One of the most underrated play-makers in college basketball is headed back to school for his senior season; earlier this week, Clemson’s Aamir Simms withdrew from the 2020 NBA Draft. With Brad Brownell back as coach, the Tigers will look to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the Sweet 16 run in 2018, which Simms was a part of as a freshman (12 starts). At the same time, Simms will look to display what makes him such a distinct talent to NBA scouts.
A 6-foot-8 forward/center, Simms has long been an important fixture of Clemson basketball; however, he took his performance to a new level as a junior. During the 2019-20 season, Simms averaged 13 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. For his efforts, Simms was named third-team All-ACC.
While the increases in scoring and rebounding (9.2 rebounds per 40 minutes) are notable, some of that can be prescribed to a jump in usage and playing time. Simms saw his usage rate climb from 16.2 percent over his first two seasons with Clemson to 24 percent as a junior. What stands out most with Simms is his ability to space the floor and facilitate efficient offense.
With guards Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell gone, along with big man Elijah Thomas, Clemson was down several key pieces this season. In their places, Simms emerged as a catch-all solution — an offensive engine capable of low-block or high-post artistry.
Brownell put the ball in Simms’ hands and let the offense flow. After dishing out 1.5 assists per 40 minutes over the first 68 games of his career, Simms more than doubled that number this season: 3.1 assists per 40 minutes.
Simms is the best passing big man in the ACC, and there’s a real argument for this label to extend beyond the league.
During his first two seasons with Clemson, Simms showcased a willingness to shoot from deep; as a freshman and sophomore, 47 percent of his field goal attempts came from beyond the arc (32.9 3P%). Most of that work on catch-and-shoots looks — from spot-ups or pick-and-pops.
According to Synergy Sports, Simms recorded 112 spot-up possessions (0.86 PPP) as a sophomore. This was, by a wide margin, his most used possession type in the 2018-19 season. Reed (29 percent usage rate) and Mitchell drove the offense; Thomas was a high-usage (27.6 percent usage rate) post-up threat. Everything else was secondary.
Simms accounted for 20 pick-and-pop possessions during his sophomore season, which is a decent sample; however, Synergy credits him with only two possessions of rolling or slipping to the basket out of a ball screen.
This season, according to Synergy, Simms recorded 72 spot-up possessions. The volume is down, but his efficiency remains: Simms posted an effective shooting rate of 56.8 percent on spot-up jumpers (44 FGA), while showing off some NBA-like range.
For his career, Simms has an effective shooting rate of 51.5 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts (240 FGA). That’s a relatively nice blend of efficiency and volume. At times, Simms has shown some (limited) movement shooting skills, too.
Down the stretch against UNC this season, Clemson went multiple times to this weak-side twist action with Simms. Curran Scott comes off a pair of stagger screens; after Simms sets his pindown for Scott, he fades to the corner, off another screen from Hunter Tyson (32.1 3P%). Scott curls and screens for Simms, too. This shifting, whirring action causes Armando Bacot to lose Simms. Garrison Brooks tries to closeout, but he’s too late.
With just enough room to get a shot off, Simms didn’t miss and sent the affair into overtime.
Overall, Simms shot 40 percent (34-of-85 3PA) from deep. In a vacuum, that number sounds nice, and it is, but it does more than sit there as an isolated statistic. It’s also a source of offensive gravity, which pulls opposing rim-protectors away from the basket.
Simms shoots an easy ball, which forces extra rotations and closeouts. As a result, gaps and driving lanes spring open. Simms, a matchup nightmare, was more than happy to puncture those opportunities — on his own or with the help of his teammates.
Pop Into Action: Aamir Simms
Pick-and-pop action with Simms featured prominently in Clemson’s offense. According to Synergy, Simms finished with 39 points on pick-and-pop no-dribble jumpers this season (51.3 eFG%), tied for No. 1 in the ACC with PJ Horne.
This type of stretch in frontcourt creates all sorts of match-up issues. Drop centers, those who defend ball screens by sitting under the pick, like Vernon Carey Jr. and Manny Bates, struggled to locate Simms in space.
