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FILM STUDY: Don’t look now, but Ben Simmons is putting it together

Memphis Grizzlies v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Things were not looking good for Ben Simmons.

It was a shame, too. After all, Brooklyn gave Simmons a rare thing in the NBA, a fresh start, after things deteriorated significantly in Philadelphia.

On paper, the Nets were the perfect home for the 6’11” jack-of-all-trades star. Built around two premier-level scorers in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Ben would simply fill in the gaps. His three most potent skills—defense, passing, and rebounding—were all areas that had plagued the Nets in years past. Ideally, Ben could be the slipper to Brooklyn’s Cinderella story.

Reality struck when the ball was tipped. Simmons looked every bit the part of a player who had missed a full season of NBA hoops in 2021-22, and certainly one that was working his way back from summer back surgery to fix a herniated disc. The former All-NBAer and three-time All-Star failed to score more than 10 points in his first 9 games as a Net, and to this day still has more total fouls (46) than made field goals (42) because of those early struggles.

He was barely looking at the rim in transition, once his bread and butter as a scorer, and repeatedly picked up his dribble at the elbows while coming off pick-and-rolls. Even his defensive impact appeared significantly dampened, as an uncomfortably large number of opponents dusted Simmons on drives to the rim.

Plus, Simmons just couldn’t stay on the floor. Left knee soreness required drainage and caused him to miss six of Brooklyn’s first 15 games. As such, reports began to trickle out about the former #1 overall pick, suggesting that his teammates were disgruntled by Ben’s early performance and inability to stay on the court. And we learned that after his late scratch vs. the Lakers, Sean Marks and he had a 10-minute, closed-door post-game talk to discuss how Simmons needed to communicate better to avoid a repeat of the situation.

This Disney-esque redemption story was beginning to look like another nightmarish chapter in his young career.

His team wasn’t playing much better. Brooklyn got off to an early 1-5 start, and former Nets coach Steve Nash was unsurprisingly the fall guy. Then, Kyrie Irving was suspended from the team for posting anti-semitic content to his social media channels, and Brooklyn was considering hiring suspended and disgraced coach Ime Udoka. Simmons’ struggles suddenly became a backstory. Oddly enough, the madness surrounding the Nets shielded Ben from the intense criticism that would normally come about when a player of his caliber underperforms to this degree. In the most hilariously unintended way possible, the Nets were, in fact, the perfect fit for Simmons and his reclamation story all by masking his growing pains.

That brings us to the Sacramento game.

Simmons was the lone positive in the 30-point blowout against the Kings. He finally broke double-digit points as a Net with 11 and looked aggressive while attacking the basket. His downhill zip and lift as a leaper began to resemble the Ben of old. If he could just build on this promising performance, the Nets might be cooking with gas.

His next two performances were even better. Simmons picked up right where he left off against Portland, dropping 15 points to go with seven assists and 13 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. Sunday against Memphis was even better. Ben was by far Brooklyn’s best player on the floor, controlling the game with his pace and smooth scoring approach inside the painted area for a season-high 22 points on 11-of-13 shooting (along with eight rebounds and five assists).

So how’d he do it?

There’s just been a sense of calmness watching Simmons operate in his lair, the low post. He’s been efficient posting up on both sides of the floor, turning over his left shoulder for sweeping skyhooks when positioned on the left block, and countering with full-turn spinning hooks on the right block. Though he states he’s a lefty, it’s very clear he wants to get to his right hand at all costs as a scorer inside the painted area.

It’s been encouraging to watch Simmons call his own number the way he has in the recent two-game stretch, especially considering how tentative he appeared earlier in the season. He’s done so without overstretching himself, yet he has punished opponents accordingly when defenders sag off and fail to respect him as a scorer. In the final clip from the video below, Memphis is completely camped out in the paint as Ben handles up top, so he responds by taking a couple of dribbles to generate the uncontested floater, a shot he reportedly worked on extensively over the summer (he’s 4-for-6 on floaters this season, per NBA stats).

Brooklyn’s roster was built to accentuate Simmons as a small-ball 5-man. In theory, Simmons could set screens and dot passes to open teammates while warping the defense as a dynamically athletic roller. The current Nets roster represents the most shooting that Simmons has played alongside since maybe his first full season as a Sixer—and with ample spacing to make decisions, it wasn’t tough to envision a world in which the 26-year-old could quickly transform into one of the league’s most lethal short-roll pests.

Of course, in order for this theory to become reality, Ben would need to showcase a commanding hold on the basics... and that’s another area where he fell short until this week. The timing and accuracy of his screens was woefully off to begin the year, leading to an onslaught of offensive fouls. Three times, he fouled out. His rolls were just as underwhelming. Many times, he would dive to the basket far too late after setting the screen... or just fail to roll whatsoever. It was maddening to see a player of his potential fall so unbelievably short in the most rudimentary facets of pick-and-rolling.

He’s been a different player as of late. The contact on his screens has been firm more often than not, and he’s done an excellent job stretching those screens to fully take his teammates’ defenders out of the play. His rolls to the rim have been well-timed and forceful; that bashfulness as a roll-man is all but gone. Together, it’s given Ben far more openings in the open floor to attack as a high-powered screener.

