The conversation around Ben Simmons often centers, in a hyper-focused, incredulous manner, on the one thing he does worse than any other regular point guard in the NBA. Sure, the many things he does well are part of the conversation, but they’re usually breezed through, or even swept aside.
It’s possible, though perhaps not the easiest task, to reconcile Simmons’ inability to shoot like a normal point guard with his ability to play like an abnormal, freakishly talented point guard. On the eve of his first All-Star Game, let’s give it a shot.
First things first
As a point guard, Simmons is unique as a shooter in two ways.
First, he rarely takes perimeter shots — 87.8 of his field goal attempts this season have been from less than 10 feet.
Second, he is very poor on the outside shots he does attempt — he’s made just 14 of 70 from 10 feet and out this season (20 percent).
The idea of him “keeping the defense honest” by pulling up for mid-range jumpers is appealing in theory. But there’s no evidence that, if he started doing so regularly, he’d have close to the success necessary to compel defenses to play him any differently.
The minor controversy about Simmons wanting to work with Magic Johnson this offseason — besides being rather bizarre and a source of good jokes — again linked the 22-year-old Australian with the Hall of Famer. It was a reminder of how similar Simmons is to Johnson, a massive guard with an exceptional all-around game.
Johnson, LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain (of course) and Simmons are the only players 6-foot-8 or taller to average 8.2 or more assists in a season, per Basketball-Reference. Simmons did it as a rookie.
This year, Simmons is averaging 16.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game. Oscar Robertson is the only other second-year player to ever exceed those numbers over the course of a full season.
When you watch Simmons gliding in the open floor, whipping the ball out to three-point shooters or attacking the rim himself, there’s a natural tendency to wonder what he could become. And when you watch him brick free throws late in games (he’s 50 percent from the foul line in the fourth quarter) and turn down open jumpers, it’s reasonable to wonder how much better Simmons will become, and not in a positive sense.
If he doesn’t improve his shot, will he ever become an “elite” player?
There are three relevant points to make here:
First, Simmons is already pretty darn close to an elite player. He’s a deserving All-Star this season.
Second, he has room to get better in other areas. For instance, he’s grown as a post player in his second year. Simmons has leaped from shooting 21 of 70 (30 percent) on post-ups as a rookie to 50 for 99 (50.5 percent) this season. Consistent defensive effort and turnovers are two parts of his game he should be able to improve.
Third, his shot is fundamentally flawed. Despite the emphasis on keeping his elbow under the ball during the offseason and in training camp, Simmons flares his elbow. He doesn’t get any backspin, has little arc, and generally doesn’t give the ball a great chance to go in the hoop.
While there are examples of players who developed their jumpers while in the NBA, it usually takes time. Before a late-career renaissance from long range, Johnson was a 19.2 percent three-point shooter in his first eight seasons. Al Horford made 21 three-pointers in the first seven years of his career before nailing 326, on 37.3 percent shooting, in the next three-plus years.
For Simmons, it’s all about attaining realistic goals in the near future — making strides from the foul line, avoiding defensive lapses and unforced turnovers and, most importantly, continuing to do the many things he already does at an All-Star level.
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