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Skills Challenge Accepted: Six NBA Players Showing Major Progress

Ben Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, and more are showing signs of turning holes in their games into strengths

A collage of Klay Thompson, Ben Simmons, and Kyrie Irving Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Any time a player can turn a weakness into a strength, it’s a testament to their hard work and openness to change, plus the coaching they receive. It takes humility to recognize a defect and address it. Even incremental improvements can have a ripple effect on a player’s team. We’ve already witnessed stars, role players, and rookies alike progress their games in this young NBA season. Here are a few of the standouts:

Ben Simmons: Ambidextrous Scoring

If Simmons maintains his present numbers (18 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists), he’ll become only the fifth player to ever average 10, nine, and eight (Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, and Russell Westbrook are the others). He would win Rookie of the Year in a landslide and maybe even earn an All-Star spot. Simmons is undeniably one of the league’s most gifted talents. But which hand he utilizes to distribute those talents is one of the most confounding stories across sports.

Simmons hasn’t attempted a single jumper outside of 16 feet (his five 3-point attempts are all heaves at the end of the quarter) and has hit only 30 of 51 free throws (58.8 percent). As we’ve discussed multiple times on The Ringer, Simmons uses his left hand 100 percent of the time when shooting jumpers and free throws. But at LSU, he used his right hand 81.8 percent of the time on all other shots (layups, dunks, floaters, running hooks). I’ve manually tracked Ben’s handedness numbers since he was in college and will continue to over his career until he switches hands (or until I get bored). Simmons does just about everything else with his right hand, including throwing, eating, and writing. “I think I was supposed to be right-handed,” Simmons told the New York Daily News in 2016. He’s right. He shoots with the wrong hand.

Simmons often gets dubbed ambidextrous, but, at least for now, it’s mostly one-sided. Defenders will eventually learn that when he takes one hard dribble to his left, he’s only setting up the behind-the-back move to his right. Without a reliable perimeter jumper, defenders will sag off him, suffocating the paint.

But Simmons is evolving. He’s begun to use his left hand more frequently on non-jumpers. Here are Simmons’s latest handedness splits this season.

Ninety-six percent of Simmons’s layups at LSU, 2016 summer league, and the 2017-18 preseason combined were with his right hand. So far this season, 79 percent have come using his right hand. In college and summer league, only six of his 126 “close shots” (and one make) were with his left hand. This preseason and season, nearly one-quarter are off his left hand. He’s still not shooting well with his left (22.2 percent) compared to his right (44.7 percent), but it’s encouraging he’s trying to use his wrong hand on non-jumpers.

Simmons didn’t have much of a short midrange game prior to this season. He’d frequently toss up careless floaters or try layups too far from the rim. Simmons has expanded his midrange game by ripping a move straight from one of the greatest moments in NBA Finals history:

Simmons added a skyhook to his repertoire, which he’s found success with using his right hand. It’s a nearly impossible shot to block or alter, and the Australian forward shows wonderful touch when using it in a crowded paint.

When Simmons can’t get to his dominant hand, he’s looked more comfortable pulling up for his jumper from around 12 feet.

Prior to this season, Simmons made only 28.6 percent of his jump shots. But in preseason and the regular season combined, he’s made 15 of 32, or 46.9 percent. It’s possible Big Ben’s numbers fall off a cliff as the season progresses. He also has multiple airballs and hasn’t shot well from the line. But the early signs are positive. As long as Simmons keeps hitting short jumpers, he won’t be forcing shots with his natural right hand. Diversifying his game with a skyhook and some jumpers makes him tougher to read and harder to defend. Now he must effectively extend his shooting range with his wrong hand or make the switch and shoot jumpers with his right hand.

Bradley Beal: At-Rim Finishing

Beal has steadily improved each season of his career, and now, in his sixth, he’s ready to make another leap. “A few summers ago, our big emphasis was cutting down long 2s from his game to improve his efficiency,” NBA skills coach Drew Hanlen told me. “Last summer, we focused on improving his ability to create for himself and others. This summer, we made the final step and focused on improving his finishing angles so that he could convert more around the rim and get to the line more for easy points.”

Beal’s offseason work is translating to the court. The Wizards shooting guard is attempting a career-high 6.8 free throw attempts per game, which translates to 0.37 free throws per field goal attempt (about the same rate as John Wall and Kevin Durant last season). That’s a drastic increase from Beal’s 0.26 field goal rate last season (similar to Austin Rivers and Derrick Rose). Beal has also hit 80.4 percent of his shots within five feet of the rim (37-for-46), up from 59.4 percent over his first five seasons; 80.4 percent is unsustainable, but his finishing is more visibly appealing (and effective) than in past seasons.

Beal is seeking and absorbing contact in the paint. He’s unafraid of the tall trees inside, and his escalated aggression has frequently put him on the line. But, as Hanlen alluded to, Beal is taking better angles off the bounce, and he’s become more adept at extending his arm to create a more preferable release point with either hand at the rim.

The ability to draw fouls isn’t a prerequisite trait to becoming a great scorer, but it’s an important skill to have. Even if James Harden is having an off shooting night, he can penetrate into the paint and draw fouls. That’s what makes Beal’s early-season performance so interesting. He’s not even shooting well (36.2 percent from 3), and yet he’s still averaging a career-best 25.7 points per game. It’s only a matter of time until 3s start falling for Beal (he shoots 39.8 percent for his career), so if he maintains his free throw rate, it’s conceivable his scoring and efficiency will only increase.

