TORONTO, ON – MAY 07: Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers dribbles the ball during Game Five … [+] of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs against the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena on May 7, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Nary a day goes by that Ben Simmons doesn’t face a question about his jump shot.
That line of inquiry is understandable, as Simmons has yet to hit a single three-pointer across his first two NBA seasons. (He’s 0-of-17 from deep to date.) His reluctance to pull up and fire away from deep causes defenders to sag off him defensively and go under screens, daring him to shoot while clogging up the paint.
Although Simmons’ willingness to shoot will be the biggest storyline surrounding him heading into the 2019-20 season, it won’t single-handedly determine whether he has a successful year.
“This still isn’t the thing,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown told reporters after practice Thursday in reference to Simmons’ jumper. “To me, he’s a 23-year-old All-Star. It’s hugely important, and we understand that, especially in April, May and June. And we have to set the stage.
“But my center point that I still see the world with him is I think he can be the best defensive player in the NBA. I think he has to feature on an All-NBA Defensive team, because he can. He’s going to grow as a leader and a point guard, and I think the other stuff is just gonna progressively evolve.”
To Brown’s point, Simmons is fresh off a sophomore campaign during which he averaged 16.9 points on 56.3 percent shooting, 8.8 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.8 blocks en route to his first All-Star Game appearance. He did so while hitting exactly two jump shots 16 feet or further from the basket.
Simmons’ willingness to take jumpers will undeniably affect the Sixers’ offensive spacing, as teams won’t give him respect from the perimeter until he proves he’s a threat to pull up. The Sixers plan to station Simmons more around the three-point arc—particularly in the corners—when he’s off the ball, but opponents may outright ignore him regardless.
While Simmons pledged that he’ll take more three-pointers this season—”If it’s open, I’ll take it,” he told reporters during media day—that change of mentality wasn’t evident during the Sixers’ Blue/White scrimmage Saturday. But based on comments emanating from training camp, Sixers fans shouldn’t necessarily put too much stock into that small sample size.
“The good news is: How many shots has he passed up? There aren’t any,” Brown said Thursday. “I think that’s massive.”
“He’s definitely looking for his jumper more,” Tobias Harris added, per Mike O’Connor of The Athletic. “And you’re seeing guys now play him a little differently. Where guys like to go under him a lot, (now) because he’s looking for it, they’re forced to go over the top on him a little bit more than usual. So, he’s definitely improved.”
Regardless of whether Simmons’ three-ball becomes a legitimate weapon this season, he can raise the Sixers’ ceiling by improving in a few other specific areas.
Jimmy Butler’s departure in free agency this offseason will put more pressure on the Sixers’ perimeter defense. Although an elite rim protector like Joel Embiid can help to clean up mistakes, he alone won’t fuel the Sixers to a top-five defense this year.
Simmons is ready to answer the bell.
“I want to be the best defensive player on the team,” he said during media day. “So hopefully everyone on my team hears that, and they strive to do the same thing.”
The 6’6″ Josh Richardson—the Sixers’ shortest starter!—figures to largely defend ball-handlers. That means Simmons may wind up having to guard each opponent’s top wing threat, barring drastic defensive improvement from Harris.
Simmons helped to turn the tide in the Sixers’ first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets this past spring when he switched onto D’Angelo Russell after Game 1. His smothering defense cut the head off the snake of Brooklyn’s offense, although Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie still got theirs throughout the series.
If Simmons can make that type of defensive impact on a night-to-night basis throughout the regular season, Embiid won’t be the only Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Philadelphia.
On offense, Simmons will need to continue improving his control. Although he’s a dynamo in transition, he averaged an unsightly 3.5 turnovers per game last season, putting him in a tie with Embiid for the sixth-most leaguewide.
The best point guards in the league don’t always put their heads down and barrel toward the basket with reckless abandon. They poke and prod in a ballet of dribbles and jab steps before opening a lane and making their move (think prime Chris Paul).
As Simmons develops his change of gears, he’ll become that much more effective in the half court. Better free-throw shooting would help in that regard, too.
Simmons shot 60.0 percent from the charity stripe on 5.4 attempts per game last season, which was an upgrade over his 56.0 percent on 4.2 attempts as a rookie. However, he’ll need to become far more accurate from the line to prevent opposing teams from going to the Hack-a-Ben strategy in the fourth quarter of close games.
If Simmons nudges his free-throw percentage closer to 70, he might become an all-around better player. His scoring average would go up by virtue of his improved accuracy, and he might actively seek to draw contact on more drives to the basket if he knows a trip to the charity stripe will likely be a net positive for the Sixers.
At media day, Simmons confirmed his offseason work wasn’t just limited to improving his jump shot on offense.
“Yeah, we’ve been working on everything,” he said. “From ball-handling to touch around the rim, floaters, jumpers, threes, whatever it is. Just getting a consistent rhythm. And I feel confident.”
“… I don’t know what’s changed. I flipped a switch or whatever it was, but I feel locked in,” he added.” I feel ready. This summer’s been huge for me.”
Fretting about Simmons’ jump shot won’t go away any time soon. Even when he begins to attempt three-pointers—let alone make them—with some regularity, teams may continue to sag off him, much like they do with LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. You can live with an open three-pointer from those guys if you’ve walled them off in transition and loaded up in the paint.
However, a jump shot won’t single-handedly determine whether Simmons has a successful 2019-20 season. Locking in on defense, improving his control of tempo and becoming more accurate from the free-throw line would go a long way toward raising the Sixers’ ceiling, regardless of whether a three-point shot follows in tow.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Early Bird Rights.