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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