76ers

Stop letting Ben Simmons' shot blind you from the big picture

Stop letting Ben Simmons' shot blind you from the big picture

It is neither normal nor ideal for a conventional NBA point guard to be a highly infrequent outside shooter.

Let’s get that self-evident fact out of the way before diving into the state of Ben Simmons’ game and explaining why the notion that he is holding the Sixers back by not “giving all of himself,” as our Dan Roche writes, is erroneous.

And, instead of glossing over Simmons’ many talents, let’s at least outline them and how they are valuable to the Sixers.

Through 41 games, one would have to be awfully creative to find an argument for Simmons not being on an All-NBA Defensive team. He’s first in the league in steals, fifth in deflections, fifth in defensive win shares, 13th in defensive box-plus. Opposing players — many of them stars — have shot 40.5 percent when guarded by Simmons

He is fifth in the NBA in assists, a speedy, sensational player in the open floor and an excellent passer. Like him or not, these are undeniable facts. And, while it’s a secondary point, it seems worth noting that Simmons has played in 199 of a possible 205 regular-season games since missing the 2016-17 season with a broken right foot, and is averaging a team-high 35.6 minutes per game this year. He’s a rare constant for the Sixers.

But, Roche asks, “Maybe he could fall in love with an 18-footer?”

An 18-foot jump shot is, even for average to good shooters, an inefficient look. For Simmons, who’s made 10 of 54 shots (22.5 percent) from eight feet and out this season, an 18-footer is almost never the right play.

Frustration with his continued reluctance to shoot makes sense. He told us, “If it’s open, I’ll take it” at media day and has not heeded Brett Brown’s request for at least one three-point attempt per game. He’s yet to meet Brown’s quota of eight free throws a night either, though he has taken five per game since Dec. 7.

Roche wonders, “Is it because Simmons doesn’t think he can make the shot? Can’t be. He’s as confident as any player in the league with the ball in his hands.”

Well, both the numbers and our eyes suggest Simmons thinking he can’t make jumpers would be supremely logical. And — perhaps because he’s seen that he can dominate games without shooting and gotten familiar with doing so — he’s admitted that it’s not a comfortable play for him.

“I think getting into my spots and positions,” he said on Dec. 15. “Being the point guard, you don’t want to come down and just jack it up every time. So, finding that rhythm and getting into situations where I’m comfortable.” 

It’s simply not a smart play at the moment, an astute observation Elton Brand made on Christmas.

“He wants to make the highest-percentage play every time,” Brand said of Simmons. “But he will unlock another level of our team once he starts doing that more. But he knows that, Coach knows that, and we’re working toward that. He wants to feel that he’s making the best play. So when he feels that that’s the best play, he’s going to do it more and more.”

There’s no telling if and when an open jumper will be the right choice for Simmons. His form is still flawed, with his elbow flared out. His limited game reps to this point suggest that, should he ever start to shoot regularly, confidence might not come in a sudden flood — which is certainly a fair argument for a few more attempts in lower-stakes games in the regular season.

And, even if he does become a competent shooter, the intelligent defensive approach against him might very well remain providing him with ample space to fire. It’s what most teams do against Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s hitting 32.5 percent of his threes this year and taking 5.1 per game.

The current version of Simmons that hardly ever accepts invitations to shoot jumpers still has many other areas where he can improve. He can be more conscious of his off-ball spacing, paying greater attention to where he needs to move to accommodate his teammates, many of whom also prefer standing in or near the paint. He can get better in the post, where he’s again below league average in efficiency, as a finisher at the rim, and as a screener and roller, where Brown has been involving him more. That he’s still under 60 percent from the foul line is an unconditional disappointment.

Simmons, though, already gives the Sixers heaps of value. He could, like many 23-year-olds, be much better than he is now. And, if his progress stagnates and his shot is non-existent in a few years, it’s possible that he will have also limited the Sixers’ potential.

For now, he’s a skilled young player — one of the best in the league on one end of the court — with a weakness that seems to have the tremendous power of obfuscating the full picture of his game.

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'It's a gift and a curse' — Steve Nash shares his thoughts on Ben Simmons

'It's a gift and a curse' — Steve Nash shares his thoughts on Ben Simmons

On the surface, Steve Nash and Ben Simmons don’t have a ton in common. 

Nash, inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018, shot 42.8 percent from three-point range and 90.4 percent from the foul line in his NBA career. Simmons’ shooting is not a strength.

However, the two chatted Saturday night at Madison Square Garden after Simmons’ 21-point, eight-assist performance in the Sixers’ win over the Knicks (see observations).

Simmons told reporters he talked with Nash, a co-owner of the MLS’ Vancouver Whitecaps FC, about soccer.

“He was such a great leader, a competitive spirit,” Simmons said. “Just watching highlights and some of his games, the way he played, he was just relentless. He played through anything." 

Nash sees a lot to admire in Simmons’ game, too. He said he thinks Simmons is worthy of being an All-Star for the second straight season.

Ben’s a generational talent. Crazy athlete, can play multiple positions on offense and defense. Obviously his glaring weakness is the shooting, but he’s so gifted that he can make up for it in other ways, and it’s about finding a way for him to be at his best for this group. And that’s a challenge for this club, is how do all the pieces fit together? Ben’s ability at both ends of the floor is unique and he’s a special, special player. 

“I wouldn’t put it past him to become a reliable shooter at some stage in his career, but he still does so many things at both ends of the floor that if you could find a way as an organization to promote that, you have an incredible, incredible piece. That is a huge challenge — how do all the pieces fit? … I think it’s something that Brett [Brown] and everyone are working through every day. It’s a gift and a curse.

Though his game isn’t much like Nash’s, Simmons said he can still take a lot from the 2004-05 NBA MVP. 

“He’s a legend, so definitely,” Simmons said. “I definitely want to talk to him and pick up things.”

Nash was asked whether Simmons can keep going as an infrequent jump shooter. 

“He can, in the right environment,” Nash said. “If he can figure out how to make some shots in some parts of the court, it can change everything. … He can do so many things. He can change positions four or five times in a game. That in itself is huge. So, how do you absorb that? That’s the challenge. Like I said, it’s a gift and a curse, and they’ll have to figure that out.”

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Tobias Harris trolls Ben Simmons before and after Sixers' win

Tobias Harris trolls Ben Simmons before and after Sixers' win

There are probably quite a few people that would like to be Ben Simmons.

Tobias Harris took that a step further before the Sixers game Saturday night against the Knicks, rocking Simmons' expensive looking neckwear.

The Sixers sweated out a win and snapped their six-game road losing streak at Madison Square Garden Saturday (see observations). Harris had a rough night, going 5 of 13 overall, but he did hit a huge three with 28.2 seconds left off a Simmons’ inbounds pass to give the Sixers a two-point lead.

“I was just trying to get it in,” Simmons told reporters postgame. “I don’t think we had any timeouts left, so I’m glad he came to the ball and put up a great shot. He made it look good.”

The chemistry between the two seems to be paying off on the court.

“He’s locked in,” Simmons said. “He’s been aggressive taking shots. We want him to keep shooting the ball and taking those open looks. He’s a great player."

Postgame, Harris went back into Simmons mode.

The team also had a little fun with Harris’ “Fresh Prince” impersonation.

Simmons had a big night, posting 20 points for the fourth straight game — the first time in his career he's done so. The duo of Harris and Simmons also combined for the biggest defensive play of the game, trapping Julius Randle and causing a turnover with 7.6 seconds left.

Even though Harris accidentally gave Simmons a smack in the face in his haste while celebrating.

The Sixers have won three games in a row and it looks like they’re having fun again.

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