On Monday night, Ben Simmons’ trainer Chris Johnson posted a series of video clips on Instagram, recorded by @swishcultures, that showed Simmons making three actual perimeter shots in an actual game-type environment.
Within an hour, ESPN’s SportsCenter tweeted the post, along with a shifty-eye emoji.
Twelve hours later, the montage had been viewed more than 1 million times and had generated almost 35,000 likes.
None of those likes came from any of the Sixers’ opponents. In fact, the NBA universe outside of the Sixers’ galaxy shuddered.
Because if Ben Simmons has a jump shot next season, it changes everything. In a landscape of NBA uncertainty in Golden State, Houston, Brooklyn, Boston, Milwaukee, and both Los Angeles franchises, Simmons with a J transforms the Sixers into favorites to win the NBA title. For the next three seasons.
That’s how good Simmons already is. That’s how much more unstoppable he becomes by adding basketball’s most basic skill. A viable outside shot, combined with the progress as a defender he displayed in the second round of the playoffs — added to the ballhandling, rebounding, passing, and scoring ability that made him Rookie of the Year in 2018 and an All-Star this past season — gives the Sixers two of the three most promising young players in the game, along with Joel Embiid. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks aren’t nearly as deep.
A competent jumper not only completely justifies the five-year, $170 million contract extension Simmons just signed, but it also makes it something of a bargain. Did the Sixers sign him because they discovered that Simmons suddenly seems able to shoot? A league source said no, it would have happened anyway.
Sixers coach Brett Brown has dropped off the grid until September, and general manager Elton Brand was unavailable to comment on the matter. But Brand did mention 11 days ago that Simmons was working on his game in Los Angeles, and the team monitors every player’s offseason regimen. The Sixers didn’t send Simmons to Johnson, but they won’t mind if Simmons comes back with more arrows in his quiver.
And what an arrow it might be.
First, if Simmons possesses a three-point shot that he can make even 30% of the time, then it will open up 8 to 10 feet of floor space for his teammates, particularly Embiid and newcomer Al Horford. They no longer would be effectively double-teamed by the defender dropping 8 to 10 feet off Simmons.
Second, if Simmons has the sort of serviceable, turn-around baseline jumper from 10 to 17 feet that he showed in the video, it would be an incredible weapon for a 6-foot-10, 230-pound point guard who often draws diminutive defenders. Not to mention how the long, tall Sixers will feast on weak-side rebounds. And let’s face it: There will be lots of weak-side rebounds.
A baseline jumper also makes Simmons a target for double teams, which, as a huge point guard, he will dissect with his superior passing skills. And he’ll always prefer to pass first.
Next, consider the potency of a pull-up jumper for a player with Simmons’ explosive first step and imposing physique. The defender might want to continue to give ground, but the threat of a jump shot would make even the most disciplined perimeter defender hesitate to sink off Simmons. It’s instinctive. That fraction of a second is a lifetime when you want to get a player on your hip.
And you know what pull-up-jumper guys can develop? A floater game: Those lovely, undefendable, 5-to-10-foot, old-school teardrops that assassins such as Stephen Curry and James Harden use to make shot-blockers look silly. What’s more, floaters are easy to turn into passes, which feed more primary offensive beats such as Embiid, Horford, and the team’s new go-to perimeter weapon, Tobias Harris.
More than anything, though, being comfortable shooting from the perimeter leads to improved free-throw efficiency. In his first two seasons, Simmons, who turned 23 on Saturday, has been too proud to even try jumpers or three-pointers because of his abhorrent form.
He occasionally was reluctant to go to the free-throw line, where that form not only is on display but also is framed for the entire audience to ridicule. Simmons made 56% of his free throws as a rookie, 60% last season.
If he’d shot 70%, he’d have averaged about a half-point more per game. But had he shot 70% and taken, say, just two more free throws per game (he averaged 5.4), then he’d have averaged 1.4 more points per game.
Perhaps we shouldn’t overstate what little we’ve seen. It was just three shots, and, while they were improvements over what we witnessed when last we saw Simmons shooting at practices and in pregame sessions in May, the form remains a work in progress, not a work of art.
But on the third shot in the clip, in which Simmons accelerates, stops short of the free-throw line, rises and shoots, his elbow is almost perfectly perpendicular to the floor; the ball in on his fingertips; and his left hand follows through directly at the front of the rim.
In that moment, he looks like one of Rick Barry’s sons.
The only other time you saw that motion in Sixers games is when Simmons had so badly missed the first of two free throws that, begrudgingly, for the second, he tucked in his elbow, bent his knees and followed through, his hand held high — the way his older brother Liam has told him to shoot for about 20 years, the last two as his personal shooting coach.
The video seems to have been posted in response to several stories that mocked Simmons’ decision to withdraw from the Australian national team and implied, logically, that he withdrew in part to avoid further scrutiny of his shot.
Perhaps those implications were unfair. After all, Tobias Harris said 11 days ago that, when he visited Simmons and worked out with him, Simmons was shooting better, and Tobias Harris is incapable of uttering falsehoods.
Johnson, a former pro himself, has made an industry of honing the offensive games of several NBA players, most notably Jimmy Butler, whom he helped turn into an All-Star. But these days, with these kids, it takes a village, so it’s not just Chris Johnson. Or Liam Simmons. It’s also Brown, and his staff, and the team’s shooting coaches, and Simmons’ peers and his teammates. But more than anything, it’s Simmons himself.
Only 25 of Simmons’ 960 field-goal attempts last season came from outside of 15 feet. He made two. He took just six threes. He made none. He missed all 11 threes he took as a rookie. After 17 tries, Simmons is 0-for-17.
Shaq was 1-for-17.
So, will Simmons be willing to fire jumpers and threes when the season begins? Who knows. Simmons himself probably doesn’t know.