CLEVELAND — Year 3 was supposed to be different for Ben Simmons.
An All-Star season that ended in playoff disappointment resulted in summer videos of Simmons shooting and making threes, something he hadn't yet done in the NBA. The 2016 No. 1 overall pick even connected on a three-pointer in preseason, prompting an overzealous celebration from his Sixers teammates.
Still, it was an air-clearing moment. One that seemed like it would open the door for Philadelphia to unlock its massive potential.
For all the summer video and preseason proof that Simmons can shoot threes, we're nearly a month into the regular season without a single attempt. It certainly has not gone unnoticed by those in the organization.
"For us to win, we're going to need him to shoot," Sixers center Joel Embiid told Bleacher Report. "We've been encouraging him since he's been here."
For a 76ers team that ranks 23rd in the NBA in made threes, there's a growing desperation for its star point guard to finally let it fly.
"We're trying to fix some of those things that everybody talks about with his shot," Sixers head coach Brett Brown revealed to B/R.
"How do we empower him to go be Ben Simmons and play in the open court and understand how the league defends you? I could make him a 4-man, but he's a point guard, he has the ball. The responsibility, the ecosystem that he lives in, is nobody can underestimate how difficult it is to be an NBA point guard. With that juggling act, and we just rewarded him with a contract, that juggling act as a young player, that is difficult."
Simmons is now a career 0-of-17 shooter from deep, a black eye for one of the league's most talented young players. Philadelphia believes in him so much that it gave Simmons a five-year, $170 million max contract this past summer despite his having played just two seasons because of injury.
The 23-year-old has dropped all the way to fifth in scoring on a Sixers team with serious Finals aspirations, his production in general down across the board. His 13.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 10.5 shot attempts per game are all career lows, while his 3.6 turnovers are a personal high.
Part of this can be chalked up to a star-studded roster around him, something that hasn't been seen in Philly for a long time. The Sixers reloaded after Jimmy Butler turned down a max contract offer last summer, trading him in a deal that netted them do-it-all wing Josh Richardson and then signing Tobias Harris and Al Horford to $289 million worth of contracts.
Even Embiid has had to take a step back offensively, something he acknowledges may not be what's best for the team.
"We're 8-5," Embiid says. "I need to do more."
This same sentiment doesn't seem to be shared by Simmons, however, who says Brown and Sixers teammates have encouraged him to shoot more.
"Definitely at times," Simmons told B/R. "Just looking at different matchups. Just being assertive and being aggressive. Just trying to make the right play. I've always been that type of player, just take what I see and just try to make the best play possible for my team."
This type of "make the right play" attitude is one Simmons' friend and fellow Klutch Sports client LeBron James has adopted ever since high school. In 16-plus seasons, however, James has led his team in scoring every time. With Embiid and even Harris, Simmons doesn't need to put up 20-plus points a night, but finishing above Horford and Richardson seemed liked a given coming into the season.
In a 5-0 start to the season, Simmons looked aggressive with his shot. His 13.8 attempts per game during that stretch would have been a career high, and it appeared he was well on his way to a second straight All-Star appearance. In the six games in which he's appeared since, however, Simmons is down to just 7.8 shots a night while the Sixers stumbled to two wins, both against a rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers team.
His shot attempts are only moving closer to the rim, instead of outside the arc like many believed they would.
During his rookie season, Simmons attempted 119 shots from outside the paint. Last season, this number shrunk to 73. In 11 games this year, he's down to just one, a missed mid-range jumper.
Clearly, the team needs more from him, something Simmons may not want to do.
"He's comfortable playing certain ways," Embiid said. "Hopefully at some point, I'm sure he's going to pick it up. He's fine, he's doing a great job of being the point guard. I know a lot of people want him to shoot, shoot, shoot, but if he's not comfortable he shouldn't do it. We've got a lot of other scorers on the team."
Brown came into the season with three goals for Simmons, none of which involve three-point shooting.
"From day one, I've said I want him to continue to be an elite finisher, I want him to be a reliable 75 percent free-throw shooter, and I want him to make an All-Defensive team," Brown said. "I haven't blinked from those three things, which are most important to me."
Simmons finished tied for 16th in All-Defensive votes last season with Donovan Mitchell and just above Bradley Beal, so the potential is there. He's been a disaster at the free-throw line this season (career-worst 55.9 percent) but is 20th in the NBA in restricted-area field-goal percentage (72.4 percent), by far the best mark of any guard.
Opposing NBA coaches recognize his skill set but also divulge they don't have to defend him as closely as a normal guard or wing.
"He hasn't shot threes all year, so you can give him a little bit of space," Cavaliers head coach John Beilein told B/R. "We debated about how to guard him. Do we put a smaller guy on him because he's a point guard? But then he can see right over the top and be more of a passer. Do we put a bigger guy on him, and then he's so crafty he can get by a bigger guy. Try to just stay in front of him and make him score tough shots over you and try to limit his vision as best you can so he can't make those great assists he's so well-known for."
Thus is the balancing act for Brown and the rest of the Sixers: Push Simmons to be aggressive and continue his elite playmaking skills, but also get out of his comfort zone and continue to evolve as a player, primarily as an outside shooter.
"There's got to be a tolerance at some level that I have as the coach to allow him to figure some of this stuff out on his own and help steer him," Brown siad. "There's no book that you can read that will tell you how to do that. It's a judgment thing, it's me helping to grow him, and it's all of those things kind of put into a melting pot.
"When you look at Joel Embiid, you look at Tobias Harris and there's Al Horford. J-Rich has skills all over the place and I have the ball, there is a responsibility with that. But looking for his own shot versus weighing things up that I just said, that's not easy. And at 23 years old, I think he's 23 still, you know, come on. You want to grow him to play and play free and let his talents in the open court prevail. I think he's doing a great job this year of understanding going space to corners instead of always going into the dunker spot, that low man spot. I think he's improving in those areas."
Following the dismantling of a James-led Cavaliers team and the departure of Kawhi Leonard from the Raptors, the East looked like a budding war between the Sixers and Milwaukee Bucks.
While Milwaukee sits near the top of the conference, others such as the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Leonard-less Raptors have all leapfrogged Philadelphia in the standings.
For Philly to make a serious Finals run, Simmons has to expand his game. His coach knows this. His teammates know this.
The time has come for Simmons to finally leave his comfort and the restricted zone.
Greg Swartz covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.