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December 02, 2017

Sixers Mailbag: Why isn't Ben Simmons a good free-throw shooter yet?

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Losses to the Cavaliers and Celtics may leave a sour taste in the mouths of some Sixers fans, but think about where the team sits today. They are 12-9 having played the toughest schedule in the league, and outside of the Markelle Fultz weirdness, things have gone fairly smoothly. While knocking on my hardwood floor, I type the following sentence: Joel Embiid has been a constant presence in the lineup, and Ben Simmons has been the best rookie by some measure.

Not everyone is satisfied, however. And that's okay! Let's talk about some of the issues you're all worried about this week, and as always, if you have any questions you want answered, feel free to email me, tweet me, or use the comments below to sound off.

I got a lot of questions and musings related to the Simmons free-throw "problem" this week, so let's combine a few thoughts on this one. Here's the heart of the question: why is it an issue, and why wasn't it (better) solved with a year off?

I'll just come right out and say it: Sixers fans are getting a little greedy when it comes to their rookies, or at least when it comes to Simmons. Embiid sort of spoiled everyone for being one of the most transformative rookies we've seen in the last 20-30 years, and Simmons hasn't exactly done a bad job of following that up. When you're mentioned in the same breath as Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson, you're doing okay for yourself.

What Simmons has been doing is not anywhere close to as easy as he makes it looks. While he has always had the ball in his hands a great deal, he has never been asked to run an offense to the degree he is now. Being in charge of an NBA offense is a massive responsibility, and Simmons has excelled at controlling the game as a lead ballhandler. He controls the pace of the game, creates open shots for his teammates, and continues to build chemistry as the passer and finisher in jumbo sets with Embiid.

Simmons being as big and fast as he is does not mean his ability to use that to his advantage is a given. The league's history is littered with great athletes who never supplemented their physical talents with the proper skill or mental sharpness. That is not the case with Simmons, who leverages his strength and size to get good looks for everyone.

That, at the very least, is a product of the work he has put in so far. Simmons has an awareness beyond his years on the court, which Brett Brown will tell you was improved during film sessions with the coach during his year off. There's not a percentage we can point to in order to prove the merit of that belief, but I think it's a very real thing.

When it comes to free throws, yes, it's disappointing that Simmons isn't better than he currently is. But I think there's little evidence to support the idea he hasn't worked on his craft, even as it applies to free throws. When the media attends practices and shootarounds, Simmons is at the line after practice has concluded 99/100 times, getting extra reps to prepare for the next game.

There are lots of theories out there on what the issue is, and many believe Simmons is simply shooting with the wrong hand. I could certainly buy this, because his natural inclination is to drive to his right and throw long passes with his right. I also think he's in a unique position where if this is the case, he can actually try to make the switch full-time. It's not as though his current jump shot is integral to his game, and an offseason spent focusing on building the mechanics with his more natural hand could do wonders.

Or maybe he never switches, and he has to make it work with the left. In that case, the big thing they need to stress to him is repetition and using his legs. The problem with his current form is two-fold: he doesn't seem to have a set plan at the line, and there's too much reliance on his upper body in his mechanics.

I am nowhere near as concerned about this as others seem to be. I hope we won't have to discuss it much beyond the crazy Wizards strategy.

Top-five sounds bold, but there's a solid argument to be made for Covington among that group. If you want to see the full draft class list and argue your own case, the full results at Wikipedia can be viewed here.

The guys I would for sure take over him in a pure draft scenario—team context aside—are Giannis Antetokounmpo, CJ McCollum, and Rudy Gobert. I don't think there's any credible argument to be made that Covington should go over those guys, so we can say his absolute ceiling is at No. 4.

That's when the tricky part starts. There are lots of guys who are solid contributors from that class, but it's a pick your poison scenario. Would you rather have Steven Adams or Robert Covington? They're not really comparable players, and the question rests on what you're looking for on a modern NBA team. Before the year I might have said I want Covington over Victor Oladipo moving forward, but the latter has come out burning down the nets in Indiana.

Let's put him between those guys and drop Covington at the No. 5 spot. between Oladipo at No. 4 and Adams at No. 6. There are other contributors worth considering and comparing to Covington—Dennis Schroder, Tim Hardaway Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope among them—but I will roll with Covington's consistently excellent defense and streaky shooting over the rest of that bunch.

Like a lot of the Sixers outside of Simmons and Embiid, I think Dario is good at certain things. His biggest problem this season is being placed in a role that doesn't mesh perfectly with his strengths, and he is in the process of making it work despite that dynamic.

Let's talk about some positive. Saric has been consistently excellent creating second chances for the Sixers, and weirdly enough, it is because of the same setup that is making life tough for him on offense otherwise. Because he's often stationed on the perimter and asked to knock down threes, Saric also has the advantage of looking at the trajectory of shots from release until they hit the rim. He can get a full head of steam going and pick out the exact spots balls will ricochet to, enabling him to keep possessions alive.

