and the Sixers, who have settled in nicely around the seventh seed and are on track to play one of the East’s best teams in the playoffs several months from now. But his tremendous game Wednesday night marked a tiny oasis in what’s otherwise the least interesting part of the NBA’s calendar.
Last night, Simmons went for 19 points, 17 boards, and 14 assists against the Bulls, locking down his triple double just inside the start of the third quarter. Simmons now has five triple doubles on the season, the most for a rookie since 1983-84, which is as far back as Basketball Reference’s data archive reaches. Every single one of his shots came in or around the key, and he’s continuing to prove that he doesn’t need a jump shot to exert his will on the game.
You’ll notice that many of those assists are just little dump offs to Embiid or Dario Saric around the three-point arc. The subjective nature of the assist devalues the statistic, yes, but there is something meaningful to even the most mundane of Simmons’s assists. Contemporary orthodox NBA offenses are wholly devoted to spacing, with several shooters set up on the three-point arc prepared to snipe away; this forces defenders out of driving lanes and the paint, which in turn makes operating in those areas easier. The thinking goes that you must have a point guard who can shoot in today’s NBA, since the shortest player on your team needs to command a disproportionate amount of space.
Ben Simmons breaks this conception of basketball. He can’t shoot worth a damn, at least not yet, but he still creates ample space for himself in other ways. Watch the alley-oop pass he tosses in the video above, or the incisive pass to a cutting Saric at 1:30. He flicks his passes on perfect lines quicker than a man of his size should, and because defenders sag off him to stymie his drives to the hoop, he’s got all the space he needs to find his shooters. If you put a smaller defender on Simmons, which you almost have to, his vision is unimpeded. Once he develops a passable jumper, he’ll be able to buy the space to scoot by defenders on the perimeter. When he develops that skill, the game will get even easier for him. But as it stands right now, he doesn’t need it.