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Why I’m highly pessimistic about Ben Simmons developing a credible jumper

The data is pretty ugly.

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, videos of Ben Simmons shooting jumpers have surfaced. Most of them appear to take place during offseason scrimmages in Los Angeles while Simmons works with trainer Chris Johnson. Tobias Harris has stoked the flames of intrigue by offering complimentary words toward Simmons’ developing jump shot.

The mere fact that there is video evidence of Simmons attempting jumpers in game-type settings is an improvement from prior offseasons. This isn’t to say he wasn’t doing the same things over the last two summers. But in a league where low-post bigs like Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside were publicizing their jumper, Sixers fans grew understandably restless — especially once the 2018-19 season rolled around and Simmons remained gun-shy.

With Simmons connecting off the dribble in scrimmages and people close to him praising his confidence, excitement continues to spike among the fanbase. Regardless of the fact that offseason highlight videos are almost always fool’s gold — Hoodie Melo smiles — I’m of the belief that Simmons’ progress is irrelevant from an on-court perspective. It literally does not matter, given his baseline of shooting.

Now, there is certainly intangible value. Simmons being self-aware enough to address the most glaring flaw in his game is noteworthy. It eliminates the idea that he believes he’s good enough to succeed without one long-term, and is likely reflective of him refining his other areas of weakness. Again, though, it probably has close to zero influence with regards to his on-court impact next season — or ever, really.

Obviously, that’s a pretty declarative and brash statement. I want to emphasize that it’s solely my opinion and while I will probably write in absolutes throughout the rest of this column, it’s because I’m confident in the take, not because I think everyone else must subscribe to it.

Among those most optimistic about Simmons’ jumper, one of the more popular talking points is that his shooting is a mystery. He’s currently unwilling to let it fly and the sample from 3 — basically two attempts — is far too small to draw any conclusions. The lack of confidence certainly contributes to Simmons’ struggles, but they’re far from the primary issue.

I’d also vehemently argue against the idea that his shooting is an unknown. There are a significant number of indicators that suggest he’s a uniquely poor outside shooter and increased repetition isn’t some simple solution. Essentially, I’m treating Simmons like an NBA Draft prospect who didn’t shoot 3s in college. As such, I’d look at a few key areas to gauge their potential: free-throw and mid-range percentage, along with efficiency at the rim and on floaters/runners.

Simmons is a career 58.3 percent free-throw shooter through 769 attempts in the NBA. Since 2017-18, he is one of 47 players to total 500-plus free throws. He ranks 45th in percentage, only ahead of non-shooters Steven Adams and Dwight Howard. Directly above him are other non-shooting bigs like Willie Cauley-Stein, Andre Drummond and Clint Capela. That’s a worthwhile sample and it doesn’t bode well for him, given the poor efficiency and company he keeps at the free-throw line.

Through two seasons, Simmons has taken 175 midrange jumpers and made 25.1 percent of them. This year, he shot 20.9 percent from midrange on 67 attempts, which was the worst mark among 168 players with 60-plus shots. Last year, he finished 30 of 108 (27.8 percent), dead last among 146 players with 100-plus attempts.

Those are very concerning marks and using the aforementioned parameters (albeit, they’re somewhat arbitrary), a case exists that he’s been the NBA’s worst midrange shooter over the last two years. Someone who ranks near the bottom of the league in both free-throw and midrange shooting isn’t a good bet to keep defenses honest beyond the arc anytime soon. Both areas are often indicative of shooting touch and Simmons hasn’t exhibited the requisite efficiency to inspire hope.

Per Cleaning the Glass, he’s ranked in the 95th percentile or better in rim-scoring efficiency both seasons of his NBA tenure (71 percent in 2017-18, 67 percent last year). On the surface, that data boosts his long-term stock as a shooter. There’s one pressing issue, though. Simmons is far better and more comfortable finishing inside with his right hand, but takes jumpers with his left.

More emblematic of his left-hand touch (or lack thereof) are the efficiency numbers on “runners,” per Synergy. Those rankings are far less kind to Simmons. He was in the 28th percentile this season and 26th percentile as a rookie. It’s only a sample size of 109 possessions, so perhaps it’s unwise to glean too much from those numbers. But the surrounding statistics — free throws and midrange jumpers — make me confident it’s another concerning data point.

Everything I’ve laid out says Simmons won’t ever be a good shooter, as the indicators paint a worrisome portrait. If he were a draft prospect, I wouldn’t even entertain the idea of him developing into a competent shooter down the road, barring a complete overhaul of his technique. And truthfully, that seems to be Simmons’ optimal route.