For a player who does not count verticality among his strengths, this is invaluable. No one has ever questioned Saric's awareness and effort, and when he's able to better see the game, he can make plays.

The downside is that they need him to be more than an offensive rebounder. Dating back to the beginning of his rookie year, Brown has repeatedly stressed the importance of Saric's growth as a shooter. With improvement, everything on the floor opens up for him, but without it, he is more of a sparkplug player than a key contributor.

If you're looking for good news, Saric has made an improvement as a three-point shooter this year. He's up to almost 35 percent from three after shooting 31.1 there last season, and he has had stretches where he is lights out from downtown. Playing with both Simmons and Embiid, he should be able to hover at least that high given the quality of looks he is getting.

I don't think Saric will ever be a plus defender, but the Sixers don't really need him to be. If he offers offensive versatility through shooting and passing, in addition to creating a few plays every night with sheer effort, he'll stick around for a long time. It's always worth remembering this: outside of the very best players in the league, every guy in the NBA is dependent on the proper context. So long as he's not asked to do too much, I would take a gamer like Saric any day.

I take lots of potshots at the Celtics, and there is part of me that believes they are not as good as they tend to look in the regular season. But I think the suggestion they don't matter to the Sixers is taking that too far, and these two franchises appear destined to collide over the next half-decade.

The primary thing the Celtics have going for them is flexibility. Jayson Tatum has been better than many thought he would be out of the gate, which changes the calculus for their current hopes and what they can offer in trade packages. They have a boatload of young guys powering them to their excellent start, and they're still owed several interesting picks over the next couple seasons that could really set them up perfectly over the long-term.

Getting Kyrie Irving allows them to split the difference between competing now and building for the future. It feels like he has been in the league forever because the Cavaliers were on such a high pedestal once LeBron James went home, but Irving doesn't turn 26 until the spring. Getting him for what should be his prime years will help the Celtics offset Al Horford fading in his mid 30's, and buy the Celtics time to allow their young wings to develop.

Unlike some of the other teams with young talent in the Eastern Conference, I also think Boston is always a realistic threat to sign impactful free agents, which differentiates them from some of the small-market clubs. I would take Giannis over anybody on the Celtics roster, but is any impact player signing up to play in Milwaukee in order to join him? Boston might not draw players like Los Angeles can, but the franchise does have some cache among players.

Ultimately, I think the Sixers have the two best prospects of the group and would extend that to three if Markelle Fultz returns and looks as he did at Washington. My expectation is for them to overtake the Celtics when they hit their stride. Do not confuse that with dismissing Boston and their ability to make life difficult for Philadelphia's best-laid plans.

This sort of depends on what you mean by two-guard. Do I think Fultz could be starting by the end of this year? Absolutely. But even when that happens, the Sixers' roster construction is going to challenge conventional lineup wisdom.

If Fultz returns to the starting lineup, the odd man out of the current starting group is going to be Saric. In that grouping of Fultz/Redick/Covington/Simmons/Embiid, I would argue you are going to see him playing more like a point guard or a combo guard than he is as a straight up two guard.

The important part of the equation is on defense, where Fultz is 100 percent going to be tasked with guarding the opposing point guard. Simmons and Covington are both capable of switching onto guards for spells, and Redick has done the same against more wing-heavy teams, but Fultz will get that full-time responsibility when he's up to speed. Simmons and Covington are best suited to guard the wings, and Redick's ideal role is reversing the work he does on offense, chasing shooters around a maze of screens.

Offensively, we still don't have a great read of how Fultz fits into the plans because of how off he looked to start the year. I think they want him to be in constant attack mode, adding outside shooting and a spicing up of their offense with slashing to the rim they don't get from other wings. But he's also going to be tasked with taking some of the playmaking burden away from Simmons both as a leader of bench units and in tandem with his fellow rookie.

I'll say it until I'm blue in the face, but the Sixers need another guy who can create easy buckets for himself and others. Fultz, even after his jumper went missing, proved capable of doing that.

If we look beyond this year, what Fultz's true role will be on offense will be determined by who the Sixers bring in through the draft and free agency. I will say that I think you shouldn't look at Fultz in binary terms, and that's part of the reason the Sixers valued him so highly. The skill set he showed in college was fluid enough to switch between playmaking and getting buckets at a moment's notice, and the Sixers need him to do both if they're to reach their ceiling.

More importantly, we need to see exactly what we're dealing with in Fultz when he does make his return. I am still confident he will prove his worth over time, but given the circumstances, it could take some rough stretches and lots of developmental time to round him back into fighting shape.