I’m in the camp that says the level of angst about Ben Simmons’ lack of three-point shooting wildly exceeds the actual gravity of the situation.
I’m also in the camp that says if Simmons ever gets to a point where he is shooting three threes a game and knocking down one of them, he will almost certainly establish himself as one of the 10-to-15 players in the league whose presence will make any team a contender regardless of his supporting cast.
Now, I know what you are thinking: that sounds like an oddly specific camp. And you’re right. The signage could be difficult to pull off. But there is room beneath our tent, and all are welcome. Feel free to bring cake.
There are a number of reasons why Simmons’ jump shot is once again a pertinent topic of conversation. Granted, there’s probably an equal number of reasons to think that we are at the same point we’ve been plenty of times before, and that the current batch of scuttlebutt trickling out of Orlando will only serve to exacerbate everyone’s battle weariness. But you shouldn’t completely discount the possibility that the next two or three months will yield the expansion of Simmons’ offensive game that everyone has been waiting for. In a recent video published on his YouTube page, Simmons made sure to include a series of clips of him knocking down shots from outside the paint, as well as a verbal exchange in which Pistons guard Tony Snell tells him that he should be shooting more and Simmons responds by saying, “Orlando.”
While it would be a mistake to read too much into the production decisions of most players’ personal marketing campaigns, Simmons has always been a player who acts and speaks with a level of deliberate intention that makes it difficult to attribute the inclusion of such a sequence to whimsy. Couple this with Brett Brown’s recent claim that Simmons has shot more threes in three days of practice than he had in the previous half of a season, and it isn’t a stretch to think that, this time, change is truly at hand.
“He looks good, he feels good, and I know he’s getting tremendous encouragement from his teammates,” Brown said.
Simmons has always struck me as someone with a unique enough mixture of self-awareness, perfectionism, and feel for the moment to assume that any alteration in his game will reveal itself on his terms alone, and that the most important of those terms will be his ability to execute with a level of efficiency that he deems acceptable. Furthermore, he has always come across as the kind of person who would secretly fantasize about proving people wrong in the loudest and most dramatic way possible.
That is to say that I’ve always partially assumed that whenever he starts shooting threes, he will immediately begin doing it with a success and frequency that dominates headlines and allows him to field the ensuing flurry of questions with the same level of quiet, almost smirking, self-confidence that he always brings to the post-game podium.
He has never struck me as a guy who would be satisfied with a development arc that starts with him taking a gratuitous three-pointer or two per game and follows a gradual upward curve from there. He strikes me as a guy who wants to come out in a high-leverage situation and drop three or four of them over a stunned defense, each time back-pedaling down the court with a subtle nod to the crowd that says, “Are you not entertained?”
To be clear, I respect this sort of mentality. The hand-wringing about Simmons’ reluctance to shoot has always been incommensurate with the overall utility that he brings to the court, particularly when compared to the progress toward self-actualization that most players have made at a similar age. The fact that Simmons has become as impactful of a player as he has without consistently scoring outside the paint should be one of the biggest reasons to be excited about his potential. Instead, it is regarded in a lot of circles of the Sixers fan base as evidence that he is not the sort of player whom the organization will ever be able to build a championship team around. Such thinking ignores previous examples of the shooting progress that young players have made. A decade ago, few people questioned Blake Griffin’s superstar credentials when he shot just 14-of-68 from three-point range in his first three years as a pro. Over the last four years, Griffin has averaged more than 200 attempts per season from behind the arc, connecting on a respectable 34.2% of them. Maybe Simmons’ shot never comes. But there’s little reason to assume that it won’t.
In fact, there’s a strong argument that says the NBA’s Orlando re-start will be the perfect place for Simmons to finally deploy the hundreds of hours of work that he has put in over the last three years. While I don’t necessarily buy the notion that his reticence to shoot has been a product of a fear of failure as much as it has been a product of his desire to be perfect, there is plenty of reason to think that he will feel considerably less pressure in a neutral environment that does not include entire sections of fans yelling at him to shoot the ball. The more important variables might be the four months of downtime that he had to work on his individual game following the NBA’s mid-March suspension of operations, along with the month of practice that the Sixers are getting leading up to their first game on Aug. 1.
The next three months are likely to be an inflection point for the Sixers. Orlando is the place where they need to prove a lot of things to a lot of different people, most notably their bosses, who will be forced to consider a number of different pivot points if the Sixers do not show some degree of progress toward a championship. Simmons has already established himself as one of the most impactful two-way players in the game, thanks to his continued ascension into the realm of elite defenders. If he finally shows an ability to stretch the court and create space for himself from the elbow and beyond, he could cement himself as a legitimate championship centerpiece and the undisputed keystone of the Sixers’ roster.