In 2017, the three-pointer reigns king.
Things have gotten past the point of merely just the Splash Brothers in Golden State bombarding opponents from beyond the arc, or the Morey-Ball Rockets taking nearly all of their shots at the rim or from downtown.
On the contrary, now, even the big men who once dominated the league are getting phased out if they lack range, especially as the stakes get higher in May and June. (To that end, it makes sense that after eight days of games had been played early this year, seven-footers were attempting an astounding 23 percent of their shots from three-point land.)
However, through the barrage of deep jump shots, excelling under the shadows caused by the onslaught of threes, a couple of brave souls have opted against succumbing to the norm.
They’re not just any men either, but two of the early favorites to take home some serious hardware – namely the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player trophies.
Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo are bucking the trend, albeit in different ways.
The former plays the role of dime-dishing creator while trapped in the body of a behemoth, and the latter is more of a do-everything supernova, who also happens to put up 35 points a night.
Through the first six games of his rookie campaign, the 6-foot-10 Simmons is averaging 17.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 1.7 steals per contest, while shooting 50.6 percent from the floor.
He’s putting up numbers unheard of for a first-year contributor and doing so without any semblance of a jump shot.
According to Synergy Sports, Simmons has taken 18 jumpers all season, and made just seven of them. What’s more, he’s 0-for-3 from beyond the arc.
So how is it possible for a rookie to efficiently put up over 17 points per contest without a jump shot as part of his arsenal?
For starters, it helps that Simmons is shooting 63.8 percent from within five feet of the rim, the 10th-best rate among players with at least 40 shot attempts in that zone.
His mixture of brute strength and explosiveness near the basket borders on unfair, but when you also factor in his craftiness as a ball-handler, it becomes truly insensitive towards the opposition.
Here, you can see Simmons patiently wait for a screen from Amir Johnson, with one of the league’s elite point-stoppers in Luc Mbah a Moute defending him.
Just as the pick is set to arrive, Simmons uses a funky shoulder fake to fool Mbah a Moute into thinking he’s going to use Johnson’s bodily sacrifice to drive the ball towards the paint:
Instead, he spins back towards the spot his defender had just abandoned, takes it to the rim and finishes beautifully with his off-hand. Simmons got to the paint so quickly that Clint Capela could only feign a weak contest from the other side of the restricted area as the ball went through the rim.
It’s that absurd package of freakish size, dexterity with the rock and powerful finishing that helps Simmons flourish as an isolation scorer and in the open court.
According to Synergy, the talented Australian is pouring in 1.38 points per possession (PPP) when he opts to go one-on-one, and 1.07 PPP when hightailing it in transition. Both marks place him the top 22 percent of the league, among players with far more experience than the one with just six games under his belt.
Although Antetokounmpo has suited up in 317 more contests than the Sixers rookie, he’s only about 19 months his elder, which is insane to even fathom.
Nevertheless, despite his age, the 22-year-old has taken the league by storm this season. Through six contests in 2017-18, the Greek Freak is averaging 34.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.5 blocks per night.
Although it’s unlikely he’ll be able to maintain those clips for an entire season, we should note that the only other players in league history to average at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists for a full year were Russell Westbrook (when he shattered the record for usage rate in 2016-17), Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain.
What’s most terrifying is that in an era so hyper-focused on three-point shooting, Antetokounmpo is doing his damage with just four made shots from deep on the year.
The 6-foot-11 freakazoid instead uses his insane physical traits and a relentless motor to dominate. Because he struggles with outside shooting, Antetokounmpo needs to attack the rim ferociously and effectively to put up the monstrous numbers he’s currently averaging.
Well, he’s doing just that.
On the year, the All-Star wing is shooting 67.9 percent on drives – a mark that leads the league by a substantial margin. The next closest player is LeBron James at 63.3 percent.
Even when defenses sag off of him, when opposing coaches inundate the strong side with extra defenders or when Antetokounmpo is literally surrounded down low, his gangly, long arms and explosiveness make it all for naught: If he gets into the paint, he’s going to finish.
Just ask the three Atlanta Hawks defenders who thought they had him stopped once Antetokounmpo picked up his dribble in the restricted area:
Much like the rookie we discussed, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Bucks superstar is among the NBA’s finest in transition and isolation.
The Greek Freak leads the league in scoring on the break, dropping in a preposterous 1.46 PPP on 33 transition opportunities thus far this season. Even more flabbergasting is the fact that as a one-on-one scorer, he’s producing 1.19 PPP – a clip that is also the league’s best, outpacing professional scorers such as James Harden, CJ McCollum and Paul George.
And he’s doing it while connecting on fewer than half of his jump shots (16-for-37) on the year.
Essentially, in the modern basketball landscape, you need to be at least somewhat of a threat from the outside to dominate. Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins, who would have been trapped inside the paint a decade ago, spend a lot of their time 21 feet away from the basket these days. Ditto Anthony Davis, who has connected on 7-of-15 three-point attempts through five outings. Hell, even Hassan Whiteside hit his first career three this season.
But for all of the men taking their games outside, a couple haven’t felt the need to in order to be impactful.
Simmons and Antetokounmpo are having record-breaking campaigns without connecting on many jumpers, which should tell the next class of NBA stars one thing: If you’re not going to be remotely menacing as a shooter, all you need are transcendent gifts – both tangible and intangible – to thrive. Simple enough.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.