NBA Summer League: Unlocking the mind of Ben Simmons
LAS VEGAS — A purple and gold wave rolled throughout the lower level of the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday night, even spilling into the upper deck. Hundreds of Lakers fans made the short trek from Los Angeles to UNLV’s campus to cheer on Brandon Ingram’s marquee clash with Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers. “I knew every layup they were gonna go crazy,” Simmons said.The chorus crescendoed as D’Angelo Russell’s 27-foot, buzzer-beating bomb splashed through the net to give L.A. a 70–69 victory.
Amidst the mayhem, Simmons posted 8 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists in his Las Vegas Summer League debut. He slung no-look bounce passes through tiny holes in the defense, sometimes even surprising backdoor cutters with crisp basketballs to their hands. “I don’t think he was rattled one bit, I think he just wanted to get it from the start,” said Sixers assistant coach Lloyd Pierce. The transition from the college game to the NBA is often more mental than physical. League executives, coaches and players all speak about the need for prospects to tip toe the line of asserting aggressiveness and finding a poise within the accelerated pace. As the Lakers fans’ wave surged behind their team’s comeback, Simmons fought off being victimized by the undertow.
“We call it the eye of the hurricane,” sports psychologist Graham Betchart said. “There’s going to be a storm around you and there’s nothing you can do about it. But you can get real peaceful and real calm in the middle of it.” The National Basketball Players Association hired Betchart, a mental skills coach, in 2011 and he began lecturing at the union’s Top 100 camp shortly after. He met Simmons at the event in 2014 and a relationship spawned. “I present mental training to a lot of kids there and I just kind of see who gravitates towards it,” Betchart said.
Betchart, 38, walked on at UC Santa Cruz as a perimeter defensive specialist and began working with basketball youth, coaching a local eighth grade team in between his games and practices. He earned a Master’s degree in sports psychology at John F. Kennedy University and embarked on a journey guiding basketball’s elite when he met 11-year-old, Bay Area-native Aaron Gordon.
Betchart and Gordon fostered a relationship. When Gordon arrived on the national radar as a 15 year old, Betchart’s reputation preceded him. “I had some credibility because of Aaron,” he said. It opened the door for his work with Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine in 2014 and then Karl-Anthony Towns during his Rookie of the Year campaign one season later. “He’d text me little things,” Towns told SI.com.
The crux of the program is bolstering a player’s morale to what Betchart deems “supreme confidence,” the highest status on his three-level scale. “After a game, the average person asks a player two things: Did you win and how many points did you score?” Betchart said. “What I ask is: How was your focus? How often were you present? How fast was your next play speed? What level of confidence were you acting in? I’ve found that great results happen from there.”
After their 2014 initiation at the Top 100 camp, Simmons and Betchart stayed in contact throughout his freshman season at LSU. Betchart flew down to Baton Rouge twice, strengthening their bond. “There was a lot of noise around him choosing to go there and a lot of people have huge opinions,” Betchart said. “When I would go out there, I would just help him relax, and help him focus on what he could control.” They communicated most frequently by phone.
Simmons would often call Betchart from LSU’s training table prior to games, engaging in a five-minute routine comprised of meditation, visualization and positive affirmation. The meditation exercises focused on breathing. Next, Betchart would guide Simmons to envisioning his success later that evening. “If he’s in Kentucky,” Betchart said. “We’ll have him visualize the arena in Kentucky and see himself playing well there.” The affirmations concluded the process. I am an unstoppable force and I move onto the next play with ease. “Have him say that three or four times, go back to the breath, hang the phone up and he’s locked in,” Betchart said.
While Simmons whips crossovers past defenders, bounds towards the rim and spot assists out of the corners of his eyes, the absence of his jump shot remains the missing piece between him and ultimate NBA stardom, a rare unguardability. Only 45 of Simmons’s 389 field goal attempts at LSU were jumpers, per Synergy Sports. “He's going to have to earn respect for his jumper sooner rather than later,” said one team executive in Vegas. Which makes his intimate collaboration with Betchart especially fascinating. Basketball personnel have long reached a consensus that jump-shooting is the one skill most reliant on confidence.
Throughout Summer League, opponents have given Simmons about 10 feet of room as he dribbled around the three-point arc, daring him to hoist an outside shot. It’s a strategy similar to those the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have employed against LeBron James in recent Finals. Simmons hardly attempted to make the defense pay, sparking a question during his post-Lakers game scrum: Do you think you need to shoot more? “I just need to be more assertive and just take what they give me,” Simmons responded.
Betchart agrees. To remedy Simmons’ allergy to outside shooting, he has to, simply, shoot. “The way you learn to walk is to fall down,” Betchart said. “Part of the deal of being a great shooter is you have to fail great. That’s what we work on. If you see a game where he goes 2-of-15 and 2-of-17, that is a sign of greatness. That is a sign that you’re willing to be vulnerable, that you’re willing to be uncomfortable and go into a space to master your craft.” Simmons, to his credit, did connect on four jumpers on Sunday against the Bulls.
Gordon struggled mightily at the foul line during his lone season at Arizona, converting just 35.6% of his free throw attempts as a freshman. “It was extremely humiliating when your home fans are laughing at you sarcastically when you make a free throw,” Betchart said. Yet during his rookie season with the Orlando Magic, Gordon sunk 72.1% of his foul shots. “Nobody’s laughing now,” Betchart said. “But that was 900 days of work to slowly get himself there.”
Simmons already embodies Betchart’s teachings when he steps onto the court. “When I was working with him at LSU, when I go into to games like this, I don’t really get nervous,” he said following his showdown with the Lakers. Simmons must now allow that mindset to permeate his shooting motion as well. “You have to miss shots to make shots. If you refuse to miss, you’ll never make,” Betchart said. “I see [Ben] as a willing participant. He’s just so eager to work on it.”
Simmons has the tool to eliminate his mental block just as Gordon seemingly has. Betchart might be the aid to truly unlocking the 76ers’ franchise player they’ve long been searching for.