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Ben Simmons playing the 5? Don’t be surprised

Los Angeles Sparks v New York Liberty Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

When Steve Nash talked at the end of last season about how Ben Simmons could play the 5 for the Nets, it threw Nets fans for a loop. The 6’11” Simmons has been a point guard, an All-Star and All-NBA point guard. Why make him a point center.

“I think he plays both [point guard and center],” Nash said at the end of the season.

“He’s just such a well-rounded, versatile athlete and skilled player that I think it would be limiting to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to handle the ball all the time. You have to facilitate the offense all the time.’ That’s what’s special about him is the varied skills he brings to the table. So, yes, he’ll facilitate and be the point guard.

“He’ll also sometimes be the center. Other times he’ll be the guy that’s just playing position-less basketball, trying to create offense in the half court. So for me, it’s playing to his strengths, which are varied, and all those things are a part of it.”

Indeed, as Brian Lewis wrote Saturday, Simmons played a lot of 5 when he played in Philadelphia and it worked, particularly whenever Joel Embiid went down ... which was not an uncommon occurrence.

In his four healthy seasons, Simmons spent 8.1, 10.9, 6.5 and 7.6 percent of his defensive possessions playing center, respectively, according to advanced league data. The breakdown was fairly similar on offense: 6.7, 8.2, 7.5 and 7.2 percent.

The Nets got a look at what Simmons could be as a smallball 5 during a 2019 first-round playoff loss to the Sixers. When Embiid was sidelined due to a knee injury, the Sixers closed the fourth quarter of Game 3 with Simmons at center. He responded with the best postseason performance of his career: 31 points on 11-for-13 shooting, nine assists, four rebounds, three blocks and two steals.

Here’s some highlights of that game...

The Sixers win put them up 2-1 and went a long way towards sealing the young Nets fate.

Brooklyn is short on big men. Simmons along with Nic Claxton and Day’Ron Sharpe are the three biggest players currently on the Nets roster. Bobby Marks in talking about whether the Nets need to sign an itinerant big like Dwight Howard went even further than Nash last week, saying “the likelihood is that we see Ben Simmons playing the majority of minutes at center.”

Of course, there would be issues aplenty. What would the Nets offense look like late in games with if Simmons and Claxton were on the court together ... and neither KD nor Kyrie is with them? Not pretty assuming neither player has improved their shooting. Also while Simmons can guard 1-through-5, the Nets would lack rim protection with him rather than the two young 5’s on the court. And of course, the Nets will probably have to wait and see how Simmons fits after missing a full season, as Seth Curry, also part of the James Harden trade, noted when visiting Simmons native Australia last week.

“It is going to be a challenge getting his rhythm back playing basketball,” Curry recently told outlets in Sydney and Melbourne. “But he is a special talent, has all the skills. The Nets need him on the floor.”

Still, from all accounts, the Nets see the 26-year-old as a foundation piece, whether in a run-in-back scenario with Durant and Irving on the court ... or in a rebuild. As Lewis notes, after talking with league executives, “Nets general manager Sean Marks has shown no inclination to move Simmons.” As Lewis adds, there’s not much of a market right now for Simmons who is signed for three years and $113.7 million.

Of course, a lot of what Simmons will be asked to do depends on his runningmates come October whether it’s Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving or some yet unknown pieces acquired for one or both of the two superstars. No matter, says Curry, the Nets will need Simmons ... even if he doesn’t need a jump shot.

“I don’t think he needs a jump shot. He’s just got to do what he does best — which is defend, rebound, push the ball, make plays for other people and attack the rim,’’ Curry said. “When you’ve got the size and talent like him, who takes not one but two and sometimes three guys to stop him getting to the rim, that is a lot in itself.

“If he can add knocking down free throws at a higher clip, it’s going to allow him to be unstoppable once he puts his head down.”

Because of all the KD and Kyrie sturm und drang, Simmons has been an afterthought this summer. Once the superstar issues get settled whether before or during the regular season Simmons place on the Nets will be front and (maybe) center.