Higher-ups across the league agree: it's very difficult to develop big men at the NBA level.
"We continue to learn, using our eyes and analytics, how little we can actually teach [big men]," one NBA executive told Liberty Ballers. "With many skills, bigs either have them or don't. A small example: Dwight Howard has seen everyone over his career and not much has changed. Al Jefferson walked into the league at 18 knowing how to score in the post. So much of it is anticipation, vision, touch, hands, and reaction are natural gifts."
Among specialty coaches, shooting instructors have really been the only skill-centric developers in the NBA to gain league-wide acclaim amongst front offices and fans alike. There's Chip Engelland in San Antonio, Dirk Nowitzki's personal shooting coach Holger Geschwindner in Dallas and several others.
But the Sixers might have one of the premier frontcourt coaches in the NBA in Assistant Coach for Player Development Greg Foster. In his first season with the Sixers after spending two years on Tim Floyd's staff at UTEP, Foster's biggest role in the public eye has been his cameo appearances in Nerlens Noel practice vines and short Instagram videos. But his ability to get the most out of his frontcourt players dates back to his time in the college ranks as well.
"The thing I really loved about Greg was that he would get in the gym with these kids at 6 a.m. and go home at 10 at night," Floyd told Liberty Ballers back in November. "He's just a willing worker. We all love the game at least a little bit, but you have to be willing to get in the gym on a consistent basis to reinforce your message. That was one of Greg's biggest strengths."
The Sixers love Foster's hardass demeanor that demands respect, pulling players' best efforts and performances out of them. Foster's greatest work in Philly also might not be with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. The proof might be in the pudding that has been Henry Sims' improvement since arriving at PCOM at the trade deadline in the Spencer Hawes deal.
"I think Greg's done a great job with him," Brown said. "We have so many young guys that are here for job interviews and [Sims is] one of those guys that, with minutes and with a role that we've given him and the tuition of Greg Foster, he's so coachable and teachable and what he might miss I suppose in athleticism, he makes up for sure in intellect and competitiveness. He's been a real good pickup for us."
Sims scored a game-high 24 points on 10 shots in Boston to go along with 9 rebounds and a 14-18 clip from the foul line. Sims, who shot 70.8 percent from the foul line during his senior season at Georgetown, has upped his efficiency at the foul line from 57.1 percent in Cleveland to 77.8 percent with Philly.
"Me and Foster work pretty much everyday," Sims told Liberty Ballers before the win on Friday. "He's a good guy, knows what he's talking about, as far as what's the best for me as well as other bigs."
But what specifically has Sims worked on with Foster that has led the big man to lead the Sixers in offensive rating at 114, up from 96 with the Cavs?
"We're focusing on aggressive moves, just making each movement count on a move," Sims said. "Not wasting any movement and being physical with your move—keeping your elbows up and using them with your whole body to create space."
Among players currently on the Sixers' roster, Sims is second only to Michael Carter-Williams in the team's point differential when he's on the court. The defense dips by 2.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench, per NBA.com. Since being traded, his field goal percentage has jumped from 40 to 45.9 percent, which is mostly due to his percentages spiking in shooting from 10-16 feet and 16-feet to the three-point line by 37.5 and 16.2 percent, respectively, per basketball-reference.com.
He has also improved from 52.6 to 53.6 percent shooting in the restricted area—where most big men post-up opportunities usually finish—after working with Foster as well.
"He took my game and we're just refining it. We're working on a lot of one-dribble stuff, facing up, a few back down moves, keeping my outside jumper fresh," Sims said. "Now that I'm getting my opportunity, what may seem new to you is what I've been doing. He knows I can shoot the hook — I've been shooting the hook since high school — it's been something he's helped me be able to showcase."
Maybe the key is finding guys with the raw skillset and having coaches like Foster put them in the position to succeed. Sims showed off everything he mentioned against the Bobcats last week.
After Sims receives the entry pass from Thad Young, he faces up, takes one dribble and uses his elbows to create space between himself and Al Jefferson. Look at how he uses long strides to make the most of each movement too, before finishing with a nice hook.
Here's Sims using his "intellect and competitiveness" that Brett Brown mentioned to beat a sleeping Andre Drummond backdoor for an easy lay-in.
"He was in a bull mode," Brown said of Sims' performance at TD Garden. "He was in a really aggressive attack mode. He'd bury his head and try to get to the rim at all costs."
Sims' aggressive play and basketball smarts, combined with Foster's tutelage, has been a recipe for success in Philly.
"He's not overly wordy, he doesn't need a lot of words to get to his point and he says it with conviction," Floyd said of Foster.
Henry Sims is hearing him loud and clear.
*All stats for this article were collected before the Sixers played the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday.