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Simmons’ Foul Line Struggles Could Present Problems Moving Forward

The Washington Wizards may have just laid out a blueprint on how to stop Ben Simmons, or at least slow him down.

Dennis Chambers profile picture



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Ben Simmons is brilliant in nearly every aspect on the basketball court — except for one, where he appears to be a glaring liability.

When he’s not throwing a highlight-reel pass or showing off the ability to blow by a defender to make it to rack whenever he so pleases, Simmons struggles to hit his foul shots. He doesn’t just miss a few here or there; he misses almost as often as he makes free throws.

Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center, Scott Brooks and the Washington Wizards exploited the rare crack in Simmons’ armor.

Down 95-81 with 6:23 left in the fourth quarter, Brooks employed a strategy that’s usually been reserved for players such as Shaquille O’Neal or DeAndre Jordan, physically imposing centers who are notorious for missing their freebies. Brooks directed his team to go into full-fledged “Hack-A-Ben” mode to try and get themselves back into a game they were being blown out in for the majority of the night.

What took place over the next four minutes of game time (which felt like an eternity in real time) could be a model for the rest of the NBA when it comes to slowing down the rookie point guard. Simmons started his response to Brooks’ strategy by missing four of his first seven foul shots. This allowed the Wizards to claw their way back into a game they otherwise had no business being in, bringing the score to 99-92.

Simmons, following a Tomas Satoransky layup, missed his next two from the charity stripe. Three free throws on the other end, one from Jodie Meeks, and two from Ian Mahinmi due to a Joel Embiid technical, brought the game to 99-95.

Ultimately, without dragging out the boring back and forth, the Sixers pulled out a 118-113 victory. But not before Simmons would attempt 24 free throws in the quarter, an NBA record number for a single quarter of play.

Of his 24 attempts, Simmons made half. He finished strong, knocking down six of his last eight chances. But his inconsistency, coupled with his obvious frustration at his poor results, laid out the map for opposing teams in close games with Philadelphia.

In Brooks’ mind, he was just following the rulebook when fouling Simmons (even when he didn’t have the ball).

“It’s not my rule,” Brooks said postgame about his team’s ability to continuously foul Simmons. “It’s an NBA rule.”

As noted before, this isn’t a groundbreaking tactic. O’Neal faced similar problems throughout his career, shooting just 58 percent from the line during his tenure in the league. This instance was, however, the first time Simmons has faced the strategy in his young career. Shooting just 55 percent from the line this season, and having a track record of shooting 67 percent in that same area during his one season at LSU, Simmons is a prime target for teams in the future to test his ability to hit foul shots late in games.

Sixers’ head coach Brett Brown opted to keep Simmons in the game, forcing his young point guard to learn on the fly in a scenario that he will no doubt face down the road.

We’ve done it ourselves,” Brown said of hacking an opposing player. “This one was done early and it did stretch out the game. It was done in my old life with Bruce Bowen a lot. And then you’re in a decision, do you take him out of the game or do you roll with him? And tonight, we decided to roll with Ben. And it’s going to be part of his evolution. He’s going to have a long career, he’s going to have to learn to navigate through this.”

Simmons’ teammate, Joel Embiid, agreed with Brown’s strategy to leave his oversized point guard in the game to experience a hacking strategy. Embiid mentioned that it’s “on Ben to step up and make free throws.”

Amid the choppy game flow and constant fouling, Wizards guard Bradley Beal was doing his best to pour gas on the fire that was Simmons’ free throw shooting.

“I loved it,” Beal said. “Trash talking so he could miss a few, but we definitely extended some of the length of the game for sure. That’s what kept us in the game.”

What makes this tactic against Simmons so interesting is how frequently it may be put to use. The Sixers, though able to fend off Washington this time around, will more than likely find themselves in close games as the season goes on given their relative youth.

So far, 13 of Philadelphia’s 20 games have been decided by 10 points or less. When the game clock starts approaching zero, an opposing team will almost assuredly turn to fouling Simmons. Given that the 6-foot-10 Australian averages 35 minutes per game and occupies a 24 percent usage rate, the opportunities to force Simmons to beat a team from the line will be right there for the taking.

Brown spoke earlier in the season about making Simmons a 70 percent foul shooter being one of his main objectives. As it stands, Simmons is a far cry from being that reliable. But don’t expect the rookie to shy away from his chance to ice a game.

“I never want to come out of a situation like that,” Simmons said. “[Brown] knows my mentality. I’m not scared to shoot free throws.”

The win Wednesday night didn’t come pretty for Philadelphia. After leading the entire game — at one point by as much as 24 — a five-point victory, with plenty of missed free throws, doesn’t reflect the otherwise dominant performance the Sixers had.

Putting Simmons on the line will continue to be a strategy until he proves he’s capable of hitting foul shots. After setting fire to the league during his first 20 games, the Wizards provided the outline for the rest of the Association on how they can potentially slow down this freight train point guard.

But for Simmons, he doesn’t think the “Hack-A-Ben” tactic will be around for too long.

“It’s not gonna happen for that much longer,” Simmons said. “I’m gonna knock them down.”

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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