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Free Throws: Steve Nash wants Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton to get to line this season

Steve Nash is ready to test his two worst free throw shooters at the line this season ... and he has plenty of confidence in both players.

Throughout the four days at training camp at HSS Training Facility in Industry City, Brooklyn’s coaching staff has worked diligently with both Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton on free throw shooting and shooting from the floor. The work each individual has put into shooting didn’t just begin at camp. It’s been a staple of their off-season.

Simmons, who was heavily critiqued for his poor shooting throughout his Sixers tenure, posts a career 59.7 percent shooting percentage at the line. He can’t be hiding from extra point trips to the line now that he’s in a Nets uniform. The Nets head coach has made it clear throughout camp that he doesn’t want Simmons confidence to dwindle and avoid drawing shooting fouls. Nash didn’t want to comment on why he believed his star’s shooting problems arose in Philadelphia.

“I wasn’t there in the past so it would be rash for me to kind of jump in and weigh in why the fluctuation in free throws,” he said.

The Nets head coach, whose career percentage at the line was 90.4 percent, isn’t going to provide additional pressure on Simmons to up his shooting percentages at the charity strike. Instead, he wants to encourage Simmons to be aggressive in getting to the foul line. As one of the best free throw shooters the game has ever seen, Nash believes more reps and experience in the uncomfortable spot will simply build Simmons' confidence gradually.

“I haven’t coached Ben before so I have to wait and see how the year goes, but Ben put a lot of time in on his free throws,” Nash said. “He’s actually got a nice touch and we want to fill him with confidence.

“To be honest, whether Ben is super efficient from the line or not, I still want him to go to the line. Go to the line, stay aggressive, and I want to take the risk off his play. I’m not going to be discouraged if he doesn’t shoot a better percentage than he has in the past. I’m encouraging him to keep going, and I believe in him as a free throw shooter. I think there’s room for him to really grow as a free-throw shooter. He’s got a good touch and good hands. It’s a matter of him gaining confidence, getting reps, and turning a corner. I believe in him there.”

Professor B, who writes about analytics for NetsDaily, says it’s just smart basketball.

Nash is right on the money here. The key for Ben is not to improve his percentage, but to keep going hard to the hoop. A 60% free throw attempt is a great basketball play. Much better than any mid-range shot (no one on last year’s team shot even 55% from 10-16 feet), and even better than shooting 40% from three, because you’re also getting the other team in foul trouble.

In fact, at each Nets training camp practice when the media was able to watch, Simmons was shooting free throws and shooting from the field. Ryan Forehan-Kelly has been one of the assistant coaches that have worked with him the most.

While the Nets head coach is challenging his newest star to get comfortable with one of the most uncomfortable aspects of his game, he has reiterated plenty of times how valuable Simmons is to Brooklyn. And his value to Brooklyn will not stem from jump shots or free throw shooting. It’s about the extreme versatility he possesses.

“For me, it’s pretty easy. Ben is a great fit for this group. He is a very incredibly important player for us. It’s not about stats. It’s not about jump shots. It’s about how versatile he is, the size and athleticism, skill, all those things he does,” the Nets head coach said Thursday. “He’s got to know how important and valuable he is to the team whether he scores two points or twenty points. He’s a big part of what we do and where we want to go.”

While Nets fans saw from afar Simmons’ lackluster shooting, they got a close look for three seasons at Claxton’s shooting woes. The Nets' young big has shown small glimpses of shooting but has never been able to consistently implement the skillset on the hardwood in part due to the demands from the coaching staff that he focus on D.

Right before the NBA bubble during the 2020 season, Claxton underwent surgery for labrum repair in his shoulder. When the 23-year-old spoke about his rehab, he commonly mentioned how the operation affected his shooting and it was yet another obstacle to improving his shooting.

During the Nets' humiliating 2022 Eastern Conference First Round defeat to the Celtics, Claxton severely struggled at the charity strike. Despite being a 52.7 percent career shooter from the line — and a 62 percent shooter in March and April, the big missed ten straight free throws in Game 4, setting an NBA record for most misses in an NBA game. He ended his free throw futility by going 1-for-11, his final success a cause for much cheering at Barclays Center that night...

Instead of dwelling on his historically poor postseason shooting performance, he goyt in the gym and worked on free throws to a high degree. In the off-season, the Nets coaching staff added tweaks to his shooting technique which, in their eyes, has helped patched the woes.

Like Simmons, Nash is challenging his young big man to get to the line and perform.

“Really for Nic, it’s free throws. It’s not shooting from the floor. It’s free throws,” said Nash on Claxton’s shooting demands. “I think Nic has developed this summer: his professionalism, physically he’s better, and I think his free throw technique has improved. There are a few tweaks we put in this summer that he worked really hard at, and they’ve become more much consistent, which is hard to do. I’m hoping he can shoot the ball better from the line this year, but he’s definitely put the time in and shown improvement on the practice floor.”

On Day 5 of training camp, the big explained how he’s gone between five to six different free throw motions last year, which has finally decreased to one motion this offseason.

When asked if Claxton’s free throw shooting struggles can be pinpointed to technique or a small-ball effect, Nash said both played roles for Claxton. He doubled down, explaining how the tweaks in his shooting should pay off.

“Both,” said Nash. “I think he had some technique issues. He kept osculating between techniques last year. This summer, he was great. He was very diligent and disciplined in trying to implement techniques that we want him to. He’s had some great days in the summer shooting free throws.”

Claxton also spoke of a new attitude this season, knowing that after battling veterans — as well as bad luck with injury and illness — he is needed with the team’s lack of natural 5s.

“It’s been a lot of guys: [Andre] Drummond, [Blake] Griffin, [LaMarcus] Aldridge, DeAndre [Jordan], Jarrett [Allen},” Claxton said Saturday of his learning process. “I just took bits and pieces from everybody’s game. Especially the veterans, I listened to them, and now I’m ready to just show my own self and do my own thing.

“I feel a lot better, just mentally and physically. I feel a lot more confident now going into the preseason and just ready to get everything started.”

Heading into the new year, Simmons has averaged 4.9 attempts per game from the charity strike across four seasons while Claxton has registered 1.9 attempts per outing. Although both are sitting at under 60.0 percent shooting from that line, there’s been a lot of investment by them ... and the team. We’ll know soon enough what the return on investment looks like.