After the first month of college basketball, LSU freshman Ben Simmons has jumped out as the No. 1 overall favorite for the 2016 NBA draft. He's put up unprecedented early numbers (18.7 points, 13.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game) to back up the heavy incoming hype, which is ultimately fueled by the rare "point forward" label and mismatch versatility.
From ball-handling and passing to driving and rebounding, the 6'10" Australian has flashed it all—except for a jump shot.
Much of the time, Simmons won't bother to look at the hoop outside the paint unless all driving lanes are clogged. Some defenses have even stopped covering him behind the arc.
To his credit, he hasn't needed to shoot from the perimeter, given how dangerous he is attacking the basket and bullying his way for buckets around it. He's played to his strengths, a strategy difficult to criticize. But with shooting more coveted than ever in today's NBA, Simmons' jumper has to be addressed and questioned when evaluating his potential.
Of his 70 made field goals so far, 51 have come right at the rim, per Hoop-Math.com. He's made one three-pointer on two attempts in 343 minutes.
Diagnosing his jumper as broken this early wouldn't be fair. Simmons just chooses not to take many.
He relies on improvisation in the lane with righty and lefty runners. Simmons is clearly more confident in his ability to separate and loft in shots off one foot than he is in pulling up or stepping back.
Mechanically, Simmons uses too much upper body in his jump shot and often lands behind (instead of in front) the spot he released the ball from. You can see he doesn't use his legs enough or get the proper balance.
Scouts must ultimately determine how much stock to put into his questionable jump shot and its untested, inaccurate numbers (18-of-56 on two-point jumpers)—especially considering Simmons' preference for operating away from the basket.
The NBA scouts I reached out to seemed split on Simmons' jumper and the level of concern surrounding it. Yet none expect the 19-year-old to fall from the No. 1 spot during what should be a weaker 2016 draft field. Below is some of the feedback I received, with each bullet point coming from a different scout:
- "Not worried about him at all. Everyone who comes into the league, their shot gets better. It's not even a concern. His playmaking ability is similar to Magic Johnson's. He's a franchise guy; he's going to be special. Whoever gets him is going to be very happy. There won't be any regret on that pick."
- "He's off balance all the time, often not lined up with the basket and he has a slight elbow hitch I noticed in his free throw [that] I assume affects his shot."
- "Not concerned about his jumper at all. I've seen him in practice and it's not great, but not broken at all. Not looking to shoot outside is a testament to how dominant he is and taking advantage of his size and athleticism. Sure, there are some he should take in games, but that will come, and I'm not worried at all about it long-term."
- "It's certainly a concern. I'm sure he's still the presumptive No. 1 due to showing all other facets of the game."
- "Lack of shooting definitely a concern for Simmons but has shot free throws all right (so maybe some hope there), and stroke doesn't look completely broken. Although I've seen him have a lot of bad misses. That being said, I don't see him moving out of the conversation for No. 1."
Bleacher Report spoke to another NBA scout/shooting coach, who broke down the possible problems regarding Simmons' shooting mechanics:
- Ben really kind of extends his arms straight up instead of straight forward. Great shooters really extend straight forward. By extending straight up, he's kind of stiff. If you notice his back, his shoulders kind of kick backward. So there is not a real smoothness to his motion. And as strong as he is, he's not activating the right muscles because his lower back, his core muscles aren't really activated, his legs aren't really activated. He's really relying on his shoulders and upper body.
- Another thing that he does do: He drops his off arm almost immediately. He'll release with his left arm, but then he'll drop his right arm a little bit too soon and that may create a little jerk in his release.
On the other hand, the scout also highlighted reasons to promote optimism:
- It's absolutely not broken. You can see it's not broken by how he raises the ball from his shooting pocket to above his eyes. You can see he does that pretty smoothly. But after that, he kind of tenses up. He would benefit better from activating his muscles better and relying more on an up-and-forward shot, instead of straight up. Because that's why his range is kind of limited. Even the college three is a little out of his comfort zone.
Over the years, we've seen plenty of teenagers who couldn't make a jump shot develop into capable or even proficient NBA shooters. Chicago Bulls' wing Jimmy Butler didn't hit a three his entire freshman season at Marquette before evolving into an All-Star perimeter scorer.
Toronto Raptors small forward DeMarre Carroll combined to make 11 triples total through three years in college. Lance Thomas, who's making 41.5 percent of his threes for the New York Knicks, didn't attempt one in 140 NCAA games. The San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard, Houston Rockets' Trevor Ariza and Milwaukee Bucks' Khris Middleton each shot below 30 percent from deep their final seasons before getting drafted.
A shaky but fixable jumper won't carry a ton of weight during the evaluation process following Simmons' one year at LSU. The question is if his stroke will get better, and if not, how much will it hurt his game and value?
The eventual lottery winner should be to willing find out. Whether Simmons makes the shooting strides Butler and Carroll recently made, there is still plenty of upside tied to his super athleticism, playmaking and ability to guard multiple positions.
Still, expect Simmons' jumper to remain a major talking point when discussing his development over the next few seasons. It could eventually be what takes his game to the top level.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.