The Whiteboard: What do Ben Simmons’ career-high 42 points mean?

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

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Ben Simmons’ career night certainly has the appearance of an outlier. Monday night against the Utah Jazz, Simmons put up 42 points, 12 assists and 9 rebounds, shooting 15-of-26 from the field. It was the first 40-point game of his career and it had been more than a calendar year since the last time he scored 30. Simmons’ season-high before this game was 23 points and, in an offense increasingly focused on leveraging Joel Embiid, he’d only scored 20 or more points in three of his 24 games heading into Monday night.

But after the game, Simmons talked about the game, not as an outlier but as representative of a new and evolving focus on offensive aggression (per ESPN): “Honestly, I’ve been working on my mentality, my mental [game], a lot these past few weeks. I think my mindset … it’s not easy to do that, to change the way you play or certain things in the game that come natural to certain people.”

Simmons was certainly aggressive and assertive against the Jazz, but he also took advantage of Embiid’s absence and intentional lineup construction by Doc Rivers that put him at center and forced Rudy Gobert to defend him. Simmons drove 18 times against the Jazz, a big jump from his season-long average of 11.3. However, the most noticeable change was how often he drove to create scoring opportunities for himself, instead of his teammates.

Of Simmons’ 18 drives against Utah, 14 (78 percent) resulted in a scoring opportunity for himself — either a shot attempt or a shooting foul. On the season, just 39 percent of his drives have resulted in a self-created scoring opportunity. And the Jazz game wasn’t exactly the culmination of an evolving trend in that area — across his four previous games, that percentage had been just 40 percent.

What has really changed on offense for Ben Simmons?

If Simmons’ comment is referencing a willingness to expand his range and take shots he might not normally take, again, I’m not sure what he’s thinking about. He attempted just shots against the Jazz from beyond 10 feet, and the longest was 13 feet from the basket. The furthest he pushed his outside shot were the 13 shots he attempted from the free-throw line (15 feet from the basket). On the season, he’s attempted six 3-pointers and just one 2-point jumper of at least 15 feet.

He’s also averaging a career-low 10.4 shot attempts per game, on a career-low 20.4 usage rate. And his halfcourt self-creation rate doesn’t appear to have meaningfully changed — nearly half of his finished offensive possessions have come in transition, on putbacks or on cuts to the basket.

Functionally there’s very little evidence of Simmons’ mindset change as part of some larger trend. But, honestly, that may matter much less than the way he actually perceives himself. His offensive skillset had been marginalized by Embiid’s dominance. He can be useful in a complementary role but not in the easy, obvious ways of someone who is a confident, accurate outside shooter. It’s the kind of situation that could shake a player’s confidence and engagement.

The 76ers do not need Simmons to regularly score 42 points (as long as Embiid is healthy) and they don’t necessarily need him to be more than the quiet, slightly ill-fitting offensive piece he’s been so far this season. He has receded into the background of Philly’s offense but they still have the best record in the Eastern Conference. But they do need him to bought-in, to participate even if it’s not always directly, and to continue to play elite defense. And maybe this Jazz game provides a situational lesson, pointing out specific mismatches he can disrupt and leverage in a playoff series.

Simmons does not appear to be a functionally improved, more versatile or more aggressive offensive player this season. But he’s feeling good about it, that may be the most important thing.

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