Ben Simmons Was Bad But So What

Illustration for article titled Ben Simmons Was Bad But So What
Photo: Matt Slocum (AP)

Nobody needs it explained to them that it’s relatively normal for a rookie, no matter how talented, to play like ass for an entire series in the second round of his first trip to the playoffs. This is how things are generally supposed to go.


As shocking as that stat is, it doesn’t oversell how poorly Simmons played in the Sixers’ five-game elimination against the Celtics. Aside from a Game 2 performance in which he scored only one point, Simmons’s per-game totals were mostly fine. He was out there getting his standard 15-8-8, but he was gathering those numbers while looking like a guy who simply didn’t have a place on the floor.

The Celtics did a fantastic job of squelching all his transition opportunities and clogging the passing and driving lanes he’s so adept at exploiting, and Simmons responded by fading into the background of the series. He came face-to-face with the Celtics’ “get in his way and stick your arms out scheme” over and over again, and he never found an answer for it. Consequently, it felt like every time the Sixers went on a run and showed themselves up to the task of cracking the NBA’s best defense, they did it with Simmons on the bench. Then he’d come back in, and his team would immediately backslide.

Again, there’s no shame in this. Playoff basketball is supposed to deconstruct rookies until they are a collection of weaknesses—unless the rookie in question is Jayson Tatum, I guess—and Simmons remains a player blessed with oodles of generational talent. He will get better.

Exactly how he’ll get better is another question. The easy line to reach for when talking about Simmons’s development is “he needs to develop a jumper,” which is true, but also the kind of thing you usually say about a player who has previously shown the ability to actually take a jumper. Ben Simmons doesn’t need a jumper in the same way Russell Westbrook needs a jumper; he’s not a guy who simply needs to sharpen a dull skill. He needs to create the skill from scratch:

Illustration for article titled Ben Simmons Was Bad But So What

This has been an odd thing to consider while watching Simmons throughout these playoffs. During his series against the Heat, the lack of jumper could not have mattered less, and the liquid athleticism with which he brushed aside all the goons Miami sent his way suggested that a player so innately talented couldn’t possibly have any NBA-level ability held away from him for too long. But then the Boston series started, and Simmons started taking shots—ones very close to the basket!—that made it look like he’d never even heard of the concept of shooting a basketball. It’s genuinely weird to see one of the best young players in the league do stuff like this:

And this:

How many hours in the gym does it take to fix something like that? The answer ultimately may not matter. Simmons has already led his team into the second round of the playoffs without being able to reliably put the ball in the hoop from a distance greater than five feet, and it’s not impossible to imagine his other skills developing to the point that he’ll never actually need to. Or maybe he’ll acquire a three-point shot this offseason and have the MVP award wrapped up by next February. Either way, no young player in the NBA has as intriguing a future as Simmons. The Celtics exposed him, which means now the real fun can begin.