Kyrie Irving: Defense

Say it out loud: “Kyrie Irving has been really good on defense.” It almost doesn’t sound true, and yet, here we are, with Irving leading the NBA in steals and ranking fourth in deflections per game (3.7). The numbers are encouraging enough, but Irving’s defensive impact and commitment on that end show up most on film. Watch here how Irving sprints through screens to deter the Kings from cleanly delivering Bogdan Bogdanovic the ball:

It’s one thing for a player to defend when the game is close, but the mark of a reliable defender is when they never stop grinding regardless of the situation—like here, with the Celtics up 18 in the middle of the third quarter during an early November game. Irving has taken on a leadership role for Boston, so it’s important that he set the tone with his defense and not just his offense. The Celtics lead the NBA in defensive rating, and Irving has played an important part by defending well at the point of attack.

Teams have still made an effort to force mismatches in order to put a bigger offensive player up against Irving, considering he’s often Boston’s smallest player on the floor, but he’s been anything but a liability in these situations.

“When he’s highly motivated to [defend], you realize he’s special. His hands are lightning quick, his feet are lightning quick,” ex-Cavaliers general manager David Griffin said in April to Fear the Sword. “When he wants to, he can do whatever he wants.” The Celtics are getting the version of Irving that Griffin imagined. It’s uncertain whether he can sustain his defensive play over the entire regular season and into the playoffs, but the early returns are promising.

Klay Thompson: Post Scoring

“Klay is at his absolute peak for us now,” Steve Kerr said on Thursday, after the Warriors beat the Spurs. “It’s not just the shooting.” Thompson has developed into a complete player: he defends, boxes out, rebounds, makes smart plays, and can now score in the low post. The Toaster already has more makes (nine) from the post than he did all of last season (eight) on half as many attempts (12 to 24), per Synergy Sports. It’s not a central part of Thompson’s game, but Golden State is feeding him when there’s an interior mismatch.

It’s clear Thompson developed smoother footwork while also keeping the ball on a string. It’s most noticeable when he attacks closeouts or operates in the pick-and-roll, but it has also manifested in his post game. At 6-foot-7, he's able to simply launch over tiny defenders. It’s an easy bucket and has become so effective that the Warriors have created opportunities specifically to post him up:

Keep an eye on Patrick McCaw slicing down the lane, straight into Spurs defender Danny Green, which forces the smaller Patty Mills to switch. Klay muscles Mills and launches over the top. There’s not a lot a defense can do about it. The Warriors have so many superstars and knockdown shooters that a double-team would only open up an even better shot. The Dubs have the deadliest offense and incremental improvements only make them more diverse.

Pat Connaughton: Dynamic Shooting

Connaughton got lost in the shuffle over his first two NBA seasons, but with Allen Crabbe now in Brooklyn and Al-Farouq Aminu playing more power forward (and now out for two to three weeks), minutes at shooting guard are free in Portland. Through 10 games, Connaughton is playing 21.2 minutes per game while averaging 7.6 points with a 42.5 3-point percentage. Connaughton is a joy to watch off the ball. He does an excellent job of making himself available with cuts, misdirections, and screens. Most importantly, he makes the shots, whether he’s off balance or shooting from a standstill. Sometimes, Connaughton looks like he has been watching and learning from J.J. Redick footage. Blazers coach Terry Stotts might be, too, with after-timeout actions like this:

Connaughton isn’t on Redick’s level. (Duh.) But the Blazers should be happy with what they have. Losing Crabbe, a 40.8 percent career shooter from 3, could’ve been detrimental to their spacing, but Connaughton has provided a spark off the bench and a valuable target on inbound plays. For as long as Connaughton shoots the lights out, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum will have more than enough room to penetrate into the paint and wreak havoc for opponents.

Clint Capela: Defense and Rebounding

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported last week the Rockets were involved in trade talks prior to the 2017 deadline that would’ve sent Capela, picks, and players to the Clippers for DeAndre Jordan. It was in Houston’s best interest that the deal didn’t happen. Jordan is a superior center today, but Capela is six years younger than Jordan and far ahead of where DJ was at the same age (23). This doesn’t necessarily mean Capela will end up better, but the massive strides he’s made since entering the league suggest there’s little reason to assume he’ll stop progressing.

The 2017-18 season has been Capela’s best after he added more muscle this offseason. The Swiss center weighed 222 pounds at the Nike Hoop Summit in 2014. Now, he’s 240 pounds. “A lot of sprints. Rebound, getting stronger,” Capela said at Rockets media day when asked about his offseason goals. “Weight room, add more weights, get stronger.”

The concern anytime a player adds muscle is he could lose his mobility. Capela has always been adept at defending smaller, quicker players, going back to his time playing overseas. Fortunately, he still is.

Capela can slide his feet laterally and stick to a guard’s hip, like he does against Mike Conley in the clip above. He can also outright switch onto guards.

Playing for Elan Chalon in France, Capela was a liability as a help defender. He was typically a beat late on rotations, so opponents either scored or Capela ended up committing careless fouls. Capela has transformed in this area. He averaged 7.7 fouls per 100 possessions as a rookie to only 4.5 this season. He’s also gotten better at not biting on fakes, and instead picking his spots when flying in as a help defender.

Capela is patrolling the paint for Houston. He second in the NBA among qualified players in defensive rebounding percentage (35.6 percent). He’s a devastating lob threat and leads the league in field goal percentage (68.5 percent). There are better young big men across the league. But Capela stars in his role for the Rockets, and the 2017-18 season could prove to only be a stepping stone toward an even more fruitful future.