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Forget a jump shot, here’s what Ben Simmons really needs

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Ben Simmons’ game is just a few tools away from being elite.

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

I know a lot of Philadelphians don’t like him because he’s such a Boston homer, but I am a huge fan of the writer Bill Simmons. I often disagree with him, but I think his approach to sportswriting basically reinvented the genre, and while some of the folks who’ve followed in his rhetorical footsteps can be extremely annoying, overall I think he’s played a big role in massively improving the quality of sports and pop culture essays.

As an editor at Grantland and The Ringer he’s brought a number of terrific new voices to national attention, e.g. Shea Serrano. And then he started podcasting and, well, he’s great at that too! Oh, did I mention The Book of Basketball? If you haven’t read Simmons’ NBA tome, go get it and read it right now, it’s legitimately one of the ten most enjoyable non-fiction books I’ve ever read, and it’s a terrific work of social science to boot.

And while Boston and its teams will always be number one in his heart, perhaps because he has a son with the same name, he has become the most prominent booster of our own Ben Simmons outside of Philadelphians. I just heard him say Ben has top-20-of-all-time potential, which is something I wholeheartedly agree with, but not something that is as-yet a widely held view outside of Wawa country. Recently he crystallized something I’d been thinking about myself, and since I heard him say it before I wrote it up, I felt it only fair to give him his due before I dive into my own thoughts on the subject below.

Here it is: while it would be great for ben Simmons to develop a jumper, and even better if he can someday be effective from three, he really doesn’t need that to continue to push toward the very top of the NBA talent ladder. All Ben needs to go from his current top-20 status up to the super-elite level is:

1) Baby hook he can use near the basket.

2) Little floater so that when he’s driving, opponents won’t know for sure that he’s taking it all the way to the rim.

3) Improved free throws.

Remember, what so many feared was that, without a jumper, teams would just sag off him and leave him helpless in space. That turned out to have not one but two deathblow-level problems. First, if you back off of Ben, he can accelerate to full speed in the space between you, at which point you find yourself in the path of an onrushing freight train. Most players will, in such a case, make a business decision to get out of the way, and if they don’t, Ben has sufficient lateral quickness to go around them. Second, because of his height, court vision and passing ability, backing off Ben gives him clear airspace in which to find cutters and other open teammates.

So after a short experiment with backing off, teams will try what Miami has been trying, which is to get up in Ben’s grill. As we’ve seen, that doesn’t work great either. But to the extent that it works at all, the solution isn’t for Ben to improve his jump shot. I mean, of course a better jump shot would be wonderful, just one more weapon to bring to bear; if Ben wants to develop that, by all means please proceed!

But it would be more a luxury than a necessity for the Sixers’ offense. The thing that would bring immediate improvement is if Ben had more ways to finish within 10 feet. It seems as though no one can prevent him from getting that close, and when he gets there, we want him to have a greater arsenal of strategic options than the current choices of layup, one-hand slam, and two-hand super-slam. The floater and the hook shot would fill out the menu nicely; with those options at his disposal, there really won’t be any way for a single defender to stop him. And when they double-team him... well, he’s already one of the five best passers in the Association; he’s going to find the open man.

And here’s the beauty of this plan: it avoids the whole hand-switching perplex because: HE ALREADY SHOOTS HOOK SHOTS AND FLOATERS WITH HIS RIGHT HAND. This is where, were I not blind, I’d put in the appropriate Inigo Montoya GIF. I. Am. Not. Left. Handed!!

So, if you’re not already excited about Ben Simmons, it’s time to get excited. Look, I think there’s a decent chance Ben will develop a nice left-handed jumper, possibly out to three-point range, sometime in the next few years. I also think there’s a decent chance he’ll switch to right-handed shooting and find a solid jumper just waiting there for him; that would be amazing. But here’s what I am quite sure of: I am quite sure Ben Simmons is going to get better and better at right-handed hooks and floaters over the next one, two, three years and more. And putting those together with what he already does is going to put him among a rarified group at the top of the league.

As to free throws, I don’t have anything to add to what others have said. They are important. As he starts getting superstar treatment from the refs he’s going to go to the line more and more often, and he needs to sink as many as possible.

In college he hit 67% from the line on a sizable sample, and he’s hit at about that rate so far in the playoffs, so it’s not inconceivable that, despite being at 56% in the 2017-18 regular season, he hits at a 2/3 clip next October and then just establishes that as his new level. If Ben Simmons were foolish enough to listen to me, I’d skip the whole right-vs-left thing; I’d bring in Rick Barry to teach him to shoot them underhand, and he’d soon be hitting 85%. But obviously that isn’t going to happen; Malcolm Gladwell has a great podcast in which he goes to see the Columbia University WOMEN’S basketball team and shows them they can immediately shoot better from the line by going underhand, and even the women refuse to do it because it looks too wimpy! So on free throws, I’m guardedly optimistic about the long run, no more.

But in terms of the rest of what Ben needs to be a top 5 player in the league, I think things are going perfectly according to plan. He doesn’t need to make a radical change, or to get lucky, or anything. If he just keeps developing on the path he’s on, he’s going to achieve that kind of status shockingly fast.