Early offense, disappointment and a baffling stat — what's behind Ben Simmons' quiet offensive output

Early offense, disappointment and a baffling stat — what's behind Ben Simmons' quiet offensive output

Brett Brown is always voluble when asked about the development of Ben Simmons.

He raved on a conference call Monday about Simmons’ growth as a leader, his stellar work ethic and his potential to be “an elite defensive player.”

But he acknowledged one area in which Simmons hasn’t made meaningful improvement.

“I think the thing that disappoints me is me knowing what I know in terms of the volume of time — and everyone should hear that — the volume of time he has put into trying to improve his free throw,” Brown said. “In practice, before practice, [on] days off. At times it hasn’t translated to that sort of 70 percent and moving up the food chain — 72, 73, 75, whatever percent that has been his goal.”

A 56 percent free throw shooter during his rookie season, Simmons shot 60 percent during his sophomore campaign. In the playoffs, he’s regressed, going from 70.7 percent at the line last postseason to 51.9 percent through nine games. He’s 0 for 3 in the Sixers' second-round series against the Raptors. Kawhi Leonard, the player Simmons has tried in vain to contain, is 30 for 35. 

Brown said he doesn’t see any hints of Simmons being tentative because he’s not confident about his foul shooting. 

“I do not connect those dots with him maybe passing up a drive or a shot because of lack of confidence or trepidation to go back to the free throw line,” Brown said. “I don’t see it. In fact, the thing that might be as impressive as anything — he walks to the line — because I’ve been in the game so long, you watch somebody’s body language when they accept the ball from the referee and even I would overanalyze and watch his approach from the free throw line. And there’s no hesitance.”

Whatever the cause, Simmons wasn’t aggressive enough in Game 4 for Jimmy Butler’s liking. Butler broke from talking to a reporter after the Sixers’ loss Sunday to address Simmons directly. 

“Ben, don’t pass the ball in transition,” he said, looking into the camera. “Attack every single time. That’s how we’re going to win this [series].”

Not as blunt, Brown nevertheless agreed with the gist of Butler’s message. 

He is a track star in the open court; he’s 6-foot-10. His length and ability to get to the rim we encourage all day, every day. It’s where he can most significantly offensively stamp his thumbprint on the game. I think in general it’s difficult in the playoffs to get those kind of opportunities, even as good as he is, as frequently. I just finished watching the game. There were a few times maybe he could have gone a step further or tried to draw contact with a strong finish or a dunk. I don’t think it’s anything that’s bothersome. I do feel like the green light in this environment is something he always knows that he has. … This is where we want to get him going as much as we can, in those first three to five seconds of a shot clock.

The stats back up Brown’s observation that Simmons has at times been reluctant to accept his green light. Per NBA.com/Stats, Simmons attempted 228 field goals “very early” in the shot clock (22 to 18 seconds remaining) during the regular season, an average of 2.89 per game. He’s only taken five such shots against Toronto through four games, making four. 

The Sixers could, Brown said, aim to get Simmons more opportunities when he has a cross match against a smaller player like Kyle Lowry or Danny Green. But an aggressive mindset in early offense and a more obvious desire to draw fouls seem like prerequisites to Simmons being more effective offensively.

For his part, Simmons said Sunday night he thought his shot selection was, “OK.”

As for what he thought he could have done better, he kept it very simple.

“Make more shots.” 

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Joel Embiid honors Kobe Bryant, channels his own 'Mamba Mentality' in return

Joel Embiid honors Kobe Bryant, channels his own 'Mamba Mentality' in return

It was a strange night at the Wells Fargo Center. Then again, everything has felt strange since we found out that Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others tragically died in a helicopter crash Sunday.

But on Tuesday, it was time for Joel Embiid and the Sixers to play basketball again. The team honored Bryant, the NBA great and Philadelphia native, in a touching pregame tribute.

Embiid did it by returning to the floor after missing nine games and scoring 24 points in a 115-104 win over the Warriors (see observations), drawing upon the way Bryant played his decorated 20-year career.

“It was tough,” Embiid said. “Like I keep saying, Kobe meant something different than anybody else. It was tough, but I know just looking at his career and what he was about, that 'Mamba Mentality.' It was about outworking your opponent, outworking everybody else and I know he would want everybody to go out and compete hard and play the game and try to win. That's what he was about. It was tough but that's how you honor him.”

Beyond his play on the floor, Embiid reached out to another Hall of Famer for help to honor Kobe.

Bobby Jones’ No. 24 was retired by the Sixers in 1986. Known as “The Secretary of Defense,” Jones was a five-time All-Star and an 11-time All-Defensive Team pick. Sixers equipment manager Scotty Rego, who’s been with the team for over 32 years, had a hand in helping arrange everything. A phone call was arranged for Embiid and Jones earlier in the day.

Jones’ only caveat was that Embiid have a strong defensive effort — like Jones and Bryant, a 12-time All-Defensive Team pick himself.

