The Spurs are on the precipice of a new era. Already, we've seen reports of one departure [comment on that, by the way: fare-thee-well] and the odds are pretty good that we'll have more significant ones in the near future, with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili both facing decisions about whether to return for one more season or to hang 'em up.
Since it seems unlikely that the Spurs will sign a couple of 40-year-olds to replace their legends, it's fair to assume that they're about to get younger. They won't be rebuilding by any means --no team with Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker would be, obviously-- but they'll probably be relying on less experienced guys next year.
So what better time to take stock of the youngsters (or relative youngsters since we're talking about the Spurs here) already on hand? I wrote a story on the strengths and weaknesses to Kyle Anderson and Jonathon Simmons' games in midseason and updated the Anderson scouting report yesterday with the benefit of a whole season's worth of information. Today is Simmons' turn. JRW will follow with a scouting report on Boban Marjanovic (that will get 10x more pageviews because, you know, BOBAN).
Overview: A virtual unknown at this time last year, Simmons quickly opened eyes during the Las Vegas Summer League, in which he was a more efficient, more consistent performer than even Kyle Anderson, especially in the final, where he was awarded the MVP. Simmons showed an ability to drive and finish with either hand, he could run a competent pick-and-roll, find shooters in the corners and most of all he was an explosive leaper, something the Spurs sorely lacked. While he looked tentative and lost early in the season, he found his confidence quickly and was playing regularly around mid-season and looking like another Spurs diamond in the rough. He faded badly after the All-Star break, however, and it remains to be seen if he can develop further now that the league has a bit of a "book" on him.
Pros: Unlike Anderson, Simmons doesn't need to be shot with a cattle prod to shoot the ball. He's not a chucker by any means, but he was in the middle of the pack among the Spurs in shot attempts-per-36 minutes and scored more per-36 than David West, Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw or Danny Green. Another area where Simmons differed from Anderson (and many Spurs, really) is that he very much has a "Morey-ball" shot chart, like a more extreme version of Manu Ginobili, really. He basically only shoots near the bucket or from the three-point line, eschewing mid-range shots completely. 48 percent of his attempts were layups or dunks, and he converted them at 66.4 percent, which is solid. You're well familiar with his dunking, and even in his limited playing time Simmons threw down more slams last year than Ginobili did at the height of his NBA dunking prowess. Anyway, another 19.4 percent were floaters in the paint (not so good, more on that below) and an identical 19.4 percent came from downtown, where he shot a surprisingly effective 38.3 percent.
Unfortunately, outside of his scoring there wasn't much to be excited about with Simmons, just flashes of potential in other areas, but no consistent production. Perhaps the best secondary skill we saw from him was his decent giveaway rate. It wasn't great by any means, but at 2.3 turnovers-per-36 minutes he was basically in Tony Parker/Andre Miller territory and less reckless like the true superstars of the league like Westbrook, Curry, LeBron and Manu.
Cons: Hack, hack, hack, hack, hack. A noun that sufficiently defines your humble narrator but also a verb that describes Simmons' defense. 4.6 fouls per-36 minutes is basically obscene from a guard, though he got a fair share of those for barreling into people on drives as well. Simmons was enthusiastic in his own end --perhaps overly so-- but his effort rarely translated into positive results. He got lost on screens, baited into bad fouls and was often confused about his assignments. He didn't get any respect from the zebras as a rookie, but he didn't help himself much either.
You expect defensive struggles from a young player. More disappointing was that Simmons' athleticism didn't translate into many plays. Despite his leaping ability, he was one of the team's weakest rebounders. He only came up with 24 steals. Simmons had a few highlight "chasedown" blocks, but most of them were actually goaltends. In reality, he finished with one fewer swat on the season than Patty Mills and six fewer than Parker.
Offensively, Simmons struggled mightily anywhere between 3-22 feet. Those floaters I mentioned above, which comprised nearly a fifth of his attempts? Yeah, he made just 34 percent of those. Not quite cover-your-eyes Green territory, but still sub-par. Mid-range jumpers and long-twos only accounted for 13.2 percent of his attempts, and that was just as well, since he was below 40 percent from those ranges too. Meanwhile, the passing chops he showed in summer league were mostly absent. We know he's got the court vision, but we just didn't see it in action.
What to expect going forward: Simmons' plus/minus numbers tell the story of his rookie season. He got his feet wet in November, was a true, difference-making revelation in December, still very much an asset in January, barely playable by February, flat out a gasoline fire in March and then he rebounded a bit in garbage-time minutes in April. Essentially, teams played an exaggerated version of the LeBron/Westbrook defense on him. They just backed up, knowing he didn't want to shoot mid-range shots, and Simmons drove into turnovers and contested prayers in the paint, losing his confidence and his rotation spot in the process. It didn't help any that he got worse and more foul prone defensively, too.
It remains to be seen if this was a case of a player hitting the rookie wall or a cruel indicator that Simmons won't ever be more than a fringe/end-of-the-bench type player. We know he's got tools, but he's running out of time to refine them, already 26-years-old. Perhaps the best thing for him would be Ginobiili retiring. If Simmons got a legit shot to fill that backup playmaking role, he could run more pick-and-rolls and get to pass more, rather than playing off he ball and being reduced to a shooter.
It's easy to suggest that Simmons needs to improve his pull-up jumper, but I'm far more interested in his progress as a passer and defender, two areas where he's at least shown us he can be good, and frankly where he needs to be to stick. If he can improve as much between year one and two as Anderson did, then he'll be among the best bargains in the NBA, making six figures while Harrison Barnes will be pulling down $20 million.