Ben Simmons is out to prove he can be great for Sixers

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Ben Simmons’ ability to handle the ball and run the Sixers offense at 6-foot-10 has set his expectations sky high.

KANSAS CITY – What can you expect from Ben Simmons this season?

At 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, he’ll be one of the biggest point guards – if not the biggest – in NBA history. He’s fleet-footed, hard to stop at the rim, capable of guarding almost anybody, and a highlight pass just waiting to happen.

The 21-year-old’s jump shot does need some work. Simmons is often ineffective without the ball, and he sometimes sags off players too much on defense. Still, opposing coaches marvel at his potential. They say that, with some work, he’ll have a chance to become one of the game’s greats.

“Oh my God, I don’t want to see that for the next 15 years,” Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said after Simmons finished with six points, nine assists, seven rebounds, one block, and one turnover in the Oct. 4 preseason opener against his team.

“That kid, they are not talking about him enough – the way he moves with the ball, his ability to see the floor, the way he can get places on the floor. I think once he gets confidence in the shot, where you really have to close out on him to the three, wow, he is a big-time talent.”

Simmons proved Fizdale correct. He did most of his damage against the Grizzlies in the first quarter of that game when they unsuccessfully attempted to defend him straight up. He scored four of his points on 2-for-4 shooting and had five assists while excelling in transition.

But he lost his effectiveness after the Grizzlies sagged off him in the second half. Simmons was held scoreless and  had just two assists after intermission. He finished the game shooting 2 for 8.

Teams are likely going to continue to do what Memphis did in the second half until Simmons proves he can makes shots. Based on the preseason, that might take a while. Simmons averaged 11.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.4 steals, and 2.0 turnovers through four preseason games.

He made just 15 of 38 shots (39.4 percent) while taking mostly layups in his first four games. But he did light up the Miami Heat on Friday for 19 points on 9-for-11 shooting while attacking the rim. He also split his two foul shots.

Making shots from the foul line has been a weakness. Simmons made 9 of 21 (42 percent) in the preseason.

The Sixers have been trying to improve Simmons’ foul shooting and finishing around the basket since March. For now, they say they are not concerned about his lack of  a three-point shot or a pull-up jumper.

“We will continue to work on that,” coach Brett Brown said. “We will continue to invest time, but it’s especially important for him to continuing to grow at the rim and to be an improved free-throw shooter. Those two things can serve him well for the next few years. That’s his base.”

Simmons said those improvements will also help his statistics.

“If you really put it together and add those free throws and missed finishes, that’s another 10 points,” he said. “You are looking at 18 to 20 points. It’s going to come. I’ve just got to keep working.”

Camera icon CHRIS SZAGOLA / AP
Ben Simmons is still working on finishing around the rim.

While working on his three-point shot is important for Simmons, he did not attempt one during the first four preseason games. As a result, he was predictable on offense as he basically drove the lane and looked to pass to a teammate or attempt a layup.

Simmons mostly passed the ball when opponents backed off to take away the driving lanes. Brown and Simmons said they were not concerned with that tactic.

“You can’t sag speed,” Brown said. “We play fast. We play fast in half court. It’s hard to just always back up and expose Ben.”

“They know I can get to the rim,” Simmons said. “So they are not trying to get up on me. For me, I’m getting my six assists or whatever that is. But scoring-wise, I can definitely take that shot.”

Just not in the games so far.

To illustrate that Simmons is still evolving, Brown pointed out the improvement of point guards John Wall, Derrick Rose, and Chris Paul. The knock on all three coming out of college was their inability to make threes. They have worked on that aspect and now make enough threes to keep defenses honest.

“It took time,” Brown said of the improvement. “And it’s not priority No. 1 [for Simmons]. It’s going to be continued to be worked on. It’s going to be a few-year process.”

As for defense, the Sixers say they are confident that Simmons will more than hold his own. He needs to become more consistent off the ball, and there were a few occasions when he gave up open shots while sagging off opponents. But when he’s up close, Simmons’ length has given opponents fits,so he  hasn’t been a liability defending smaller players.

“I think it’s easier to make an impact on defense than … on offense,” Brown said.  “It’s hard scoring in the NBA. So we are really trying to drive that, demand that, help him achieve that.”

Simmons’ teammates said they are impressed with his receptiveness to being coached by the veterans. It’s not uncommon for Simmons and guard J.J. Redick to discuss on-court scenarios during breaks in the action at practice, and Simmons said he has learned a lot from Jerryd Bayless regarding the work ethic needed to sustain a long NBA career.

“I think Ben wants to be great,” Sixers president Bryan Colangelo said. “ You see that come through everything you observe about him. He’s showing the signs of that star potential.”

Simmons can’t change the fact that he, as the 2016 first overall pick, missed last season because of a Jones fracture in his right foot. He also does not concern himself with the buzz that some NBA general managers say he may be the leading candidate for rookie of the year. Simmons wants to be one of the league’s elite players overall – not just among rookies.  He wants to become an all-star and eventually an NBA MVP.

His teammates say he has all the tools.

“On the defensive end, he’s able to guard numerous positions,” Robert Covington said. “His talent offensively is given already – get to the rim, find cutters, penetrate, just making the right plays.”