If you’re an NBA fan, then you’re already familiar with the Philadelphia 76ers’ structural problem: Their best player, Joel Embiid, is a behemoth with balletic feet who’s best when brutalizing opponents down on the block. Their second-best player, Ben Simmons, is an athletic marvel, a gazelle-like 6-foot-11 point guard with a preternatural ability to pass the ball.
Simmons also refuses to shoot the ball from the perimeter, which shrinks the team’s spacing, which in turn gives its offense a bit of a round-peg-in-square-hole type of feel. It’s not his fault that the post-Process Sixers have never reached the Eastern Conference Finals. But his tendency to disappear during the playoffs’ second round — when play slows down and games are won in the half court — certainly hasn’t helped.
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Most of us have assumed that Simmons developing an outside shot — or at least occasionally launching a few from deep — would solve this riddle. Simmons clearly believes otherwise. This season, he’s hoisted just eight 3-pointers after taking seven last season. According to NBA Advanced Stats, only 20 of the 403 shots he’s put up have come from outside the paint.1
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But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t found another method for weaponizing himself in the half court. Instead of developing a jumper to become more productive from the perimeter, Simmons is leaning on a hook shot to become more effective from close.
The hook shot has always been a part of Simmons’s repertoire. But this year, he’s tossing up more than ever. According to NBA Advanced Stats, 19.1 percent of Simmons’s shots this season have been hooks, a leap of more than 5 percentage points from last season and by far a career high. Through Tuesday’s games, the 77 he’s attempted are the sixth-most in the league.
“We want him to be more efficient at it, but the only way you get there is by throwing it up there and starting to gain confidence in it,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said during a press conference over Zoom this week. “We like it. I love the one off the glass, kind of a runner hook shot — we work on that because of his size he can get it off the glass anytime he wants to. It’s a good thing.”
Simmons has made 55.8 percent of his hook shots this season, a nearly 10-point jump from last season. That’s a strong number in a vacuum — according to NBA Advanced Stats, only Nikola Jokić, Robin Lopez, DeAndre Ayton and Thaddeus Young have attempted more than 40 such shots and converted them at a better rate. But most of these are coming close to the basket, and are often used instead of a more typical finish, like a lay-up or finger roll. In other words, if Simmons is indeed going to lean on the hook shot, then Rivers would likely prefer that mark to be closer to 60 percent.
And yet, there are areas where both Simmons and the Sixers are clearly benefiting from this newfound love. Chief among them is that it’s helped transform Simmons into an actual post threat for the first time in his career.
Simmons has always been bigger than most of the opponents tasked with guarding him. But in the past, he’s had trouble taking advantage, especially down on the block. Last year, he averaged just 0.88 points per possession from the post, a mark that placed him in the 39th percentile — amazingly, a career high. This year that number is up to 0.97, placing him in the 64th percentile. That this growth has occurred alongside Embiid’s evolution into an elite perimeter shooter means the Sixers have the option to structure their offense in a more traditional way. The roles might be reversed — the point guard on the block, the center along the 3-point arc — but the spacing is still sound.
This allows Simmons to go to work in the post without worrying about an extra defender scurrying over. Sometimes, that means unleashing a sweeping hook across the lane:
Sometimes it means letting Embiid pull the opposing center out toward the perimeter and then throwing the entry pass himself, clearing the lane for Simmons to pin his defender under the rim.
It’s no coincidence that Simmons has hit 25 of the 39 hook shots he’s taken (64.1 percent)2 while Embiid is on the floor, according to NBA Advanced Stats, or that the Sixers’ offense has averaged a blistering 120.2 points per 100 possessions during Simmons-Embiid minutes, its best mark in the duo’s four seasons as teammates.3
It’s not all thanks to Simmons and his hook shot. He’s recording only about two post-ups a game. Embiid has played the best basketball of his career. Shooters like Seth Curry and Danny Green — acquired in the offseason by new team president Daryl Morey — have opened up the floor. But Simmons finally possessing a go-to move for punishing opponents in the half court is a piece of the puzzle. It allows everything to work in concert.
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So what’s the problem? One is that Simmons might be leaning on the hook shot a bit too much and developing some bad habits, especially outside of the post. It’s one thing to bully a smaller defender on the block, spin toward the rim and go up strong while using his opposite shoulder to create space. It’s another to use the hook shot as a means of avoiding contact on a downhill drive.
Plays like those have become more and more common as the season has progressed. Is it a coincidence that Simmons’ free-throw rate has plummeted as he’s taken more and more hook shots? Probably not. It doesn’t matter that he’s shooting just 64.6 percent from the free-throw line (which happens to be a career high). He should still be attacking, trying to get to the line and rack up fouls on opponents.
|Season segment||Share of Shots as Hooks||Free-Throw Rate|
Another quirk of Simmons’s hook shot is which hand they come from; by my count, 72 of his 77 hook shots have been taken with his right hand. Simmons may shoot jumpers and free throws with his left, but he does mostly everything else — including throwing a baseball — with his right.4 This appears to be the case with his beloved hook shots, too, on which he’ll often make things harder for himself by refusing to go up with his left hand. It could be one of the reasons his efficiency around the rim has dropped a tick, from 68 percent last season to a career-low 65 percent this season. That’s still one of the better marks in the league, but for a player who doesn’t take threes, any fall in finishing around the basket is exponentially harmful.
The other issue is that some defenders seem to be catching on. A left-handed shooter taking right-handed hooks might have thrown off a few opponents early in the season. But now, more seem to be sitting on it, daring him to spin toward his left hand.
The key for Simmons going forward will be learning to find a balance. As with any move that relies on some sort of finesse, there’s a fine line between punishing opponents and bailing them out. If Simmons can figure out to toe that line, the Sixers can find themselves with all sorts of new and exciting options come playoff time. If he can’t, he’ll likely find himself once again facing all sorts of questions about the kinds of shots he takes and the kinds of shots he doesn’t.
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