Neither Ben Simmons nor Sixers head coach Doc Rivers sound very concerned with the 24-year-old All-Star's jumper. That does not mean, however, that Simmons has been neglecting it.
Simmons said Monday after the Sixers’ second training camp practice of the 2020-21 season that he’s been working on his shot with assistant coach Sam Cassell.
“Prior to training camp starting we would just go to the floor, work out — a lot of mid-range game, a lot of corner spot-up threes, lane threes, finishing around the rim,” he said on a virtual call with reporters. “A bit of everything. And then more so into training camp after practices and before, getting a lot of shots and reps up.”
For now, Rivers is firm in his indifference about whether Simmons attempts those looks in games. He didn’t mention any outside shooting exploits Monday but was nevertheless very pleased with Simmons’ practice showing.
"Just being a terror,” Rivers said of what he wants from Simmons. “Playing, going down downhill, making guys guard you, being aggressive, being a facilitator. In transition, we want to open the floor and get the ball to Ben. … He had a good practice yesterday. He had an off-the-charts practice today. When Ben has the ball, he’s very effective in open space. I think we all know that, right?
“When Ben doesn’t have the ball, we have to make someone guard him every single time. What that means is cuts, is flashes, is setting picks. He was so active doing that today, it was amazing. Today Joel (Embiid) had four or five post-ups where Ben got a dunk or someone got a three. We have to work against traps with Joel every day. Ben’s going to have a fun year this year.”
Simmons’ off-ball awareness was noticeably lacking at times last season, and there weren’t many occasions when he darted free off Embiid double teams in the way Rivers described. Embiid assisted on 24 Simmons field goals last year, per NBA.com/Stats. In general, Brett Brown’s preferences were to have improvisational off-ball movement around Simmons post-ups and to be “a little bit more static” around Embiid to simplify his outlets. That’s perhaps one factor in Simmons and Embiid not previously having a massive amount of direct offensive collaboration, something Rivers hopes to change.
“… One thing I think we’re really trying to get them to do is to play more two-man games with each other,” Rivers said. “They had a great one today that was just an instinctive action. (Assistant coach) Dave Joerger and I were laughing, like, ‘You’re not stopping that.’ But they have to do it instinctively more than us always having to call it. If they can do that, they’re going to be tough to stop.”
With less chance than ever to ease into this season because of COVID-19-related restrictions, exploring these new avenues will be a process for Simmons and Embiid. To Simmons, there are already reasons for optimism.
“Just connecting and building our chemistry in terms of where and when he wants me to cut,” he said. “Me reading the defense and knowing when I should cut, get to the rim, slash, or whether I’m spotting up and shooting the shot. So just reading off Jo. We’re going to continue to get better and build our chemistry on the floor, especially with this new team and new players surrounding us. I think it’s just going to be great, because everybody’s really buying in.”
Another interesting topic Simmons touched on Monday is his pairing with the big man who will be backing up Embiid, Dwight Howard. The eight-time All-Star, who turns 35 years old on Tuesday, has a much different game than Al Horford. Asked to name players besides Embiid who have stood out in the early days of training camp, Simmons identified Howard and cited his vocal leadership.
“He can run and jump,” Simmons said. “If I’m getting to the rim, whether it’s a quick pick or a step-up in transition, I know he can go get a lob. But him rolling hard to the rim is also going to draw the defenders down, so I’ll also have that weakside option. It could be Tyrese (Maxey), it could be (Matisse Thybulle), it could be Seth (Curry) or Danny (Green). Anybody could be on the opposite side. So it’s tough to guard.”
Indeed, Howard is more of a screener and roller than Horford, and he also has an edge in athleticism. Lineups with Horford and Simmons, though, fared well for the Sixers in just about every area besides rebounding and free throw rate. Overall, the Sixers had a plus-6.4 net rating in 1,951 possessions with that pair on the court and Embiid off it, per Cleaning the Glass.
Howard should swat shots, slam home lobs and rebound better than Horford, but it remains to be seen how impactful the drop-off in passing and shooting ability will be, especially next to Simmons. One major positive for the Sixers is that, unlike Horford, Howard shouldn’t be asked to regularly share the floor with another big man.
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