Sam Cassell was animated and expressive as a player, known for chatting with his teammates, his rivals and anyone in the vicinity of the court who might lend an ear.
That hasn’t changed since he’s transitioned to coaching.
He’s been assigned to work with Ben Simmons and, according to head coach Doc Rivers, makes his displeasure known whenever the 24-year-old gives the ball away. Simmons did so just once Wednesday night as he posted a 17-point triple-double in the Sixers’ 107-106 win over the Lakers.
“Sam destroys him on every turnover,” Rivers said. “Even the one today, if you saw, (Simmons) was looking at the bench because Sam literally lost his mind on it. Sam is the turnover whisperer, I guess, right now, because he’s all over Ben about it. It’s important for us, especially down the stretch.”
Simmons confirmed that Cassell has indeed often vocalized the importance of avoiding turnovers.
“Yeah, Sam’s been on my ass, which is a good thing,” he said with a laugh. “He’s trying to help me. I’m the point guard, I have the ball in my hands a lot of the time, so I’ve got to take care of it. We’re trying to make sure teams don’t have fast breaks, and that starts with turnovers and not rebounding the ball. As long as I take care of the ball, lower my turnovers and find my guys and have high assists, I think we’ll be all right.”
Through his first 12 games this season, Simmons had a 23.0 turnover percentage, per Cleaning the Glass. His career-worst mark for a season entering this campaign was 18.0.
Over his last five games, though, Simmons’ turnover percentage has dropped to 11.6, an encouraging trend.
Seventeen games isn’t enough time to draw any grand conclusions. Still, it’s an area for Simmons worth watching, one of the ways he can enhance his versatile game and the Sixers’ chances of playoff success that doesn’t involve taking and making jumpers.
Among the goals he had before this season began were “trying to get to the line a lot more this year, be a threat at the rim and just play my game — get guys open and make plays.” He’s trending well on that first objective as he’s been fouled on a career-best 19.1 percent of his shot attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass. His 10-for-12 night at the foul line Saturday against the Pistons was a small positive sign, although such performances are not yet the norm for Simmons.
In terms of being a “threat at the rim,” Simmons recognizes there’s room for improvement. He set a strong tone on that front Wednesday, scoring six of the Sixers’ opening nine points, but he thinks it’s important to sustain an attacking mentality.
“I always try to stay aggressive,” he said. “Sometimes I’ve got to remind myself to stay that way. But just applying pressure — trying to apply pressure all night, not giving them any opportunities to slack or take breaks. Just going at them every time I have a chance.”
If Simmons is easing too much off of the gas, it sure seems Cassell will let him know. And, if he’s tossing head-scratching passes in pursuit of a rapid pace, there’s a good chance he’ll hear about that, too.
Cassell’s pregame workout routine with Simmons gives a glimpse into their growing partnership, and into Cassell’s willingness to speak his mind about technical tweaks.
As a notoriously loquacious NBA point guard for 15 seasons and an assistant coach since 2009, none of this is new territory for Cassell. Simmons is certainly a unique project, but it’s clear Cassell has no issues with credibility or comfort.
“Sam’s done wonderful work with a lot of guards throughout his career,” Rivers said of Cassell last month. “I think he excels in that area. I think his knowledge is great for Ben — what to run, when to run it, where to go, where to space, where to attack. I just think Sam’s terrific. I think he’s one of the better skill development guys in the league, and I don’t think it’s close.”