He’s clearly more comfortable finishing at the rim with his right hand — often contorting his body in mid-air to do so. On top of that, he hasn’t established a foundation of success or confidence taking jumpers with his left hand. If he wants any chance of commanding defensive attention on the perimeter, abandoning his current mechanics that have yielded poor results and don’t look conducive to success is prudent.

While we’re on the subject, I think it’s worth explaining why Simmons’ form is problematic, as it’s sometimes a point of contention.

His left elbow is flared out and his hand is nowhere close to actually being under the ball — largely helpful for soft touch or aligning the release toward the rim. His right elbow is tucked in and the left hand is a stabilizing presence. This screenshot looks like Simmons is right-handed but he actually shoots with his left. That’s, well, no bueno.

The lack of control and guidance manifests itself when he does opt to shoot.

Many of his misses the past two seasons resemble the one above and convey his poor left-hand touch. Reliable shooters often have, at worst, serviceable-to-good touch. Simmons hasn’t exhibited that trait to this point — at least with his dominant shooting hand.

But this topic’s been hashed out far too many times to count and strays away from my larger points. I’m not a shot doctor, so who knows, maybe stick with the left. I don’t have all the answers with this whole shooting thing. I’m just a man on a blog with a suggestion and some surface-level analysis.

Perhaps my biggest gripe with the discussion of Simmons is the belief that simply attempting shots outside the paint will alter the geometry of defenses. Yes, it’s true that volume often plays a larger role than production as it pertains to shooting gravity. That doesn’t mean it’s the only factor; a baseline threshold of efficiency still matters.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Justise Winslow help illustrate this point. As jumbo-sized primary ball-handlers with shooting struggles, both are of a similar archetype to Simmons. Their cases are quite different, but act as a blueprint for Simmons. Antetokounmpo is a 27.7 percent 3-point shooter over the last two seasons, while Winslow has seemingly reached a capable level, knocking down 37.7 percent of his triples during that time. Look how defenses generally guard them off the bounce, though.

Jarrett Allen sags way off Antetokounmpo, even as he loads up for a jumper. Allen’s presence deters potential driving lanes and signals that Antetokounmpo’s willingness to shoot has little bearing on how he’s defended.

The same goes for Winslow, with Serge Ibaka parked in the paint on this pull-up jumper.

For reference, Antetokounmpo shot 32.2 percent on pull-up jumpers in 2018-19. Winslow was at 33.8 percent. Both are increases from Simmons’ career mark of 28.8 percent. Considering Simmons dominates the ball for long stretches as a lead initiator, Antetokounmpo and Winslow serve as a reminder that taking jumpers off the dribble won’t necessarily affect defensive schemes. It’s also about results and Simmons’ shooting profile isn’t one that says he’ll ever force the opposition to respect his jumper.

To describe this column as anything but negative would be kind. I get it. I’ll probably be mercilessly roasted in the comments. The offseason is a time to be positive. Here I am dropping a 1,700-word story tearing down a max player’s potential to fix the major gap in his skill set.

However, there are clear paths for Simmons to improve outside of a jumper and blossom into a top-10 player down the road. My colleague Tom West went deep on those topics: embracing physicality on drives, tightening his ball-handling, trusting his handle in crowded spaces, and a laundry list of other minor tweaks. Those all feel far more realistic than the jumper, precisely for the reasons articulated throughout this piece.

I completely understand the optimism around these clips of Simmons. He’s hardly ever shot in the NBA, and when he does, the success rate is fleeting. This isn’t me ridiculing fans for basking in the glory of those compilations. I won’t try to police your fandom. The highlight videos include pull-ups, step-backs, fadeaways and other nifty scoring moves. It’s fun to envision what type of player Simmons becomes if he brings competent shooting with him to Philadelphia in the fall. It almost assuredly guarantees a championship parade on Broad Street next June, too (in fairness, this could still happen whether or not Simmons is shooting from the outside).

To an extent, though, the excitement can stretch too far. There need to be realistic expectations for him. From my perspective, all the indicators say he’s a uniquely poor shooter unlikely to ever reach a meaningful level of impact as a 3-point threat. This isn’t to disparage his overall upside, as improvements on the margins are central to his superstardom — some of which we occasionally saw last season. I’d bet on him continuing to expand the fringes of his game.

Ben Simmons is an anomalous star, both in his approach to the sport and the polarizing nature of discourse surrounding him. He’s already very good and hints at glimpses of his ceiling from time to time. I just don’t think that actualized ceiling involves any sort of credible jumper and the evidence agrees with me. It’s best we start discussing his upside under that assumption.

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