Ben Simmons is a generational talent who, because of glaring flaws exacerbated by Philadelphia’s roster and the way basketball is trending, finds himself in the wrong generation. For a player who can do so much, conversations about his game necessarily gravitate towards everything he can’t do.
The NBA is still in the midst of a revolution that’s being dictated by outside shooters who effortlessly plop in three-pointers from 28 feet. Those unable to earn respect from distance are getting left behind. Right now, that includes Simmons. In these playoffs, he has yet to attempt a single shot outside the paint, and opposing game plans don’t worry when he’s stationed on the perimeter. Simmons can cut, duck into the post, and crash the offensive glass, but those actions neither maximize his own talent nor complement his all-star teammates enough to elevate Philly’s offense as a whole.
Despite his limitations, Simmons finished this year as the third player 22 years old or younger to average at least 16 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists for an entire season. He made his first all-star team and spent many of his 2,700 regular-season minutes looking like the vigorous No. 1 pick most people expected him to be.
Simmons’ success is thanks to several physical advantages — size, strength, and preternatural vision, to name a few — but his pure speed, when harnessed at the right time, is awesome enough to conceal every blemish. At this point in his career, it’s Simmons’ most powerful ally, and a marvelous tool that allows him to do things very few in league history ever could.
Let this jaw-dropping sequence against the Dallas Mavericks serve as an example.
Think about it: How many players can outrun a near full-court pass to wipe out a dunk?
By itself, unbridled velocity isn’t enough to make it in the NBA. A compact court rewards shiftiness and deception much more than a dead sprint. But the open floor is where Simmons strikes fear in opposing coaches. It’s where he best resembles Magic Johnson and LeBron James. In it, his ceiling disappears and expectations soar. And over the past few weeks, both the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors have discovered how devastating Simmons can be when his engine goes from idle to a deafening roar.
“I’m just blown away by his speed all the time,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson says, one day after Simmons scored a career playoff-high 31 points in Game 3 of their first-round series.
The publicly available data that tracks Simmons’ movement hardly captures just how spectacular it can be. According to NBA.com, his average speed this season was 4.17 miles per hour, slower than Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, and more than 100 other players who, relatively speaking, are sloths. A look at how he impacts the 76ers in transition roughly reflects how he and the team deploys his speed. According to Cleaning The Glass, the percentage of Philadelphia’s possessions that were in transition this year was four percent higher with Simmons on the floor and 10.6 percent more likely after a defensive rebound — both numbers were near the top of the league, but don’t do Simmons’ speed proper justice.
According to private data provided to SB Nation by NBA Advanced Stats, Simmons’ top recorded speed this year was 19.7 miles per hour, which translates to him racing the length of a court in roughly 3.25 seconds. For a bit of context, Kings’ point guard De’Aaron Fox, who declared himself the fastest player in the league, recorded a top speed of 18.6 miles per hour just before the all-star weekend. (Second Spectrum doesn’t make top speeds available in their platform, but do collect the data. A master list that details where Simmons ranks relative to every other player in the league was not made available.)
Simmons’ teammates agree with the numbers:
“He’s definitely the fastest I’ve played with,” says Sixers teammate and fellow Australian Jonah Bolden, who’s known Simmons since they were children. “I think everyone’s focal point when on the court with him is just to keep up.”
“You really don’t see anything like that,” Sixers rookie Zhaire Smith says. “And me guarding him in practice, I see his speed all the time.”
“It’s special,” Jimmy Butler says. “It’s definitely different.”
Players and coaches who were polled for this story most frequently compared Simmons to 6’8 James, but smaller speed demons like Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, and John Wall were also mentioned. For him to even be mentioned in the same breath as those players defies science. Simmons is listed at 6’10 and 240 pounds. Human beings that huge are not supposed to gather speed as quickly as he does.
“Being really large, it’s hard to be fast … Anything where you’re trying to move body mass in space, it’s an advantage to be small,” says Dr. Peter Weyand, a biomechanist and physiologist who’s spent decades conducting performance related research. “It’s just basic biology, how muscular strength relates to body size. Bigger people are weaker.”
He makes a comparison to sprinters: “The quick and dirty is that if you’re smaller, shorter, and less massive, it’s easier to accelerate,” Weyand says. “So if you look at the difference between 400- vs. 200- vs. 100-meter specialists, the shorter the race is the shorter they get, because more of that race is accelerating. And then if you go to the indoor competitions, where typically the standard race distance is 60 meters, the guys that excel at that rate tend to be even shorter, because more of that race is accelerating.”
Without knowing specific metrics or looking at a detailed study of Simmons’ genetic makeup, including a deep dive into the ratio of his fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fibers, Weyand is unable to pin down exactly how much of an outlier Philly’s point guard is. But using just the aforementioned data, he doesn’t hesitate to say that Simmons is rare.
“If he hit 20 miles per hour, or just under, in an open-court situation, then I would guess his flat-out speed — and this is an estimate — could probably hit at least 24 miles per hour, if he was able to wind it all the way out,” Weyand says.
