December 07, 2019
On a dreary Saturday night in December, Ben Simmons vaporized the Cleveland Cavaliers before they even know what hit them. Down two starters, the Sixers rolled to a massive victory anyway, and Simmons' career-high of 34 points paced all scorers and guaranteed the Sixers some rest heading into Sunday's meeting with Toronto.
There was plenty of time spent praising Simmons for his approach to Saturday's game. Brett Brown was thrilled to see his star pupil play downhill basketball, use tempo to his advantage with Joel Embiid out of the lineup, and ultimately put Cleveland out of its misery by the time the halftime buzzer sounded.
But Brown, who receives criticism in some corners for not being hard enough on his young stars, laid down a challenge for Simmons in the aftermath of that 47-point victory. Asked if there was a number of free-throws he wanted to see Simmons average per game, Brown took his response in a different direction.
"This is what I want, you can pass this along to his agent, his family, his friends, and to him, I want a three-point shot a game, minimum. The pull-up twos, I'm fine with whatever is open, but I'm interested in the three-point shot," Brown said. "And the mentality that he has when he's turning corners and he's taking that long step, that gather step, and bringing his shoulders to the rim and trying to dunk and finish tight, [that] will equal higher efficiency and getting fouled. That's the world that interests me the most, those two things."
Publicly, that is certainly a change of direction from Brown, who was spent most of the last three seasons insisting other areas of the game are more important for Simmons to focus on. The free-throw line has always been at or near the top of Brown's public list of priorities, with the head coach always stepping artfully around questions regarding Simmons' shot.
But this may have been the best possible time to do this. Simmons is flying high after the best offensive game of his career, having received overwhelming support from the home fans and his teammates after making his second career three.
BEN SIMMONS FOR 3!!! pic.twitter.com/7owiKscwYC— Did the Sixers Win? (@DidTheSixersWin) December 8, 2019
(I'm not sure what my favorite teammate reaction was — let's call it a tie between Norvel Pelle playing air guitar and Josh Richardson bashing a pair of three signs against his head.)
With all the positive reinforcement surrounding him, it was time to up the ante. And while Brown still says he feels there is a level of unnecessary drama about the whole thing, he understands the importance of the shot to the team's future. Just as importantly, he genuinely believes Simmons is capable of delivering.
"I think the drama of it is overblown, the reality that he can shoot and it ultimately is going to need to come into his game in a more pronounced way just from an attempt standpoint, that's not overblown," Brown said. "When I just put on my coaching hat and I look at a 23-year-old young man trying to grow his game, it's completely, first, in his wheelhouse, and secondly, he will be liberated. His world will open up, and I think in many ways so will ours."
Looking at the few three-point shots he has attempted, Brown has a point. As a catch-and-shoot player, Simmons has looked like a downright normal NBA basketball player this season. That is all they really need him to be — Philadelphia's future will be spent with the ball predominantly in Simmons' hands, and they simply need him to be a viable threat during the times when it is not. If he can be a release valve on the second side, that's all they need.
The million-dollar question: how Simmons feels about these shots? That they are coming at all shows a change in approach, minor though it may be. His only makes have come in games against pitiful competition, so skepticism on the outside is warranted.
There are signs of change in his demeanor on the subject. He laughs now when asked about his lack of reaction after the make — "What do you want me to do, celebrate?" — and willingly engages with the topic, a departure from his icy approach in the past. It's just important to remember the shot is the highlight people will remember, just not necessarily the driving force behind a dominant performance.
"I'm getting more comfortable, obviously. Throughout time, getting more comfortable with my game, just learning my spots and just adjusting," Simmons said when asked about Brown's demand after the game Saturday. "I just try not to force it, you know? I just try to play the game I know how to play without overthinking or listening to everybody else. With time, I'm getting better."
The balancing act is often harder than we make it on the outside. Simmons is tasked with being the point guard for two completely different styles: a screwed and chopped post team with Joel Embiid, a run-and-gun wrecking crew when the big man sits. He is tasked with getting everyone their touches, finding the right balance between searching for his and empowering his running mates.
The good news for Simmons is the coach behind him understands the balancing act is tricky, who makes these demands without trying to fundamentally change who he is. They just all know the piper has to be paid when mid-April hits.
"We talk all the time on the sidelines," Brown said. "He just wants to play, he doesn't want to be treated differently, he just wants to play. And so I walk that line respectfully of the world that he lives in, and I understand it. I too don't want to overdramatize this thing, and so it's a hard ecosystem to navigate, trying to draw plays or encourage him, it's like he saw something different and the game didn't dictate it, and he doesn't want to be a part of it, and I actually respect that."
"Somewhere in the middle, we hope we end up in a place that I hope trends more prominently than it has."
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