Ben Simmons is an atypical point guard in just about every sense. His size and physicality are outliers among the position, but over his two NBA seasons, he's started to develop a skillset more closely associated with a lead ball-handler - outside of his notably nascent jump shot.
It's easy and obvious that he needs to improve as a shooter. We get it.
That being said, there are still some non-shooting skills he can develop to truly reach his potential. Two of the best players for Simmons to emulate happen to reside in the same backcourt: James Harden and Chris Paul.
While all three are nominally point guards - or at least have traditional point guard responsibilities - all are radically different players. Paul is as prototypical a point guard as point guards come, Harden is a pure scorer and Simmons is a ball-handler in Shawn Kemp's body; and yet, both Paul and Harden have mastered skills that, should Simmons hone them, would make him truly dominant.
The easiest place to start is with physicality.
While Harden is sometimes criticized for seeking contact, he is one of the league's best at manipulating strength to his benefit. He leverages his size to bully smaller defenders while using his strength to finish through contact against bigger ones. As much as the step-back three has become Harden's signature, the threat of him getting to the rim makes that shot even more dangerous.
Given Simmons' size, aggressively driving to the rim and embracing contact seems like a natural skill for him to develop. While he doesn't need to go to Harden's league-leading extreme of 19.4 drives per game, he wouldn't have to disrupt the flow of the offence to increase his 9.2 per game (52nd in the league) and get even more shots at the rim.
At the moment, the clear factor separating Simmons and Harden's drives is foul shooting. Yes, a key goal of Harden's drives is to draw fouls. He's incredibly effective at it and has attempted the most free throws in the league for each of the past five seasons. While driving to get the defence in foul trouble is certainly a viable strategy for Simmons, his 59.0 percent from the line simply isn't as much of a deterrent as Harden's 87.6 percent.
Of course, physicality plays a significant role on the other end.
Paul has long punched up a weight class. Though he may stand just 6'0", he's as tenacious as they come and smart about leveraging his body against bigger players. Even when faced with a mismatch, Paul's physicality takes a toll and can act as a deterrent over the course of a game or playoff series.
Similarly, Harden plays sneaky good defence when he's banging on the block. Nobody is casting any Defensive Player of the Year votes his way and at times he can look like a traffic cone. But watch closely and you'll find that he's secretly a load against bigger bodies.
Given his size, it's fun to imagine Simmons operating in lineups where he's the defacto centre on defence. If he can learn to punch up on that end in ways similara to Paul and Harden, it unlocks a look for the 76ers that could prove deadly when searching for effective solutions in minutes without Joel Embiid.
Drive and kick
Simmons is a career 58 percent free throw shooter, just one measly point higher than Shaquille O'Neal in his first two seasons. It's not exactly a strength.
Because of that, it minimizes one of the biggest benefits of driving which is to draw fouls and manufacture points at the charity stripe. It could also be a major factor in why Simmons ranks outside the top 50 in drives per game and doesn't even show up on the first page of the leaderboard. For someone with his talent that has the ball in his hands as much as he does, he shouldn't be averaging fewer drives than Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Ingles and Tony Parker.
But that's not the only reason to attack the teeth of a defence and foray into the paint. There are other benefits to driving.
Taking more of a cue from Paul, Simmons would do well to be a more aggressive driver not only to draw fouls, but to force consistent help and open up kick-out opportunities.
Due to his lack of a jumper, defenders often play far off Simmons. This allows the defence to quickly double-team Joel Embiid in the post and for off-ball perimeter defenders to play tighter on their matchups without fear of allowing a back-door cut. While this can clog the lane at times, Simmons can benefit from the wide-open space around the free throw line this creates.
Despite not posing any outside threat, Simmons can be extremely dangerous in this area. Much like Paul does in the mid-range, attacking this area in the hopes of collapsing the defence will open up looks for three-point shooters. While the Sixers attempt just the 16th-most threes in the league, they make the seventh-best percentage. Simmons driving more often should result in more open looks for Philadelphia's shooters and a more efficient offence.
One final area Simmons can learn from both Rockets is a fundamental aspect of their attack: mismatch hunting.
Both Harden and Paul routinely seek out opposing centres through mismatches. Though perhaps not always pretty, it's brutally effective, and Houston will relentlessly attack overmatched big men in isolation.
Considering defences often put their power forward on Simmons, getting a center switched onto him won't do much good. Instead, he can utilize the inverse of Houston's tactic and attack the smaller players typically defending JJ Redick or Jimmy Butler. These mismatches sometimes happen naturally through the flow of possessions or in transition but there's plenty of room for this to scale into a bigger aspect of Simmons' game.
He currently averages 4.6 post-ups per game , many coming against these mismatches. While he has the ability to physically overpower these defenders, in a somewhat ironic twist, Simmons shows some of his more natural point guard inclinations out of the post.
More often than not, Simmons doesn't look to score in the post. Though he often has a considerable advantage in that area, he averages just 2.2 points per game out of post-up possessions. He could probably afford to look for his shot more often given his efficiency, but his passing ability out of the post really expands the limits of Philadelphia's offence.
With Philadelphia's rotation now featuring Redick, Butler, Mike Scott and Tobias Harris, the 76ers regularly have a trio of deadly shooters surrounding Embiid and Simmons. If help comes, Simmons can easily pass over the smaller defender to find the open shooter. If it doesn't, he can score over the mismatch. Whichever choice he makes, Philadelphia would greatly benefit from Simmons attacking mismatches more often.
The common assumption regarding his future is that Simmons will need a jump shot to reach his full potential. In some ways, that may be true. If he can consistently hit 15-footers - let alone three-pointers - he will effectively be unguardable.
Even if his jumper never materializes, though, Simmons can become elite by maximizing the strengths he already has and developing the skills within reach. Learning the nuances of the position while leaning back on his truly exceptional physical gifts can turn Simmons into a truly special point guard.