Even against more mobile big man defenders, like DJ Funderburk (rock solid on Simms during the second half in Raleigh), the range and quick trigger of Simms can still produce fire.
However, when opponents closeout on him, hard, Simms can break out his best Boris Diaw impersonation — driving and posting into space, with the floor spread.
During the 2019-20 season, Simms was one of only three players, 6-foot-7 or taller, to post an assist rate of 17 percent and shoot 38+ percent on his 3-point attempts (40+ 3PA). Going back to the 2007-08 season, Simms is one of just five players, 6-foot-8 or taller, to have an assist rate above 18 percent. (Steffon Mitchell of BC did it this season, too.)
From Clemson’s Chin series: Simms, once again, shows his ability pop, drive and pass off a live dribble. After setting the little loop screen for Scott, Simms sets a back pick on Leaky Black, who covers Dawes. Simms immediately snaps into a pick-and-pop with Scott, which Bacot closes out on. When Simms drives, twin cutters slice backdoor against North Carolina’s off-ball denials. With Justin Pierce (way) out of position (to put it mildly), Simms hits an open Tevin Mack for a layup on his back cut.
If opponents fail to press up on Simms, he can detonate a defense in more than one way, though. When Simms has airspace, his vision and strength turn him into a dangerous passer from the middle of the floor. Simms can pick out cutters and shooters with ease when he doesn’t see on-ball pressure.
Duke defends this action fairly well. Javin DeLaurier presses up on Simms in the slot. Jack White is an alert help defender; on this possession, his head is up while he communicates from the back side. Tyson, in the corner, is two passes away from Simms, which allows White to sink into the paint and muck up cutting actions.
However, when DeLaurier takes a step back from Simms, Clemson’s star spots Tyson. Simms then has the power to deliver a laser pass right in Tyson’s shooting pocket. Tyson is able to get this spot-up look off just ahead of White’s closeout.
Hand The Baton Off
Clemson organized a lot of offense this season out of its small-ball Horns set, with Simms and Mack stationed up top. After crossing into the half court, the Tigers would quickly enter the ball to Simms at the elbow area, and let him go to work.
Here’s an action Clemson went to with great frequency this season: Al-Amir Dawes sends Simms an entry pass, then proceeds to immediately set a pindown screen for Mack at the opposite elbow. Mack comes off the pin and speeds into a handoff with Simms. Before the defense can react, Clemson has an open catch-and-shoot 3.
With VCJ hugged up on Simms, Duke tries to switch the handoff screen. Matthew Hurt calls it out, but Carey, who struggles in space defense, isn’t ready to make that type of defensive exchange — a 4-5 switch — 23 feet from the hoop.
Among players with at least 600 minutes of burn this season, Simms led the Tigers in assist rate: 18.8 percent. (Clyde Trapp was right there, though: 19.6 percent assist rate in 538 minutes.)
Here’s that same action, again: this time from Clemson’s historical January win in Chapel Hill. Brooks has the Mack cover; after Dawes chips him with a screen, Brooks tries trail Mack. Brooks is a solid defender, but this is a tough assignment — essentially chasing shooters off screens.
(This is another time when playing Black at the 4 may have helped things, on both ends of the floor.)
Mack finished the season with 125 catch-and-shoot points (46 eFG%), good for 13th most in the ACC. According to Synergy, Mack scored 1.6 points per possession (83.3 eFG%) on handoffs this season (20 possessions).
As a team, Clemson led the ACC in handoff efficiency as well: 0.99 points per possession.
These dribble handoff (DHO) exchanges also allow Simms to spring from ball-handler right into screen-roll action.
Here’s a similar look — with Simms reversing the ball and launching Clemson into one of its go-to empty-side skinny pick-and-rolls.
Once the handoff becomes a threat — something opposing defenses must be ready for — it can open up so much more offensively.
Simms can utilize fake handoff action to help isolate in the middle of the floor. If all help defenders maintain off-ball assignments and gap integrity, then Simms (4.7 FTA per 40 minutes) knows he’s isolated with room to operate. Now, he has the advantage.
Simms can face-up and drive or methodically work his way down into the paint with a variety of spins and fakes — ball and shoulder.
