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May 16, 2019

Can Ben Simmons' brother teach him how to shoot? The Sixers will hope so

Over the last two years, Ben Simmons has been asked so many times about the development of his jump shot that he has very little left to add on the subject. Unless the idea is to "break" the interview subject as if you're interrogating them — and we're not covering national security here — eventually there just isn't much more to say. Simmons needs to be able to shoot, and everyone understands this.

The burning question, then, is whether or not the structure is in place around Simmons to get him where he needs to go. And that's a lot trickier to figure out, as Simmons prepares for another summer working with his brother on his jumper.

Ask anyone involved with the NBA and they'll tell you the offseason is when players make the most progress in the skills department. Guys put in extra work during the season, certainly, and a story about a guy getting up shots after a loss always plays well to the audience, but nothing compares to having an entire summer to drill through the same things over and over again, day after day.

While discussing the summer ahead for rookie Zhaire Smith, Brett Brown emphasized this fact at his end-of-season availability.

"You've got five months, four-and-a-half months, so-called off. This is the time people advance," Brown said. "This is the time where people have a chance to improve, because of the rhythm beat of an NBA season drags you up, the current just drags you up. The summertime is where you set the table to have an improvement base that I believe he's gonna have."

For Simmons, that means a lot of time spent working with his older brother, Liam Tribe Simmons. The Simmons family has entrusted one of their own to take their young prodigy to the next level, and out of fairness to the 31-year-old, he does have a basketball background of his own. Liam played college ball at San Diego Christian College, and was an assistant coach at Nicholls State, Southwest Baptist University, and Cal-Riverside before signing up to mentor his younger brother. And his commitment level can't be questioned, with the elder Simmons following his brother around for extra workouts deep into the postseason.

Being a high-level trainer or coach at the NBA level does not require prolific history as a player. Drew Hanlen, whose work with clients like Joel Embiid has made him a household name, topped out at 10.8 points per game as a senior at Belmont in the Atlantic Sun. Chris Brickley counts dozens of NBA players as clients, from C.J. McCollum to Carmelo Anthony to Donovan Mitchell, and he played just 31 minutes across two seasons at Louisville, a school he only transferred to because he was friends with assistant coach Richard Pitino at Northeastern University.

But the question isn't necessarily whether Simmons' older brother is a basketball savant (though obviously, that would help). It's whether he's going to be able to break down Simmons' walls when he needs to, challenge him when he is stubborn or resistant to change, and navigate the line between sibling and coach.

The Simmons family has long believed they are capable of getting through to him in a way others aren't. When Howard Eskin or another obnoxious media type is flapping his gums at a press conference, it's fairly easy to tune that out. When you are being confronted by people who love you and have raised you, it's a little tougher to ignore. Their circle is a small one, but it is a tight one, and there are benefits to taking that approach that isn't necessarily visible to the public. 

"With the family, I think there is an insulation in a good way to call him out, to help him get into a gym. There’s not any sort of head fakes or fear of choice words to get into a gym and work, and to Ben’s credit, that hasn’t been pulling teeth, he has put in time," Brown said this week. "Who he will be working with this summer is still being discussed... His brother will continue to work with Ben, I believe he said that, and I endorse it. I think that it’s a relationship that I don’t see at all harmful. In fact, I think it has a chance to be very productive."

If that is to be the case, we haven't seen a lot of visual evidence yet. Simmons' mechanics are still mostly a mess in the shooting department, as it often looks like parts of his body are fighting one another instead of working in tandem. A flailing elbow here, awkward hand placement there, and inconsistent lower-body mechanics fuel theories like the popular meme that says he should begin shooting with his more dominant right hand and start over.

The one offseason of evidence we have to judge the partnership on, meanwhile, isn't necessarily one that makes you believe Simmons has a 50/40/90 season in his future.

Stat Simmons in 2017-18 Simmons in 2018-19 
 FT% (FTA per game)56.0 (4.2) 60.0 (5.4) 
% of FGA taken from 10-16 feet17.4 7.7
 FG% from 10-16 feet 31.625.7 

Simmons' slight progress at the free-throw line was an important first step, but it did not ultimately translate to better shooting from mid-range. In fact, Simmons' willingness to take those mid-range jumpers actually decreased in 2018-19, with most of those attempts being converted into shots at the rim instead. The shots elsewhere are on such low volume that they are basically unusable data, but I'm not spoiling things for anyone to say he still has yet to make an NBA three.

If Simmons had been successful on the smaller volume of shots from mid-range, no one would question this change in shot distribution. It's very 2019 in a lot of ways; the mid-range two is a low-value shot in comparison to looks at the rim, where Simmons did improve this past season. But when you consider how poor he was when he did take those mid-range shots and the average shot we saw him take there — typically a fading, awkward-looking attempt from the mid-post area — it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence that this will be a summer of big progression.

The Sixers have made it clear this will not be a one-man job this offseason. Elton Brand told reporters discussions were underway to surround Simmons with "best in class" people to help him progress as a player, and that when Simmons is on organization time, there are other voices in the room he will have to listen to.

"We're looking forward to putting the people around him so we can grow his game. So personally he can work with whoever he wants but as a staff, we're going to put in place people that he can work with also," Brand said. "I would never ask him not to work with his brother. What he wants to do personally on his time, that's on his time...He works with our coaches during our time. And I have a great relationship with his agent Rich Paul and he also has people that he wants him to work with."

Philadelphia's free-agency plans will dominate discussion of the team for most of the summer, and for good reason. The Sixers are in a position where they basically have to keep Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris around to keep the team on a path towards contending.

But as one of the team's true building blocks, few things are more important than Simmons' development of this most basic basketball skill. We will see if he ultimately has the right messenger alongside him.

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