Everyone has an opinion on Ben Simmons’ jump shot, judgments on the topic are almost impossible to avoid. Any conversation concerning Simmons’ development eventually loops back to one question.
When will he learn to shoot?
In Philadelphia, Simmons remains the hotshot youngster with one glaring weakness. Being paired with Markelle Fultz – another limited outside scorer - in the Sixers starting lineup has done nothing but intensify the amount of attention Simmons is receiving. His supernatural rookie campaign last season, did little to assuage expectations either.
Simmons is an All-Star calibre player without an outside stroke. That is a statement of fact, and an almighty accomplishment given the archetype of NBA superstars in 2018.
There are so many transcendent aspects to Simmons’ game. His special talents are obvious, and it’s intrinsically unfair to constantly debate the one skill he is lacking. It is also the ultimate compliment for what people see in Simmons. Hall of Fame level potential has a certain distain for mediocrity --cue references to Shaquille O'Neal's abysmal free throws-- and herein lies the interest on Simmons’ weak spot.
The conversation hovers over Simmons, although it is Brett Brown who serves as its daily guardian. Day in and day out, the Sixers head coach is quizzed with different variations of the same question. A hounding media pack constantly probes for new angles on Brown’s leading disciple.
Brown, like any head coach, offers opinions that are drowned in praise. He does so in a fashion that makes him one of the most enjoyable leading men in basketball. The former Australian Boomers coach leans into his opinions and offers insight into conversations with his players. It's not just benign clichés that coaches fawn over, but with tangible perspective that peels the curtain back ever so slightly. Prognostications over Simmons are no different.
Brown was his loquacious self last week, as the topic of his 208cm point guard’s jump shot was raised.
“I wished he would use it more,” Brown said. “We talked a little bit about it. I wish he would use it more.”
Context is vital, when decoding Brown’s message in this moment. These were the first words out of Brown’s mouth, before his Sixers took on the Los Angeles Clippers. The preceding five days had not been kind to Simmons, as two of his most difficult professional performances had sharpened discussion toward his weaknesses.
Episode number one occurred against the Charlotte Hornets, where Simmons shot a career worst 5-20 from the field. The NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year then followed this with a career-worst 11 turnovers during an ugly loss to the Toronto Raptors three nights later. Quantitatively, both performances look bad. They are, on paper, among the most inefficient personal displays from anyone during the NBA’s first month, although not all bad games are made equal - context has to be applied.
The shots Simmons missed against Charlotte were the exact looks he converted throughout a trailblazing rookie campaign: 15 of 20 field goal attempts came within five feet of the basket. This is where Simmons remains the most effective as a scorer. The Sixers know this, and that is why they will live with Simmons taking these shots.
Regardless of the results, the franchise wants Simmons to aggressively chase his shot. That is something Brown has steadfastly reinforced all season. He wants Simmons to be assertive, albeit with a slight adjustment in how he finds attempts from the field. If he can get to the rim, great, take the shot. If the opposition walls off the basket, Brown then wants Simmons to accept the shooting space often afforded.
“At times, [Simmons] gets to the paint and his choices are either right-handed or left-handed jump hooks,” Brown explained. “Like a eight to 10-foot jump hook or runners.
“I would like to see him come to a gather step. Take a jump stop and just shoot over people. He’s big enough obviously and not going to get his shot blocked.”
The root cause of Simmons’ turnovers against Toronto came from a disconnect between Brown’s identified situation and his suggested action for Simmons. The Australian got into the lane like he always does. There were frequent opportunities to rise up within 10 feet of the basket and step into a rhythm jumper. Simmons refused, instead trying to force passes that fall under the category of ambitious attempts to create a non-existent play.
Examples like this illustrate how Simmons’ shooting aptitude has negatively invaded his performance. Such setbacks are eminently avoidable. It’s fair to question whether the loud discourse from a bad shooting display against Charlotte triggered an overcorrection against Toronto.
Like any of us, Simmons has shown a natural tendency to revert away from his obvious shortcomings when they are loudly laid bare to the world. This is a habit Brown wants to abolish. In his mind, any type of missed shot is an improvement on turnovers caused by force-feeding a potential assist.
Simmons is shooting 50% from the field so far this season, down from 55% as a rookie. The reduction is evident from every segment of the floor: 61% inside five feet (69% last season), 33% from within five-to-nine feet (37%), and 20% from 10-plus feet (32%). A more focused scouting report, coupled with Simmons’ slow start to the season, has caused a slippage in results. Brown doesn’t care. He wants Simmons to let it fly.
This play came 90 seconds into the Sixers game against the Clippers. A coincidence in the aftermath of Brown’s comments? Perhaps, but this is what the Sixers head coach wants to see. Brown is encouraging his point guard to show vulnerability and confront his weaknesses head on.
It’s easy for Brown to try and promote this, just as it’s easy for us to talk about it. Simmons must live it. He must explore the outer limits of his talents on the public stage and live with the results. There will be growing pains. It will produce moments of social media embarrassment that would challenge even the most cognizant of 22-year-olds.
In moments of tribulation, Brown knows his role is to support the precocious talent at his disposal with a parental spirit.
“He’s going to play the game, “ Brown added on Simmons. “He’s going to feel comfortable. Feel natural.
“When he is shooting it more, you are going to see it multiply. With success, it will multiply even quicker.”
This discussion has followed Simmons throughout his basketball life. Even if he transitions into a knock-down shooter, the topic will constantly hover. LeBron James’ personal ascension has done little to dissuade the conversation within the context of his legacy. A similar result would be a best-case result for Simmons, as the masses question whether he can, eventually, lead the Sixers to an NBA championship.
Doc Rivers, who coached the Boston Celtics to a title in 2008 with a non-shooter (Rajon Rondo) starting at the point, doesn’t see what the fuss is about.
“Clearly you can win with a guy like Ben Simmons,” Rivers said. “He’s similar to Rondo in that he has the I.Q. to do it. He’s a very smart player.”
Rivers’ final point is the perfect anecdote to questions on Simmons’ development. Intellect can carry you a long way in the NBA. The Australian is equipped with a mental aptitude unmatched by most. Place competent shooters around Simmons, and trust his unique cocktail of gifts will elevate those around him. Effective jump shot or not, that’s the hypothesis.
Evidence from last season’s stretch run gives credence to the idea. Simmons leading Philadelphia into the postseason on a 16-game winning streak, and then punctuating their first round series victory over the Miami Heat with historical milestones, represent the most affirmative of early proof. The Sixers know Simmons surrounded by four outside shooters has untapped potential. It will remain the baseline for everything they attempt going forward. And yet, it isn’t enough.
Brown and Simmons have been adamant that a championship is the aim. With trademark self-awareness, they both trumpet their end goal. They are committed to the developmental trail needed to realise their objective.
"He's earned the right to [shoot]," said Brown. "He invested the time. It's what he did all summer.
“You don't think he feels what everybody's dying to see? It's going to come to him sooner or later, on his terms. To think anything else would be really naïve."
It does feels naïve to doubt Brown’s unwavering confidence at this point. He believes this is one process that Simmons needs to trust.
Simmons has the full support of Brown and the coaching staff. They believe the results will come. It’s just a matter of time.