Brett Brown knew the topic was coming.
“We’ll get to Ben [Simmons] in a moment,” he said in the middle of an answer Wednesday afternoon about the Sixers’ perimeter shooting at a luncheon with members of the media in Center City, his first extended public remarks about his team since May.
He addressed a few other matters first, but Brown did indeed eventually “get to Ben,” a 23-year-old All-Star with perhaps the most discussed jump shot in basketball. Between the last time Brown had spoken about Simmons and Wednesday, a fair amount had happened with his point guard's jump shot.
We’d heard Tobias Harris say Simmons was knocking down three-point jumpers during offseason workouts, looked to Al Horford’s unique development as a shooter for context with Simmons’ situation, gotten Hall of Fame coach Herb Magee’s thoughts on the subject, learned Simmons was withdrawing from the FIBA World Cup to focus on preparing for the season and watched him make a bunch of jump shots in summer pickup games.
For me, it starts here and here first, completely: the willingness to shoot,” Brown said. “The time that he has invested over the course of this summer is the best by a long shot that he ever has. His awareness of this thing in the marketplace — he's prideful, he gets it. His confidence that I saw when he came back to Philadelphia and played in our gym the past few weeks just stood out. It's shown as if he had invested time, and he was looking forward to showing us, showing his teammates, [showing] me, proving it to himself. I feel like he's going to have a tremendous season again.
“He's a 23-year-old All-Star. … Overall, my judgment's going to be just a willingness to shoot. Might I at training camp have whoever's guarding Ben just go back to the paint and not defend him on a few? Maybe. But I'm with him. He is our starting point guard. He's my point guard. We're going to grow him as such. This stuff, where you have an opportunity to shoot, will certainly be cheerleaded by me, but most importantly, he's invested the time to shoot the shot better than he has. Now it gets back to that confidence, that willingness to shoot it when the opportunity presents.
How will Brown aim to encourage that confidence, and how far will it extend? Firstly, he said Simmons won’t be spending time in the “dunker spot,” the short corner/low block region Simmons occupied often last year when Jimmy Butler was handling the ball. With Butler’s departure, Simmons will be the team’s primary ball handler.
“I mean, let's face it, I'm sure he didn't like not having the ball in his hands and I don't blame him,” Brown said. “I think to give him the ball back, obviously, would be a more exciting environment then how it played out at the end of last year.”
One might reasonably have anticipated that development as a result of Butler heading to Miami. Where Brown wants Simmons to be when he’s off the ball, however, was perhaps more notable.
“You're probably going to see him in one of the corners,” Brown said. “I'm going to start there. We're going to encourage him to shoot threes.”
Anyone who was followed the Sixers over the last two seasons is likely familiar with Simmons’ history — or lack thereof — as a three-point shooter. He’s 0 for 18 in his NBA career from three-point range, with end-of-quarter heaves making up the large majority of those attempts.
The Sixers’ offense is focused on living in the corners this season, with new assistant coach Joseph Blair advocating for tweaks to the team’s spacing principles (see story). If Simmons has improved his jump shot to the point that defenses need to give it some degree of respect, there’s no reason to keep him in the dunker spot.
Brown did later clarify that him “encouraging” Simmons to shoot threes doesn’t equate to an unconditional green light.
“With Ben, we're not going to hunt threes," he said. "When they are available, I want him to shoot them. Just sort of the reckless use of threes doesn't sort of tie into my initial statement of our team being huge. I do think we can play a style of play that is just smash mouth defense and bully ball offense; I think that this team has the ability to do that. So it leans more toward that than let's come down and crank out threes.”
Additionally, although Brown didn’t say this, Simmons shooting a high volume of jump shots at a low percentage would of course hurt the Sixers’ offense.
As Brown said, however, “once he needs to be guarded, the rules change.” Defenses can’t collapse into the paint on Simmons, he becomes a threat to do more than pass or drive out of the pick-and-roll and there’s no longer one obvious man to use on double teams against Embiid in the post.
We’ve considered these changes in theoretical form for some time. If Simmons listens to his coach and takes jump shots when he’s open this season, we’ll start to shift from the theoretical to the real.
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