February 10, 2019
If anyone is familiar with the conversation surrounding Ben Simmons' shooting, it's his head coach and the rest of his teammates. They don't focus on it and choose to laud him for the rest of his gifts, but it is clear that Simmons developing a three-point shot would transform his game, and thus the Sixers.
They were as surprised as anybody else when he waltzed down the court and attempted a three against the Lakers on Sunday afternoon.
"I was getting ready to run the play, and then I literally just saw the ball go over," Joel Embiid said after the game, "and then I was like, oh, shit! It caught me off guard. And then I'm in a position where I'm like, what just happened? I thought it was in."
Before you look at this as Embiid talking down to his teammate or chiding him for the weakness everyone knows he has in his game, the big man made sure to follow up the comic relief with a genuine message of encouragement. They see how Simmons goes to work, and they want him to make sure he isn't shy.
"I wish he would have made it. He's been working on it. Every day we tell him, you got to shoot it. There's nothing wrong with [taking open shots and missing]. I'm a 30 percent three-point shooter, and you got guys who still jump on my fake," said Embiid. "Every day he works on it, and I think it's coming. That was the first step, and I hope that he keeps shooting."
Simmons, as usual, downplayed any break from his usual in-game routines as a product of what the game had given him. LeBron James made a mockery of Simmons' shooting ability, camping out at the free-throw line and below for a good chunk of the game, and Simmons pivoted out of that observation by noting it makes dribble handoffs with JJ Redick a hell of a lot easier.
There is some truth to that, certainly, but Simmons recognizes this is a break from his usual game flow, even if he won't acknowledge it publicly. The question is whether that changes in any meaningful way moving forward.
It was not an ordinary Simmons game on offense, and perhaps because this is no longer an ordinary team. Simmons did not shy away from a one-on-one matchup with LeBron James, taking a variety of fadeaway jumpers and tough shots over his mentor on Sunday, failing to connect on most of them. You're not going to see a lot of games where Simmons finishes 3/13 from the field.
But it is that commitment to attacking that so many people, including his own teammates, are looking for from Simmons. Scared money don't make money, as they say.
"I loved it. Just to see that confidence, for him to be able to take it, I really believe that's the first step," Tobias Harris told reporters after the game. "My first couple years in the league, I wasn't labeled a three-point shooter. The first step is confidence, the next after that is continued reps, and once he starts being able to knock that three down, he's going to be the full package out there."
The Sixers are quick to note the strengths of Simmons' game whenever they get the chance. His passing, his strength and size, and most importantly his defense, where he can leave a mark on the game even when he doesn't have a good night on offense.
Simmons did that on Sunday afternoon, playing excellent on-ball defense on James. He's one of the few players in the league who can respond with the combination of size and speed it takes to slow down James, and with his mentor held under 20 points on Sunday, the Sixers had an easy path to victory.
There's just always an element of, "Yeah, but..." with Simmons because of how last season ended. The Boston Celtics schemed him out of the series, and the memory of that five-game defeat lingered in the organization all summer. It still hangs here today as they approach the end of the regular season. His head coach couldn't help but mention that series in his post-game musings on Sunday.
Based on what Brett Brown has had to say, we could see some experimentation with Simmons' role and/or shot attempts between now and mid-April, in the interest of making sure he's ready for a team like Boston in a playoff setting.
"He and I spoke about this notion for a little bit in the past 24 hours," Brown said on Sunday evening. "What's going to happen in the third third of the season? How do we better help you prepare for the playoffs [and] what's coming?...we have a window of 27 or whatever amount of games left, and I'd like to try some of this stuff prior to the All-Star break, and take off with it in the final third."
As the toughest part of their schedule comes to a close, the Sixers will suddenly have room to throw things at the wall and see what works, all without sacrificing the ability to win now. Butler at point guard? Sure. Simmons taking more threes? Giddy up. The top-end talent in Philly creates a higher floor for the team, and while their ceiling is ultimately what matters in the playoffs, that floor matters a great deal during this period of uncertainty and experimentation.
They all seem to be embracing the unknown. And even if it takes touches away from their other stars, that appears to include more shooting from Simmons. They know how critical he is to their present and future, and they want to make sure he hears that message loud and clear.
"[They want me to] be more aggressive, take more open shots, and just try to grow my game in that way," said Simmons. "It takes time, but I'm going to get there."
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