Game Preview | In Milwaukee, a Helpful Case Study Found
Almost two years ago now, as Giannis Antetokounmpo was beginning to wind down a breakout third season that put him on the path towards All-Stardom, the Milwaukee Bucks made a bold proclamation.
The team, then-head coach Jason Kidd explicitly announced in a late-March media gathering, had made the deliberate decision to transition Antetokounmpo into a full-time, primary ball-handling role.
“You can call him a point guard, point forward, point center, however you want to look at it,” Kidd said that day. “The pressure he puts on the defense and the ability to find guys has been a plus for us.”
Three months later, on a momentous night in June, the 76ers used the first pick in the draft on Ben Simmons, a prospect who had drawn plenty of parallels to the Greek Freak, given some of their shared traits.
From a physique standpoint, there are certainly similarities. Simmons is 6-foot-10, Antetokounmpo 6-foot-11. Simmons is listed at 230 pounds, Antetokounmpo 235. Their wingspans are ridiculous, at 7 feet long apiece.
Between the lines, Simmons and Antetokounmpo are mutually strong and explosive, and offer a gifted passing prowess uncommon for players their size. Not only do they have keen court vision, aided by sight lines that allow them to periscope above defenders, they have soft touch and feel as well.
As blank as the point guard canvas was in 2016-2017 for Antetokounmpo, such an opportunity wouldn’t materialize for Simmons, regardless of what the Sixers had planned. That fall, Simmons, of course, fractured his right foot on the last day of his first training camp, and subsequently sat out his true rookie season.
Now, with the Sixers and Bucks ready to square off for the second time in 10 days (8:00 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia, 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network), Simmons and Antetokounmpo :: most likely :: will have the chance to go toe-to-toe for the first time in an NBA game (worth keeping in mind, Monday is the second night of a back-to-back for both teams). Amidst this backdrop, the timing seems right to check-in on how the two imports - and their transformative talents - are being utilized by their respective teams.
For Simmons, the directive from the Sixers has been crystal clear: run the show. Logging 35.2 minutes per game, 16th-most among all players this season, the 21-year old has received the lion’s share of the club’s point guard reps, and proven to be a revelation.
As of Monday morning, Simmons was tied for fifth in the NBA with 7.4 assists per game. His 331 total assists ranked fifth-highest, too, while his 32.9 assist percentage was seventh-best among players averaging at least 25 minutes in 40 appearances.
To fully assess Simmons’ point guard play, it’s only fair to acknowledge his 3.9 turnovers per game average. Context, however, is important.
Adhering to the principles of the Sixers’ uptempo, pass-heavy offensive scheme, Simmons has been one of the fastest-playing players in the league this year (102.52 pace). Furthermore, he’s made more passes - 3,359 in all - than anyone, and 387 more than the next closet player (Simmons also averages an NBA-high 95.2 touches per game).
The point here is that Simmons, while playing at an extremely fast pace, not only handles the ball, he handles it a lot, especially for a first-year player.
Prior to the current campaign, Simmons had spent the majority of his basketball playing life as a four-man. But exhaustive film studies of Simmons’ freshman year at LSU convinced the Sixers there was great passing potential still to be untapped.
With Simmons on the sideline rehabbing, the Sixers also kept close tabs on Milwaukee, where at least initially last season, the keys were in Antetokounmpo's hands.
What were some of the things that stuck out?
The Sixers liked how, in Antetokounmpo, the Bucks had a primary ball-handling weapon who could also present a physical isolation threat on the block. They took note of Antetokounmpo's floor spots, and the pick-and-roll angles that suited him best.
In instances in which Antetokounmpo was off the ball, the Sixers saw an athletic powerhouse take advantage of weakside action through cutting and slashing, and felt Simmons could be used the same way. Where Milwaukee might have been more inclined to put Antetokounmpo in score-first settings, the Sixers deemed Simmons could do just as much playmaking as attacking, and resolved to deploy him accordingly.
Above all else, the Sixers, much like Milwaukee in respect to Antetokounmpo, believed that Simmons possessed a skill set that demanded he be an initiator. Recently, on a road trip to Boston, Brett Brown said Simmons’ work as the Sixers’ top point man has been “spectacular.”
“The mere fact he can dribble and pass doesn’t make anybody a point guard,” Brown said. “There’s a lot more detail to that...none more important than the poise aspect, and we all see it. He’s got a real sort of grace about himself. [That] has been the thing that’s stood out to me the most.”
Count the former Bucks coach Kidd among those intrigued by Simmons.
"His skill set is extremely high, he knows how to make the game easy with the pass," said Kidd, the NBA's second all-time assist leader, when in town with Milwaukee last week. "For a young player to have that feel is pretty impressive."
Around this time last year, the Bucks’ experiment with Antetokounmpo underwent another shift. Malcolm Brogdon had started to show flashes that he was worthy of more minutes. Milwaukee promoted him to the starting line-up, and began having him take not all, but some, of the point guard load off Antetokounmpo's shoulders.
The Rookie of the Year recipient in 2017, Brogdon remains a regular starter for the Bucks, which gives Antetokounmpo the option to cause trouble in other areas. Interestingly enough, just last week, Brown allowed for the theoretical possibility that once 2017 No. 1 choice Markelle Fultz is fully integrated into the Sixers’ rotation, Simmons could sporadically, gradually, and naturally get more time at other positions, including four, where Brown envisions Simmons creating major match-up advantages.
“I think [Simmons’] growth of NBA basketball will be expedited when he’s looking at the game with a point guard responsibility in the back of his mind,” Brown said.
For now, the Sixers, influenced in part by Milwaukee’s tinkering with Antetokounmpo, are encouraged by the results of Simmons’ play. The man himself has been pleased, too.
“I don’t care who scores, or how it happens, as long as we do it,” Simmons said earlier this month. “For me to be able to get guys open, facilitate, rebound, and if we need to score, score, I’m happy with that. As long as we’re winning, I’m fine.”
The last time the Sixers faced Milwaukee, a 116-94 win on January 20th, turned out to be the final game of Jason Kidd’s three-plus year coaching tenure. Temporarily holding down the post is Joe Prunty, who, with the interim tag, has led the Bucks to three straight wins. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the second-leading fan vote-getter for this year’s All-Star Game, has totaled 68 points, 22 rebounds, and 15 assists in two games since returning from a two-game injury absence (right knee soreness). Going into Monday’s pairing at BMO Harris Bradley Center, Milwaukee held sixth-place in the Eastern Conference standings, one game ahead of the Sixers.
• Video: NBCSports Philadelphia / NBCSports App
• Audio: 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network