One day in the future, Brett Brown is convinced Ben Simmons will regularly take jump shots. He thinks his All-Star point guard will regret that it took as long as it did.
Before Simmons’ 15-point, 14-assist, defensively stellar Christmas performance in the Sixers’ 121-109 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers' head coach was asked if the expansion of Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo’s game could be instructive with Simmons.
I can see parallels of a progressive growth,” he said. “Do I wish the Ben situation with figuring some stuff out sooner had happened? Yes. But it hasn't and it didn't with Giannis either. ... I see Ben in a gym and I see it and feel it and really, those words I can appreciate might ring hollow to most because it hasn't happened. I get it. I still think it's going to be one of those things that he's going to shoot it and then he's going to do it again.
“He's going to do it again and he's gonna look in the rearview mirror and kick himself. Like, why didn't I do this sooner? Really, all this talk and attention for this? And so I hope to see it tonight. There will be opportunities to space and look at the rim a lot tonight.
Simmons and Antetokounmpo made an identical number of three-point shots Wednesday — zero. While Simmons took all 10 of his shots within the paint and hasn’t attempted a three since Brown asked for at least one per game on Dec. 7, Antetokounmpo was 0 for 7.
Now in his seventh NBA season, Antetokounmpo has made incremental progress with his shot. He’s shooting 32.7 percent from three-point range this season on 5.1 attempts per game, by far the highest volume of his career.
Even after that progress, the sensible strategy against Antetokounmpo’s strength and athleticism has been to give him space to fire, as Joel Embiid did. Of Antetokounmpo’s 159 attempted threes this season, he’s had six or more feet of space on 129, including all seven on Christmas.
When pressed on Simmons’ shooting during a pregame press conference, general manager Elton Brand mostly deflected by pointing to Simmons’ many strengths. It wasn’t surprising that he looked at the player he signed to a five-year, $170 million extension this offseason in a positive light. What was more interesting is that Brand identified an important reason why Simmons might remain reluctant to shoot.
“We believe in Ben,” Brand said. “We believe in his shot and his progression. He’s a point guard — 17 assists the other night. He wants to make the highest-percentage play every time. 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.”
Antetokounmpo’s path — and his present, for that matter — suggest it might be a long time before Simmons reasonably sees an available jump shot for himself as a better play than a pass to a teammate beyond the arc or a drive to the rim.
Still, it’s Simmons’ third healthy season. The Sixers want to win a championship and have graded out well in early tests vs. strong opposition. Wouldn’t the regular season be the right time for Simmons, if he’s going to eventually become more comfortable as a shooter, to work on that missing piece?
“It’s a great point,” Brand said. “If it’s not going to happen in the regular season — it’s the time to work on it — it won’t happen later on in the season or in the playoffs. But it’s a work in progress, which I’ve probably said five times already, but it’s true. And once he gains the confidence and realizes that’s a high-percentage play for the team and for us, maybe not that game but 10 games down the line, 20 games down the line, we’ll be fine. He’ll be fine.”
Until that stage, even as Simmons continues to impress with his defense, speed and passing, Brand and Brown can expect to receive questions about his jumper.
Brown got one Wednesday he was actually excited to answer. A reporter wondered whether Simmons’ shot might be further along if the Australian had entered the NBA in different circumstances.
...This is as good a question as I have been asked about Ben, and it's true,” Brown said. “How can it not be? We've talked about it. We've talked to family and agents and so on. He didn't come in with JaKarr [Sampson] and Henry Sims. He wasn't a part of that group. Michael Carter-Williams did. He started shooting some. Mightn't [Simmons] have ... just been in an environment that was kind of you're playing with house money with just trying to grow people vs. oh shoot, you've got Joel's a little bit better. You’ve got Jimmy Butler and JJ [Redick], and you're pretty good, and here's Ersan [Ilyasova] and Marco [Belinelli] and like, where's my place?
“And you saw what he did against Detroit. He's a runaway train picking apart a gym with 17 assists, and so he still finds way to put his thumb on the game. But it hasn't come from this thing that we're talking about. That is a long-winded most definitely, if he came in under a different set of rules and team expectations, I have zero doubt that we would have seen maybe — not maybe, definitely — more attempts at three-point shooting, as an example.”
Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year for the 2013-14 season, averaging 16.7 points, 6.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds. He put up three threes per game, shooting 26.4 percent from long range on a 19-63 Sixers team.
Simmons might never be in a comparable environment. Carter-Williams could work on a weakness with the knowledge that were no real consequences besides perhaps losing more games in a future-oriented season defined by losing. (For what it’s worth, even with the freedom to miss all those threes, Carter-Williams is still well below average as a three-point shooter.)
So, for the time being, Simmons seems to be focused on the qualities that already make him highly valuable, with defense chief among them.
“For us, it starts on defense,” he said after picking up three steals and two blocks. “Coming into the game, we knew they had a great offensive team in terms of Giannis and a lot of shooters around him. Trying to take the ball out of his hands and limit three-pointers. And then offense usually just flows from that.”
Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.