There seems to be an aura of surprise surrounding the recent emergence of Shake Milton. Just this past week it was announced that Milton would be taking over the point guard position while Ben Simmons would be dropping down to power forward, and a healthy amount of Sixers fans were confused with this concept.
Comments like, “But Ben has always been the point guard!” and “Why change the rotation right before the playoffs?” were frequently thrown around on Twitter and in Facebook groups.
Drafted in 2016, Simmons was pretty much positionless coming out of college. He was easily the best player on LSU during his time there, and he was asked to do quite a lot with that program. Simmons was the team’s go-to scorer, passer, ball handler, pick setter, post option, and at times even their go-to shooter.
Following the Sixers selection of Simmons with the first overall pick, he was forced to sit out the entire 2016 season due to a foot injury. The Sixers were still quite deep into their massive tank job, as players like TJ McConnell and Nik Stauskas operated as the team’s primary ball handlers that season. We all love TJ, but he was by no means what you would call a “franchise point guard”.
Following a 28 win season in 2016, the Sixers were once again near the top of the lottery heading into the NBA draft. Initially set to draft third overall, the Philly front office opted to jump up two spots to once again have a shot at the #1 overall pick. From there, the pick was simple.
Coming out of college, Markelle Fultz was supposed to be a dream fit next to Simmons and Joel Embiid. A quick, athletic, ball handler who could distribute the ball as well as anyone, the back court duo of Simmons and Fultz was meant to run the league. Simmons would present matchup problem after matchup problem, whereas Fultz could be your stereotypical “small” guard.
Fans were drumming up fantasies all offseason long of Fultz tossing up lobs to Simmons left and right.
Obviously, the Fultz pick didn’t really work out all that well for Philly, and he was off the roster less than two years later. With no one set to effectively take over his spot, the team turned to Simmons to lead as the point guard moving forward.
For all intents and purposes, Simmons was (and is) a really good point guard. Since debuting in 2017, he’s averaged eight assists per game and has been selected to two All-Star games. He consistently puts up triple-doubles and is currently leading the league in steals.
Criticism has poured down on Simmons for his lack of a jump shot in recent years, and a lot of that has to do with him being labeled as a “point guard”. The point guard position is supposed to be reserved for smaller, more finesse based players like Stephen Curry or Chris Paul. It’s hard not to feel like that if Simmons had been listed as a forward this whole time, he would have never faced such ridiculous complaints.
Before Simmons had even played a minute in the NBA, the Sixers organization had gone out of their way to draft a ball-dominant guard. This leads me to the conclusion that the plan was to always move Simmons into more of an off-ball, point-forward type role. A position where yes he would handle the ball at times, but where he would also frequently set screens and slash to the basket.
Coming full circle, former G-Leaguer Shake Milton is now set to be the starter heading into the Orlando bubble. While it may seem like a surprising move, given everything that I just laid out, it in all honesty makes perfect sense.
The Sixers have been dying for that secondary ball-handler to pair up next to Simmons for years. They tried with Fultz, traded away a ton for Jimmy Butler, and even experimented with guys like Trey Burke and Raul Neto. Almost four years after drafting Ben, it looks like the organization has finally stumbled upon that missing piece.
I don’t think Shake is even close to as talented as Jimmy Butler, and to be honest, he’s probably not even more talented than Markelle, but he fits what this team needs right now. He’s a young, selfless guard who can compliment Simmons to the fullest.
Earlier this week Simmons said he’s a “playmaker at any position”, and I genuinely believe that. We’re talking about a 6-10 freak of nature, a guy who can pass like he’s John Stockton and dunk like he’s prime Dwight Howard. Who cares what “position” he’s listed at in the depth chart.
Regardless of how the rest of the season works out for the 76ers down in Orlando, the Shake Milton experiment shouldn’t end there. Simmons and Milton are both just 23 years old, and both are locked up under contract for the foreseeable future. Building around their partnership is something the team needs to seriously prioritize moving forward.
The Sixers organization once had a dream of building a dominant trio consisting of Fultz-Embiid-Simmons, and it failed spectacularly. Three years later, and they are finally getting a shot at redemption.
Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports