It's time for Ben Simmons to Start Shooting

Ben Simmons has been a revelation for the Sixers so far, but he refuses to shoot open jump shots. If he's ever going to reach his ceiling, he has to get the in-game misses out of his system, and there's no better time than year one.

Rookies aren’t supposed to do what Ben Simmons is doing. He’s a nightly triple-double threat, averaging more than 16 points, 7 assists, and 8 rebounds per game. On defense, Simmons has exceeded even the loftiest expectations, sitting at 4th in the NBA in steals per game and 3rd among all point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. He’s shown a ton of versatility, able to hold his own with big men and stay in front of lightning-quick guards.

Simmons has a very real chance to become the first rookie All-Star selection since Blake Griffin in 2011. Should he succeed, it would be more than justified. The kid has been that impressive. And yet, there’s something missing from his game—a jump shot, obviously—and it could prevent the Australian phenom from fulfilling his potential as a perennial MVP candidate.

Some NBA skills matter more for different positions. For a center like Jahlil Okafor, his inability to protect the rim and play any pick-and-roll defense was enough to make him unplayable in Philadelphia. For a point guard—granted, a very tall one—like Ben Simmons, the ability to shoot the basketball with even the slightest bit of confidence is the difference between “tall Rondo” and a generational player. Tall Rondo is nothing to scoff at, but he’s not an heir to LeBron in the NBA pantheon.

On its surface, the fact that Simmons can’t shoot is ok—for now. He’s only played 37 NBA games, and everyone says the same thing about his ceiling. Based on everything else he’s displayed, if he becomes just an average shooter, he’ll be completely unstoppable. That may be true, but don’t we need some evidence that he’ll get there before we get too excited?

No one expected Simmons to emerge from a season lost to injury as a 6’10” Steph Curry, but what we’ve seen so far is a bit troubling. Misses are fine—and expected—but Simmons goes out of his way to avoid taking simple catch-and-shoot jump shots. Take a look at this possession in a recent game against the Pistons.

Dario Saric draws two defenders, leaving Simmons open on the wing. Simmons has some room to get to the basket, but he’s also wide open with time to set his feet, rise up, and shoot. Instead, he opts for an awkward right-handed floater. From the moment the ball starts coming in his direction, Simmons is clearly committed to driving.

This isn’t some egregious error by any means, but it was a perfect opportunity—one of many throughout the season—for Ben to work through some of those jumper jitters. The Sixers were up by 28 points at home. There’s also the occasional "no man’s land" floater, like this attempt against Sacramento.

Again, this isn’t a big deal as an isolated play, but it’s been a pattern so far. Simmons often decides that he’s bullying his way towards the rim, like a quarterback locking in on the first read. Sometimes, it works. Other times, a stop-and-pop jumper would be an effective counter for when defenders cut off his drives and leave him with no easy passing lanes. What happened to the confident Instagram shooter from the summer?

Simmons could drain threes in an open gym every day, but it’s all about in-game experience, and he’s getting none of that so far. He’s yet to attempt a three that wasn’t a desperation heave. According to Synergy Sports, Ben hasn’t even attempted a single spot-up jumper without a dribble. Taking open shots is about more than making them. It's about keeping the defense honest and trying not to become too predictable.

Earlier this year, fellow rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell shot 3 for 21 against the Sixers. Watching that game, you could tell that Mitchell was nearing a breakout. He shot the ball with confidence and in rhythm, undeterred by any misses. It was just a matter of time before they started dropping. And what about Giannis? His shot is still a work in progress, especially from deep, but he keeps getting better and expanding his range.

We’ve yet to see Simmons consistently work through any mistakes shooting the ball. He’s turning it over a lot, as expected, which is great for his point guard development. Make poor decisions. Throw sloppy passes. Learn from the mistakes. Rinse and repeat. It’s alarming that we haven’t seen a similar development with his outside shot. He occasionally pulls up from the elbow, but even just a few catch-and-shoot attempts would be nice to see.

Part of the problem is that Simmons is so good already. Why should he adjust? He’s an absolute menace in transition, and his ability to combine point guard skills with a power forward body leads to many close-range buckets. It’s remarkable that he averages nearly 17 points without a jump shot.

Crunch time is what separates superstars from good players, though. When the transition baskets die down, and the game slows down, all-time greats make their mark. If Simmons is in the game with the Sixers nursing a close lead, they have to limit his touches to keep him away from the free throw line. That’s fine for Shaq, a 7-foot center, not so much for a team’s primary ball-handler. 

And while the Sixers obviously look to Joel Embiid for isolation scores with the game on the line, is there reason to feel confident that Simmons could also fill that role if needed? Again, none of this is to say that through just 37 games, Ben should be a better shooter or a reliable one-on-one scorer. It’s just disconcerting that there’s no current reason to project improvement in those areas. It would be nice to see him fail while taking shots now so he can succeed later.

As The Process moves forward, we won’t be looking at how Simmons fills the stat sheet against decent teams during the regular season. He’ll get his share of triple-doubles for sure, but his superstar status will be put to the test through grueling series against the likes of a Brad Stevens-coached Celtics team. Opponents will be prepared to defend a team with a point guard who poses no threat to shoot the ball. Games will be decided by individual possessions.

When that time comes, maybe Ben will be a complete player with some semblance of confidence from the outside. For that to happen, however, the fantasy of “Ben Simmons with a jumper” needs to become visible over the horizon. Until it does, projecting him to be an all-time great feels like blind faith.

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