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New coach, same question – does Ben Simmons need to change his game?

The East-leading Sixers could use mid-range shots as a way to unlock Ben Simmons' offensive potential.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Ben Simmons has seen his scoring average take a bit of a dip this season.

Ben Simmons would be a Kia MVP candidate in the 1970s and ‘80s, and perhaps a top-five player in the ‘90s and the early 2000s. In this era, he’s an elite player with a mustard stain on his jersey.

He is, as you know, a non-shooter in a league that — for better or worse — has drifted away from the rim. In that sense, that part of Simmons’ game is outdated much like an 8-track player, floppy disk and rotary phone.

He’s the rare player who doesn’t stand behind the 3-point line on offense, and who doesn’t instinctively sprint to the corner on a fast break instead of filling the lane. There are seven-foot centers who spend more time on the perimeter than Simmons, a guard who out of necessity doesn’t stray too far from the painted comfort zone.

This is the issue: Does Simmons need to change his game and therefore fall in line — as in, the 3-point line — with everyone else?

Can he be him — and still help the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers reach their destination, wherever that may be?

Ben Simmons logged a triple-double against the Hornets on Jan. 2.

Simmons is a different kind of unicorn, a player who manages to thrive without shooting from deep or more than a handful of times each game. This says plenty about his other skills: ball handling, court vision, instincts, quick hands and the ability to defend. Simmons seems comfortable in his own skin, but the Sixers and their fans, while understanding, aren’t always comfortable about his limited shooting range or reluctance to shoot.

Simmons took just two shots recently against the Miami Heat in a game that went into overtime, and his shot attempts per game (8.8), field goal percentage (49.6%) and scoring average (12.2 ppg) are all down from last season. He entered 2020-21 with 24 career 3-point attempts (with two makes) and is 1-for-5 on 3-pointers (which represents a drastic uptick for him) entering Friday’s game against the Boston Celtics.

Not to compare him to Magic Johnson, but Magic spent his first few years much the same as Simmons is now: deferring to teammates, scoring mainly on layups, dunks, hooks and runners. Magic won titles that way, but the NBA then wasn’t the NBA now.

Ben Simmons took only two shots in a 137-134 win against the Heat.

A few factors conspired to make Simmons this way. First: Bad mechanics that weren’t fixed during his early development, and as a teenager he was so effective and dominant without shooting that there was no urgency to address that. He’s also a two-time All-Star and All-NBA player who was given a $177 million contract extension without having a shooter’s mentality or touch. Therefore, on the surface, if you’re Simmons, why bother to change?

When Doc Rivers took the Sixers’ coaching job, he assigned assistant coach Sam Cassell to work with Simmons on shooting. Cassell, therefore, became the latest “shot doctor” for Simmons … although Cassell represents somewhat of a switch. During his playing days, Cassell mastered the mid-range shot, which is a lost art in today’s NBA but could serve as a compromise for Simmons.

Given Simmons’ height (6-foot-9), length (7-foot wingspan) and coupled with the reality that teams don’t defend the mid-range anymore, he might discover an unprotected part of the court that’s to his liking — provided he gravitates to those spots and isn’t reluctant to add that shot to his game.

Until then, Simmons continues to adopt the same mentality that he’s kept since entering the NBA and hearing the fuss about his shooting.

Take a look back at Ben Simmons’ first NBA game.

“The one thing about me is I can score no points, and if we’re up 50, I’m happy,” said Simmons. “I’m not coming out here trying to have a certain average or score 50, 40, 30 points. I’m coming out here to win, I’m going to try to get it done whether it’s defensively or making the right reads and getting the team set.”

When asked about Simmons and shooting, Rivers isn’t placing a premium on change. Privately, those conversations between him, Simmons and Cassell on the subject might be different. But the new coach, by all accounts, is taking the slow road with Simmons on shot depth, selection and frequency.

“I really don’t care,” Rivers said about the number of shots Simmons takes (and doesn’t take). “Honestly, I don’t even look. I let the world look at it … everyone’s gonna tell you anyway. I’m not that concerned with it yet.”

The potential downside to Simmons’ reluctance and ability to shoot with range is complicated. The most obvious: He has the ball more than anyone. Second: center Joel Embiid, the Sixers’ other All-Star, could operate with more room in the paint if Simmons isn’t there.

Teams are also cheating when defending Simmons and are more liable to leave him open. They’re daring him to shoot and hoping he takes the bait (which he often doesn’t).

But the Sixers are designed to minimize Simmons’ shooting issues. That’s why they added Seth Curry and Danny Green in the offseason and re-signed Tobias Harris in 2019. A few bonuses along the way in scoring-minded Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey have been discovered. They offer better shooting options even though they aren’t better players.

The mid-range shot could help encourage Simmons to shoot, provided he adopts it. Cassell was a master of the 15-foot, off-the-dribble pull-up jumper when he played for a pair of championship teams in Houston. He also helped train the Clippers’ shooters when he and Rivers were in L.A (2014-20) after spending time as an assistant with the Washington Wizards (2009-14). He comes fully endorsed by Rivers, who feels Simmons can only be helped by Cassell’s tips and tutoring.

“Sam, you give him to players, he has done a great job,” Rivers said. “He’s had a lot of success with players. It is more than just shooting. It is his post game, his passing. How to play the unique position that he plays.”

Rivers cautions that Simmons is unlike any player Cassell worked with before, though.

“He is not a point, not a two, not a three, he is a ballplayer,” Rivers said. “We put him in every spot on the floor, literally every spot on the floor. Having a guy like Sam explain to him what we are looking for is really what we are trying to do here.”

Simmons, 24, has room to grow and learn. Jason Kidd wasn’t comfortable shooting with volume and range until he turned 28. Coincidently, that’s when Kidd achieved his greatest success, finishing second in the MVP vote and leading the Nets to back-to-back appearances in The Finals.

The Sixers obviously value Simmons highly even though his shooting mentality remains a work in progress.

“I’ll let you guys talk about what Ben doesn’t do,” Rivers said. “I just want Ben to keep playing great defense, running our team and winning games.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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