Hopefully I don’t come across like a few of the national media pundits who watch a handful of Ben Simmons’ games and churn spicy “trade him” takes. But I’m officially concerned here. I was holding out hope that this off-season Ben was going to fully commit to rebuilding his jump shot at a foundational level; before his faulty mechanics become even more ingrained and more difficult to reverse.
Is it ever fair to “worry” about a 22 year old who won Rookie of the Year then was an All-Star in his sophomore campaign? I’d argue yes; if and only if you see the potential for greatness but are (appropriately) concerned with his process for achieving it. That’s where I now stand with Ben. Whether he is or should be a point guard, forward, or a center, I think he has the potential to be Springfield material, provided he can one day develop a serviceable jumper.
Ben had his exit interview a few days ago, and some of what I heard did not sound like a guy who is hell-bent on changing his shooting form anytime soon. Here are 5 of my concerns from that day:
1) He’s going to play FIBA 2019 summer ball in Australia, and probably the Olympics in 2020
Relax. I know. It’s his right, his privilege, an honor, and fully unrealistic to root against this ever happening. I get all that. It’s a very special thing. With that in mind, we should still be able to admit two things that could present obstacles to permanently changing his shooting form here:
A) time: playing in these summer games will eat about a month or so out of his next two off-seasons. The “Friendly’s” start for the Boomers in mid August. That leaves between today and then to focus on his game, after a well-earned vacation. He can still work on his shooting mechanics throughout the FIBA games and training camp, but it’s fair to infer it may not be the only point of emphasis.
B) playing in official games is not typically recommended for players looking to permanently change their form.
Remember this stuff?
Recall, it was only a year ago that Brett Brown admitted he did not want Markelle Fultz doing anything but “foundational” form work last summer, per Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice:
“He’s not doing much playing right now, the effort has been his shot...it’s back to foundational-type stuff. And to like expedite that worries me a little bit as it relates to Summer League. It does.”
That wasn’t particular to Fultz’s weird case. That’s pretty standard advice for major shot change. So it stands to reason: Ben either won’t be doing that type of intensive form-work, or he will but it’ll get curtailed in the type of way that might worry a coach.
Fultz’s trainer at the time was Drew Hanlen who, like many elite trainers, insists upon about 3 straight months without organized games - which some agree can be ‘detrimental’ to permanently changing form.
Before you dismiss Hanlen for not succeeding with Fultz, Bob Thate (who deserves a statue for the work he has done with Jason Kidd and Blake Griffin) once worked for 17 consecutive weeks over a summer with Griffin. Per Lee Jenkins of SI, their program was 500 shots per day. And the catch was that they did not count if Blake didn’t use what Thate deemed “mechanically correct” form. That’s what “all-in” looks like. The results speak for themselves.
If form shooting this summer were truly Ben’s top priority then using the entirety of the summer to work on it in order to “expedite” the process is the optimal strategy.
Ben isn’t fighting for his career like Fultz was. Simmons is very good without a shot. So were Griffin and Kidd. It wasn’t until injuries and aging set in that the latter pair truly dedicated themselves to it. Maybe that’s what it will take to ultimately motivate Simmons.
Thate and Griffin estimated it took about four intense years of shooting to really see the results. And arguably, Griffin and Kidd started further along, since they at least took shots in games before they resolved to fix their shots. How long might it take Ben if/when he decides to make the jump shot his top priority?
2. Ben plans to work on his shooting form with his brother, but who else?
To be clear, I don’t have any problem with Simmons working out with his brother, Liam Simmons. But I will be curious to hear who else he will be adding to his team. Buzz Braman, Dave Hopla, Chris Brickley, Drew Hanlen, Chip Engelland, Chris Matthews, and Thate have all worked with their share of pros. Will someone with a track record of success be joining Ben this off-season? He didn’t opt for one last summer. Maybe we’ll learn more this week.
Might Simmons reach out to someone like Hersey Hawkins, Ray Allen, or Glen Rice? (Blake Griffin might be too awkward to call as both have had relationships with Kendall Jenner).
Liam may have helped Ben improve his free throw percentage by about 4 percent this season, and the mechanics on those did actually appear mildly improved through November of last year. But the grind of an NBA schedule, and all of the other areas of focus by December allowed his old muscle memory to creep back in as his shooting elbow drifted back out. By December, the noticeable changes he had implemented seemed mostly gone.
Hiring a successful shooting coach would not be a guarantee of success, but it’s the next logical step.
3. Ben wants to improve his ‘overall’ game
At Exit interviews, Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia provided us with this quote from Simmons:
“I think for me, I just want to get better all around....There’s no one individual spot. I’m going to work on everything and continue to let my game grow.”
There will be no shortage of content from us at LB or other outlets on possible areas for improvement in Ben’s game, separate from the jump shot. It may not be realistic to expect much growth on the shot next season no matter what he does this summer. And with the Sixers having pushed up their window to contend for a championship with big trades, it makes tons of sense for Ben to gobble up all the low-hanging fruit.
But here’s the thing. All of that stuff won’t get exponentially harder to address as he ages like shooting will. Muscle memory forms, neural pathways set, and the brain becomes less sponge-like. It’s a lot easier to tinker with form when youth is on your side.
Additionally, tackling something that presents an extreme mental-physical challenge is best given full priority. Ben is an almost exaggerated, Marvel-like player: superhuman powers with a glaring, humanizing weakness. Conquering his “kryptonite” isn’t likely to occur by lumping it in with 7 other comparably weighted goals. It might well-require the entirety of his focus - and lots of help- to defeat. It sounds more like it’ll be one of many things he’ll be focusing on.
4. Repetition doesn’t work... it can even be counter productive
Hearing the following would be alarming to most shooting coaches who have seen Simmons’ current mechanics:
Eskin: How are you going to work on [improving your shot]?
As we learned, Thate wouldn’t even count as an attempt a shot by Griffin with a flared elbow, or release on his way down. To paraphrase the former Sixers and Orlando Magic shooting coach, Buzz Braman:
Manute Bol used to walk into Sixers’ practice every day and put up hundreds of shots and he never improved a lick. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. You need the right method.
Buzz is right. Truth is, Ben could fling up millions of straight legged, elbow-flaring, wrist-twisters this summer and still be lucky to crack 63 percent from the line next year. It’s like practicing frisbee, but hurling it like a baseball. You can only get so far.
What’s worse, the more he takes, and the longer he puts off making a major change, as mentioned, the more ingrained his current shot will become (unless perhaps he changes hands entirely).
Here is what Braman had to say about Shaquille O’Neal, who he coached when working with the Magic: “Shaq’s a terrific guy,” Braman said. “He didn’t really want to make a whole lot of changes with his shot.” And he never did. But as any Magic or Lakers’ coach could tell you, he did always make sure to get in his repetitions in. It just didn’t help.
5. How much of a “growth mindset” does Ben have regarding the jumper?
By now you’ve probably heard about the back-and-forth Simmons had with WIP’s notorious instigator, Howard Eskin, and bits of it were referenced above. Eskin pushed Ben by questioning how he would improve upon his perimeter shooting this summer. The whole awkward interaction had the feel of a disappointed father trying to get his son to voice a concrete plan for his career, or reveal that he did not have one.
Eskin concluded that Ben is too “arrogant” to improve so the team is doomed. That’s all silly. But it was also a reminder that Simmons has a sensitivity to the topic in general. One PhillyVoice’s Kyle Neubeck might call “Simmons’ walls.” JJ Redick has used the term “glass wall” before about Ben’s disposition also.
Eskin pointed out that Coach Brown wants Ben to shoot from the perimeter. Something that is true. But Ben appeared to reframe it:
“I think he’s just making a point of emphasis in terms of just being more aggressive. I don’t think it’s just taking shots just to take them. I think it’s just being aggressive and doing my job. So, I don’t think it’s any certain shot....”
We know Brett Brown also wants Ben to be aggressive overall. But is it possible Simmons is unaware his head coach has expressed on different occasions that he wants more perimeter jumpers, specifically?
It reminded me of last summer. Whether you believed Ben (or felt he was simply lowering expectations) he raised eyebrows when he claimed that he hasn’t practiced shooting much because he hasn’t really needed to.
There is a reason that folks on the Sixers’ beat, like The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann, were so encouraged hearing Joel Embiid discuss how dissatisfied he was with his health and load-management this year when he vowed at exits to make some adjustments.
It’s not just maturity. It’s what the book Astroball: The New Way to Win it All by Ben Reiter (about the World Series Winning 2017 Houston Astros) refers to as a “growth mindset.” The Astros GM Jeff Luhnow looks for players who look to proactively addressing their weaknesses.
What might a growth mindset have sounded like if Ben were prioritizing an improved jump shot? Maybe something like this:
I’m excited to work with my brother and [insert an elite shooting coach] to completely change my form. I’m gonna do form work ‘til we get the mechanics right, whichever hand that is, even if that means shooting in the paint all summer, and I may even try working with a sports psychologist like DeAndre Jordan did. I’m taking a break from scrimmages to make shooting my 1st, 2nd, and 3rd priority. I may not succeed in just one summer, or two, but I will do whatever it takes to improve.
Of course Ben doesn’t have to say any of that publicly, or sound like as much of a nerd as me. But what he has said recently lends credence to the idea he isn’t yet thinking this way.
Simmons is expected to sign a max-extension in July that would hopefully keep him in town for the next 5-6 seasons. That’s my preference. This isn’t a “trade him” panic-piece. But at the rate things are going, the Sixers would be lucky if he had a decent perimeter shot over the course of his next contract.
Committing to FIBA or the Olympics reduces at least some of the time he can allot to form shooting, and working on lots of other things risks spreading thin. The path that leads to lasting change here might require a growth mindset and a lot of help from experts who have already succeeded with other players.
If and when he decides to tackle what has been his “kryptonite” he might have a chance to eventually become one of the greatest players we’ve ever seen.