The degree to which Simmons needs 3-point range is up for debate — I’ll get to that — but the degree to which people are interested in this subject is not. If Simmons attempts a 3 when the Sixers host the Guangzhou Long-Lions in a preseason game on Oct. 8, it will qualify as news. According to Philadelphia coach Brett Brown, Simmons will be encouraged to let it fly.
“For me, it starts here and here first, completely: the willingness to shoot,” Brown said at his annual media luncheon on Wednesday, via WIP’s Jon Johnson.
Brown continued: “The time that he has invested over the course of this summer is the best by a longshot that he ever has. His awareness of this thing, like in the marketplace — he’s prideful, he gets it. His confidence that I saw when he came back to Philadelphia and played in our gym over the past few weeks just stood out. It shone as if he had invested time and he was looking forward to showing us. Showing his teammates, me, proving it to himself.”
Until Simmons takes and makes jumpers in real games with consistency and without hesitation, expect a healthy amount of skepticism. He drives to the basket so powerfully that, even if he shows some improvement, many teams will elect to give him space and dare him to shoot. Brown doesn’t want him to “hunt 3s,” but, with the big picture in mind, will no longer park him in the dunker’s spot anymore.
“Once somebody has to be guarded, the rules change,” Brown said, via PhillyVoice’s Kyle Neubeck. “The holy grail in our sport is to avoid rotations. If Ben Simmons is coming off a pick-and-roll and he actually has to be hedged out on and rollers can get behind, or they’re not back just showing a crowd all the time on Joel [Embiid] … he has the ability to chew up space both on and off the ball in a way that can be harmful [to opponents]. He’s coming out of a cannon.”
In training camp, Brown said, he might have Simmons’ defender stand all the way in the paint just to see if he handles it differently. For those who believe that Simmons must get comfortable shooting off the dribble, this sounds delightful. So, too, does Simmons telling the Associated Press’ Rob Maadi that he “fell in love with the game” again this summer and has learned how to block out criticism to the point where he no longer cares if he misses a shot.
This does not, however, sound delightful to everyone. You might be reading all of this shaking your head, frustrated that every discussion of this 23-year-old seems to be about his biggest weakness, wanting to scream that there has never been a player of Simmons’ size who is as fast as him in transition, whose passing earned Magic comparisons and whose strength earned LeBron comparisons. Perhaps, instead of dwelling on how his lack of range limits Philadelphia in the playoffs, there should be more stories about how he shut down D’Angelo Russell in the first round and competently defended Kawhi Leonard in the second round.
This point of view is frequently articulated by Ben Detrick on the Cookies Hoops podcast. In January, Detrick wrote the definitive defense of Simmons for The Ringer, arguing that, while Simmons would be better with a reliable jump shot, he doesn’t need one. In Detrick’s view, the hand-wringing about this says more about viewers than it does about Simmons:
People fear what they do not understand. And Simmons is a curiosity who defies our philosophical, positional, and spatial ideas about contemporary basketball. What if the seething hostility has nothing to do with facts, stats, or fit? What if it’s the visceral and emotional reaction to watching a professional athlete turn down shots that 40-somethings with bulky knee braces let fly at the Tuesday-night run? What if everything is, like, you know, OK?
Watching him spurn open looks a dozen feet from the hoop is jarring. In a way, it’s unsurprising that criticism mostly spews from people who routinely see him play (as opposed to those who sift through his stat lines). But the discomfort some viewers experience from watching Simmons doesn’t mean concerns about spacing, cohabitation with other Sixers stars, or his passion for greatness are legitimate.
On Monday’s episode of The Full 48 podcast, host Howard Beck asked ESPN’s Zach Lowe if people are focusing too much on Simmons’ jump shot. Lowe said no — the people who call Simmons a fraud are wrong, but his lack of shooting range matters, especially against high-level competition. I do not disagree with anything Lowe said, but this is the point in the column where I must admit that as fascinating and original as Simmons’ game is, this whole thing is driving me insane.
My gripe: there should be a clear distinction between what a 3-point shot would mean for Simmons and what it would mean for the 76ers. Simmons is already an incredible player without a jumper. He can guard five positions, he’s unstoppable in transition and it doesn’t require much imagination to conceive a championship-caliber offense built around him — just watch a game from the final few weeks of the 2017-18 season and pretend that some of those shooters could also make plays. If he never meaningfully improves as a shooter, he can still make the Hall of Fame. He can win titles as long as he has teammates that compensate for his weaknesses. No one is going to talk about Dwyane Wade‘s relationship with the 3-point line at his jersey retirement ceremony.
At the same time, this iteration of the Sixers does need Simmons to become a perimeter threat. It is not his fault that whatever happened to Markelle Fultz happened, nor is it his fault that Jimmy Butler is gone, Embiid’s 3-point shot is a work in progress and Philadelphia is in win-now mode. All of these things, however, add up to a reality in which there is real pressure on Simmons to develop his jumper so he can more effectively run pick-and-rolls and space the floor like a more conventional point guard. The Sixers do not have a bunch of wings who scare opposing defenses with the ball in their hands, and their franchise player wants post touches. Of course, people are obsessing over Simmons’ shooting — it might be the difference between competing for a championship and being eliminated in the second round.
Before blaming the franchise for creating this situation, it bears repeating that Fultz was supposed to be the player who connected Simmons and Embiid. The No. 1 pick of the 2017 draft projected to be a future star who could play on and off the ball, score from everywhere and guard multiple positions. It’s also relevant that Simmons has continually said that he sees himself as a point guard, and that Butler was relegated to a role player on offense for much of his time in Philly. Nonetheless, it feels unfair to demand that a 6-foot-10 player add a pull-up 3 to his arsenal at this stage of his career.
After Brown’s comments and Simmons’ summer of work, if Simmons launches even a single jumper against Guangzhou, there will be a conversation about his form and his comfort level. Inevitably, that discussion will connect to the Sixers’ chances of winning a title. It does not, however, have to turn into a referendum on Simmons himself.