“Bobby, he's a legend,” Embiid said. “He's got his number retired. He's a Hall of Famer. It's always tough to be in that situation, but he was incredible. He was forthcoming. I'm really grateful that he let me have this opportunity to wear that number. It's a tough decision, but he was all for it and I'm really thankful.”

Will he continue to wear it?

“No, I'm not keeping it. It was just for one game. You can't disrespect the greatness of Bobby Jones. He was a great player at his time. His number is retired. Like I said, I'm extremely grateful that he let me have that opportunity to wear that. I'm back to my number.”

Embiid getting the opportunity to play and wear the number wasn’t a forgone conclusion. Embiid was listed as questionable pregame and had to be cleared by a hand surgeon. He'd missed the past two and a half weeks after tearing a ligament in the ring finger of his left hand. 

When he spoke to reporters last week for the first time since his surgery, he mentioned the team’s spot in the standings has fueled him to want to get back in the lineup faster. With their win tonight, the Sixers are a half game ahead of the Pacers for the fifth seed and just 2 ½ games behind the Raptors for No. 2.

They also have a difficult stretch of games upcoming. After traveling to Atlanta to take on the lowly Hawks, they finish the road trip with games against the Celtics, Heat and Bucks — all teams ahead of them in the conference.

Embiid is gearing up for that slate but didn’t look all that rusty Tuesday aside from his five turnovers. Most importantly, he said his finger wasn’t in any pain.

“No, it's not,” Embiid said. “I'm fine. I'm wearning a lot of straps on it. I will probably blame that on the amount of turnovers I had today. So that was the reason, but I'm wearing a lot of straps on it so takes a lot of adjustment, but it's fine.”

With the Sixers beginning to pull away in the fourth, Embiid got the ball in the post on Eric Paschall. It was an obvious mismatch and Embiid went to work. With a double team looming, Embiid turned toward the baseline.

He hit a fadeaway. Wearing No. 24. Earning his 24th point of the game.

“Well, that was cool. I didn't know it was actually 24 points as I shot that fadeaway — that was what [Kobe] was about. I actually yelled ‘Kobe.’ A lot of us, since I started playing basketball, that's how we've always done it. You shoot something in the trash and you just go ‘Kobe,’ so that was cool. And then for it to be the 24th point and me wearing 24 means a lot.”

It was a fitting end to a difficult night.

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Zhaire Smith changes number to honor Kobe Bryant, has keepsake for his future 'man cave'

Zhaire Smith changes number to honor Kobe Bryant, has keepsake for his future 'man cave'

Zhaire Smith scored the first NBA basket of his second professional season Tuesday night, driving in for a dunk early in the second quarter of the Sixers’ 115-104 win over the Warriors at Wells Fargo Center.

His teammates enjoyed that moment, but the 20-year-old had earned their respect before he’d done anything on the court. Smith, who’d previously worn No. 8, had on a No. 7 jersey Tuesday night. He’s decided to wear No. 5 moving forward, a number that he says has no real significance to him. (No. 5 wasn’t available Tuesday and No. 7 was a temporary replacement.)

Smith made that decision to honor the life of Kobe Bryant. On Sunday, Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were two of nine people who died in a helicopter crash. 

“When I decided, they respected me and gave me dap,” Smith said of his teammates. 

Bryant is the reason Smith had gone with No. 8. The Sixers have retired No. 2 in honor of Moses Malone, which would have been his first choice.

“Pre-draft, I really wanted 2 to come out of [Texas] Tech, but that’s retired,” he said. “And then I found out 8 was available and I said, ‘Oh, that’s Kobe.’ So, I did that for him.”

Smith isn’t usually one for extended, elaborate answers, but he added a little humor to a largely somber night with a tale about how he once tried to emulate Bryant. 

“I think I heard one of his stories where he was in the gym since 6 a.m., went home, came back,” he said. “I tried to do that for one day but my body was dead, so I never did that again.” 

Tuesday’s game was just the eighth of Smith’s NBA career. After being acquired by the Sixers in a draft-night trade, he’s broken his foot, suffered a severe allergic reaction, had feeding tubes in his stomach, lost and regained over 35 pounds and played 30 G-League games. Oh, and he sprained his left ankle Saturday night vs. the Lakers in his first NBA action of the season.

With the Delaware Blue Coats, Smith has been “hunting threes” and working on refining his guard skills after playing power forward in his lone year at Texas Tech. Still, his trademark quality is his athleticism. 

While Smith isn’t a scorer in Bryant’s mold and has been taught to avoid most two-point shots outside of the paint, he admired the five-time NBA champion’s game and referred to him as his “idol” growing up. 

“His fadeaway,” Smith said. “Even though that’s kind of a bad shot in the league right now, that was unguardable.”

Surrounded by a scrum of reporters likely larger than any he’s seen since becoming a Sixer, there was one question of the flurry fired his way that especially made Smith light up.

He was asked what he planned to do with the warmup jersey hanging in his locker with “PHILA” on the front, Bryant’s name and the number 8 on the back. 

“I’m going to hang it in my man cave when I get a crib,” he said. “In about 10 years, it’ll be in my man cave.”

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