Aamir Simms Opens Up The Backdoor
One of the more enjoyable aspects of Simms’ game is his ability lift defenses and pass backdoor. Simms really does have good touch and timing as a passer. Plus, he’s confident in not only his passing skills, but also Brownell’s system and his teammates (to complete their cuts).
Here’s the extension of that Horns into pindown/handoff action against North Carolina — on what would prove to be the game-winning field goal. Simms catches at the elbow, Trapp pins for Tyson. Instead of handing the ball to Tyson, with tight defense from Brooks, Simms dribbles to his right, in the direction of Trapp.
Trapp shoulder fakes Black and jets backdoor; the paint is wide open (no UNC defense with a foot in the lane) as Simms threads a gorgeous bounce pass around Black’s overplay.
During the win over North Carolina, on more than one occasion, Simms showed the ability to pinpoint backdoor bounce passes through traffic off a live dribble. Here’s another one from earlier in overtime; this time John Newman III smokes Brandon Robinson.
Even when it didn’t lead directly to an assist, Simms could instantly create advantage for Clemson’s offense as a high-post passing hub: throw it to him, fake one way, then split backdoor. Keep moving the ball, someone can pop open.
If the angle isn’t there for a bounce pass — with too many limbs in the way — Simms proved he can loft backdoor passes over the top of defenders, too.
A big part of what makes Simms such a go-to piece and matchup concern sides with his ability to move in any direction after setting a ball screen — or before the screen takes place. Simms can hard roll (after a strong screen), pop or slip to the basket. From all angles, he can attack to score or create for others.
During the early January win over NC State, Clemson shredded the Pack’s defense with a variety of side-screen slips.
Bates is a good young defender (16 percent block rate) who hung tough, despite some struggles, in ball-screen coverages as a freshman. But he wasn’t ready for the foot speed and deception of Simms, another advantage he has on the college level. Simms is quicker than most opposing centers.
Simms is also a sturdy screen-setter, unafraid to initiate and hold contact. The threat of being able to slip or hold a screen adds pressure on the opposing big man in ball-screen coverage. According to Synergy, Simms 76.2 percent on rolls to the basket after a screen or slip.
(The next time these two teams played, NC State, thanks to Funderburk’s switch skills and versatility, did a much better job, but again, NC State’s pick-and-roll help defense was really bad in the Jan. 4 game.)
For Simms to raise his stock with an eye on the next level, he must continue to showcase efficiency with his 3-point shot, especially from “above the break” type range. (Defensively, he must be able to guard multiple positions: big wings, stretch-4s and some small-ball 5s.) This is why that pick-and-pop stroke is so important: it positions in him in the target zone.
Simms, however, is more than a stationary shooter. He can handle the ball from a variety of different angles and vantage points, while looking for teammates moving without the basketball.
The pitch for Simms, as a prospect, is straightforward: a stretch-4 that adds to a team’s second unit offense with 3-point shooting, ball movement and a dash of secondary play-making. Simms also offers some short roll utility — an ability to handle in space and pass into tight windows.
This is a great play against Duke’s Ice pick-and-roll coverage. Tre Jones forces Dawes to reject the screen from Simms by positioning himself between the two. When Carey drops and squares off Dawes, Simms retreats into space; Dawes hits him with a nice pocket pass, just outside of Jones’ reach. Simms instantly has a 4-on-3 against Duke’s sleepy help defense. With only a modicum of rim protection from Cassius Stanley, Simms one dribbles this thing right to the rim for an easy layup.
(Quick note: Jones will be asked to do a lot of this type of pick-and-roll defense once he gets to the NBA. He’ll be ready.)
Certain teams could view Simms as a prospect with some ball-ball center potential. Simms could open the floor up for second unit offenses that want to play 5-out or 4-around-1 with another non-shooter on the floor. With his unselfish nature and passing touch, Simms can do damage on these actions — drop passes and kick-outs for spot-ups 3s.
This delivery doesn’t come off a short roll, but conceptually it’s similar: more short-space passing from Simms — to Mack in the dunker spot — against a back-line zone.
