For Ben Simmons to take the next step, it's widely believed that he needs to develop a jump shot. Not necessarily one that extends to the 3-point line, but one he can at least go to when teams clog the paint, much like the Celtics did in the second round of the playoffs.
That might not be the only way for Simmons to build on his impressive rookie season, though. While on The Bill Simmons Podcast last week, JJ Redick, the starting shooting guard for the 76ers this season, said Simmons can learn a lot from Dwyane Wade when it comes to how he can make up for his inability to space the floor.
"Everybody talks about his shooting, I think for [Simmons], a thing that would really help his game is playing off the ball, in terms of cutting and ducking in," Redick explained. "He did it at times this year, and when he does it's phenomenal. But that to me is just getting a feel when he's off the ball and figuring out ways to score that way."
Redick is right - Simmons is already a phenomenal cutter. According to NBA.com, those plays made up 9.0 percent of his offense during the regular season, and the Australian ranked in the 88.7 percentile with an average of 1.48 points per possession. The latter put him on the same page as a number of the league's best big men, including DeAndre Jordan, Draymond Green, Blake Griffin and his All-Star teammate, Joel Embiid.
Simmons doesn't find himself in the same positions as those players do on a regular basis because he's usually the one initiating the offense for the 76ers, but his physical tools make him a similar threat whenever he receives the ball close to the basket. He's a huge target for his teammates at 6-8 with a 7-foot wingspan, and even though he's not the most explosive athlete, he's capable of playing above the rim, both on lobs…
... and when he receives a pass a step or two outside of the restricted area.
Simmons is a smart cutter who knows how to use those physical tools to his advantage, too. Whenever a smaller player switches onto him - even if the player is an All-NBA defender in Paul George - he'll use his body to seal his opponent off underneath the basket like he's posting up to create the space he needs for layup or dunk. He's comfortable finishing with his left and right hand when he finds himself in floater range as well, giving him the versatility he needs to score over like-sized defenders in the paint.
The 76ers even have two particular sets they use to create scoring opportunities for Simmons when he doesn't have the ball in his hands. The first is having him give the ball up to whomever is on the opposite wing and then run off a screen from one of Philadelphia's centers at the elbow while the two other 76ers on the floor spot-up on the 3-point line, like so:
The second is similar, only it gives Simmons an opportunity to attack the defense from the weak side, often leading to the duck-ins Redick was talking about. After passing the ball to the wing, Simmons moves to the corner and receives a screen on the baseline, which he can manipulate based on how he's being defended.
In this specific case, Kelly Oubre Jr. anticipates Simmons going baseline, opening up the middle of the court for him to attack:
So how can Simmons improve off-ball? To Redick's other point, he didn't score off cuts as much as he probably should've this season given his efficiency. Some of it comes down to experience - it took Wade years to develop into one of the scariest cutters in NBA history - but a lot of it comes down to Philadelphia's need for another playmaker.
According to NBA.com, the players who assisted Simmons the most during during the regular season were Embiid, Dario Saric and Amir Johnson, two traditional centers and a power forward. Embiid and Saric are known more for their passing ability than Johnson, and yet the 76ers lacked someone in the backcourt who could take some of the playmaking burden off Simmons in ways that would allow him to operate more without the ball in his hands.
The hope is Markelle Fultz will be that player. Not only would his ability to create his own shot help take attention away from Simmons, his potential as a pick-and-roll scorer would give the 76ers the option of having Embiid and Simmons function as the roller. Philadelphia experimented with using Simmons as the screen setter, not the ball handler, in pick-and-rolls this season, and it could become a bigger part of his and the team's offense if/when they pair him with another playmaker.
Whether that alone is enough for Simmons and the 76ers to make up the difference against the best teams in the NBA remains to be seen. A midrange jump shot would certainly open up his game the most, but, as Redick explained, there are still ways he can get better without it.