As such, his teammates have found him with a steadier diet of passes, and Ben’s used his impressive size and fluidity to lean and stretch for gorgeous finishes at the cup. Recently, the reverse finish to shield away defenders with his 240-pound frame has been Simmons’ go-to move as a roller. He’s a whopping 30-of-37 inside the restricted area in his last two games, and he looks much closer to the generationally special athlete we saw in Philadelphia.

Because he’s been such a dominant scorer inside the painted area, Ben’s starting to force help rotations; and that is when he can spray passes to corner shooters as a fully optimized short roller.

Ben was advertised as a player that could transform Brooklyn’s transition offense due to his blazing speed and unteachable court vision.

That’s another area he’s shown increased comfort in, especially against Memphis.

At nearly seven feet tall with a bulky frame, Ben has all the tools to rebound like a prototypical big. He differentiates himself by what happens next. Rather than pawning the ball off to a sweet-dribbling teammate, Simmons can instead beat the defense down the floor and flash his uniquely controlled handle. It’s why he’s so often compared to Magic Johnson.

Simmons with a runway in transition is just absolutely lethal (see: the video below); if his defender is leaning one way to deter an oncoming offensive action like a dribble-handoff, Ben has no fear of crossing over and knifing to the cup for an athletic finish. If the defender guards him straight-up, he’s got a euro-step to bust out if needed.

Spriting down the floor after grabbing the rebound is also an excellent way for Simmons to showcase his most crystalized offensive skill—passing—and out of a full sprint, he makes this pinpoint bounce pass to Yuta Watanabe in the corner look downright easy (hint: it’s not!). Open 3-pointers are suddenly sprouting from the colorful Basquiat hardwood almost uncontrollably as opposing defenses try to contend with Brooklyn’s 6’11” cyborg of a point-forward.

His ability to push the pace and punish defenses accordingly has almost single-handily added a new layer to Brooklyn’s offense. Don’t believe me? Prior to Ben’s breakout game against the Blazers, Brooklyn’s 2.8 points per play in transition ranked 17th in the league. Since then, the team’s productivity in transition has more than doubled, scoring 6.5 points per fast break play, which ranks fifth in the NBA in that stretch.

Just through sheer reps alone, he’s building familiarity with his still-new teammates. He and Kevin Durant have been a particularly potent duo, outscoring opponents by 18.6 points per 100 possessions in the recent two-game stretch. Ben’s instinctual passing has been a hand-in-glove fit with KD’s ability to cut back door when defenses overplay him.

One thing I’ve liked is how useful Ben has made himself as an offensive player away from the action. Because he’s not a floor-spacer whatsoever, he has a habit of shuffling down to the dunker spot if he’s not handling the ball or setting screens. It’s where he spent the majority of the infamous second-round series loss against the Atlanta Hawks in 2021. This can be especially problematic next to fellow non-shooting bigs like Nic Claxton. In these situations, Simmons is either crowding a driving lane for the ball-handler or erasing Claxton’s rolling opportunities no matter what side of the floor Ben’s positioned on.

Against Portland, however, we saw him approach things differently. He and Clax shared the floor late in the game, and rather than standing in the dunker spot in hopes of grabbing offensive rebounds, Ben instead set “pin-in” screens on Watanabe’s defender to generate open corner looks for the league’s leading three-point marksman. These pin-in screens, or “exit” screens, are a great way for Ben to contribute to the offense as an off-ball player; they’re also an excellent way for the Nets to fully reap the benefits of playing him alongside Claxton in a lethal defensive frontcourt that doesn’t completely sink offensively.

We’re not going to spend a ton of time discussing how Ben has looked defensively, as this article is already pretty wordy, but just know that he’s shown gradual improvement in this area as well. Brooklyn has been 17.2 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Ben on the floor since November 17, the best of any Nets starter.

There’s still room for improvement, to be clear, as his lateral quickness as a one-on-one defender is still pretty little lacking—especially relative to the Defensive Player of the Year caliber guy we saw in Philadelphia. But still, he had some nice moments against Damian Lillard, and he’s been one hell of a “garbage man” by routinely cleaning up defensive miscues. Here are two examples.

Portland sets up in a “delay” formation with Jusuf Nurkic dictating the offense up top, and when Joe Harris and Royce O’Neale get lost defending this backscreen action involving the Blazers’ two best players—Lillard and Anfernee Simons—Ben bails his guys out by absolutely nailing this help rotation to bat away the pass.

This is perhaps Simmons’ best defensive possession in the last two games. To begin, he 34-fronts Nurkic to push the much larger opponent way off his spot, almost at the three-point line. Then, when Joe Harris gets beat off the dribble by Nassir Little, Simmons rotates over to haughtily swat the ball out of bounds.

It’s tough to say what has fueled the recent resurgence of Ben Simmons. Is he finally feeling healthy in his knee and back, allowing him to contort and explode for the finishes we all expected? Perhaps. Maybe it’s that he’s finally built some self-belief after his long road to recovery. Confidence really is a crazy thing. Or, it could be as simple as getting the requisite number of NBA reps. More than likely, it’s a combination of the three.

Regardless, how Ben is playing should produce a sigh of relief in his locker room, the organization, and the fanbase. After all, he’s always represented the true championship ceiling of this Brooklyn Nets team.