Here’s one way to better visualize against an NBA defense. Atlanta doesn’t Ice this screen from PJ Washington, but the Hawks through two defenders at Devonte Graham — Trae Young and Jabari Parker — due to his pull-up shooting. Washington dives into space, gets the pocket pass from Graham and works 4-on-3. With Washington at the 4, this is tricky; Atlanta stays at home on both wing shooters, which means it’s a 2-on-1 for PJ with Bismack Biyombo in the dunker spot.
Damian Jones leaves his feet, which simplifies things, but Washington must still must fit this pass into a congested picture, just before Cam Reddish erases everything.
Clemson helped generate space for Simms in the middle this season thanks in part to a philosophy shift on offense. During Brownell’s tenure, Clemson’s 3-point attempt rate has ebbed and flowed. Back in the 2017-18 season — when the three-guard lineup of Reed, Mitchell and Gabe DeVoe pushed the Tigers to the Sweet 16 — 39.9 percent of their field goal attempts were of the 3-point variety. At the time, this was a high for the program.
This year, however, the Tigers let it fly in unprecedented fashion: 46.4 percent of their field goal attempt came from beyond the arc (No. 19 in Division I). Going back to his time at UNC Wilmington and Wright State (18 seasons), a Brownell team has never posted a 3-point attempt rate north of 40 percent — until this season.
Now, Clemson didn’t connected on too many of those shots; the Tigers ranked 267th national in 3-point percentage (31.5 3P%). (In fact, if you remove Simms, everyone else on Clemson combined to shoot just 30.5 3P% this season.) But the volume is what’s most notable here.
As a sophomore, Simms recorded just 24 post-up possessions (47.6 FG%). In the middle of Clemson’s newly-spread offense this season, though, with a spike in usage, that post-up volume jumped to 85 possessions (0.78 points per possession) — nearly 21 percent of his possessions.
For his career, Simms has connected on 41.2 percent of his post-up attempts, per Synergy. That’s a so-so number; however, Simms at least has a willingness to post-up, which matters. He’s comfortable handling with his back to the basket. Simms is strong enough in the lower body to get decent post position, too.
Simms also has a good feel for double teams, knowing when to time his spins.
With his handle, Simms can move in any direction to counter to a counter a trap or double team. He’s always a threat to pass, and he can finish with either hand, too. Simms has a nice, soft touch on these finishes around the hoop: 64 FG% on close 2PA, with only eight dunks this season.
Simms doesn’t project as a volume post-up up piece, but he’s shown enough. Teams that evaluate Simms know he can post-up against a variety of position types, which matters against switchy NBA defenses.
Live Dribble Passing
Simms is a solid two-way rebounder (18.7 percent defensive rebound rate), which opens up the occasional grab-and-go opportunity. Skilled enough with handles and vision, Simms can be an opportunistic passer in transition.
During January’s home win over NC State, Simms had one of the better passes in the ACC this season, especially from a non-guard player. Following a Jericole Hellems miss, Simms collects the long rebound and looks to push. Before two full seconds have expired, Simms — after only one dribble — snaps a pass from half court that hits Scott perfectly in stride for what should be a layup. (Good hustle back from Hellems to contest the shot and spoil the assist opportunity.)
NC State actually has half-decent floor balance on this exchange; Devon Daniels is back, although his fear of stopping the ball (Simms) forces him to lose some gap integrity in transition defense, which opens the passing lane. Simms still manages to deliver a catchable pass.
- Screen-roll versatility
- Roll, short roll, pop
- Short-space passing
- Catch-and-shoot numbers
- Some movement capabilities (pop/fade into space)
- Mostly good indicators (71.5 FT% the last two seasons)
- Frontcourt play-maker and connector
- Post switches and mismatches
- Good touch and timing
- Confidence in himself and teammates
- Live-dribble passing, plays with head up
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- Defensive versatility:
- Guard big wings and small 4s in the NBA, maybe some 5s (small-ball lineups)
- Create more events: stocks (steal and blocks)
- Career: 3.9% block (pretty solid), 1.5% steal
- Continued outside shooting
- Pick-and-pop shooting shooting and play making
- Can he improve his first step?