For another reference, Usain Bolt’s top speed was clocked at 27.8 miles per hour during a race in which his average speed was 23.35 miles per hour. Simmons does not have starting blocks or spikes, which are two of many unaccounted for variables when comparing a basketball player to a track star.
An NBA court is not a track, soccer pitch, or football field. It’s only 94-feet long, which prevents Simmons from really running as fast as he can. But when there’s enough time and space to turn hardwood into his private runway, it’s impossible to miss Simmons’ drag-race acceleration, how he blasts into open space sooner and with more force than should be possible. Those ruptures through the sound barrier make him look like an undiscovered species.
When he’s able to locate a crease that’s typically cleared by a J.J. Redick back screen, Simmons rumbles downhill faster than just about anyone. On the other end, his speed is particularly useful getting back in transition, be it for a chasedown block, poking away a live dribble, or choking off penetration. Here’s Simmons throwing on a cape to erase what would’ve been a wide-open DeMarre Carroll three.
Even though the play below leads to a corner three, think about how many players can smash the turbo button and cut off Pascal Siakam the way Simmons does.
Same goes for this sequence, where Simmons does what Tobias Harris can’t.
When Sixers head coach Brett Brown is asked if Simmons is the fastest player he’s ever seen, he doesn’t hesitate:
“Tony Parker was the closest and I even think Ben is faster than that. There are times when we all think ‘oh he’s really fast.’ What I do is count the steps from foul line to foul line and there aren’t many. Count the dribbles. There aren’t many. He covers ground quicker than anybody I think that I’ve ever coached and the closest would be Tony.
”And you’d all go back and you’d look at Russell Westbrook, maybe early days Derrick Rose. John Wall. Like, those greyhounds that just take off. But really, forget your stopwatch, count the dribbles and count the steps. He is elite when it comes to that part of the game.”
But basketball is not a race. Instead, speed is a means to the end, and that end is putting the ball in the basket and stopping the other team from doing the same thing. A disciplined defense can neutralize Simmons’ advantage if they abandon the offensive glass, race back, spread their arms, and shrink the floor.
“It’s not something where I’ve got to pick him up at half-court or the three-point line,” Dudley says. “I’m meeting him at the free-throw line and then it’s his athleticism vs. me taking angles and [being] smart.”
In many ways, not being able to unleash such a devastating weapon at a moment’s notice is the cruelest irony. But it’s also a learning exercise to help Simmons get a better feel for when it’s appropriate to race ahead, and when to pull back and hunker down in the halfcourt — even if, relative to the warm bath of a jaunt through the open floor, halfcourt play remains Simmons’ coldest shower.
“I don’t care how fast you are, you’re not gonna beat five guys,” Brown says. “It’s no mystery of how people want to guard Ben Simmons. It’s Giannis. You know, it’s young LeBron. Get back, let him see five sets of jerseys and numbers, and let him play one on five. And that is dangerous. That is where he gets himself in trouble. So there’s a place for his speed, but it’s not all day every day.”
Right now, the growing pains are real. During the regular season, 83 players finished at least 150 possessions in transition, per NBA.com, and Simmons’ turnover frequency (23.6 percent) was worst among all of them. This season, the Sixers had the second-highest turnover rate in the league with Simmons in the game. They tied the Boston Celtics for third lowest when he sat, per Cleaning the Glass.
“[I’m] just learning when to use it,” Simmons says. “The appropriate time to fly down the floor, get to the rim, whatever it is.”
Even when Simmons is stifled as a scorer, that one-man transition tidal wave can’t be ignored. He forces defenders to collapse and/or pick up assignments they otherwise would like to avoid, creating mismatches.
But against the Toronto Raptors, too often Simmons has been a Ferrari stuck in second gear. Knowing half-court situations aren’t where Simmons can consistently influence a game, Brown has given the ball to Butler, whose pick-and-rolls with Embiid have forced Simmons to imitate Rockets’ center Clint Capela by standing around the basket, hoping for a putback or lob. Simmons led last year’s playoffs in touches (104.5 per game), but this year he’s down to 77.6.
Simmons has plenty of time to add a reputable jump shot to his repertoire, but if he fails to do so, Philadelphia’s upper management will have a hard choice to make as it decides how to build around Embiid, and possibly Butler and/or Harris, both free-agents-to-be.
If Simmons can knock down open pull-ups with confidence and consistency, there’s a universe in which no defensive strategy will matter. Philly’s offense will be less predictable. Simmons will be able to create his own shot, run high pick-and-rolls against teams that won’t be able to duck under the screen and keep him on the perimeter, or completely ignore him when he doesn’t have the ball.
It’ll also make him so much more effective in transition, because there won’t be any pressure to force the issue and avoid settling into the halfcourt. Turnovers will go down, and defenders will be forced to pick him up higher on the floor, which creates more space for everybody else. Philly becomes a more dynamic team if Simmons is able to threaten opponents from more areas of the floor.
Until then, everyone must conform to a player whose unprecedented speed affects everything around him.