But before sizing him up for college and beyond, let’s step back to Ben Simmons’ emergence. Few knew much about him prior to the 2012 Pangos All-American Camp, where the slender power forward proved to be one of the best players in attendance, regardless of class.
Simmons exited that camp with a great deal of momentum and, in early 2013, transferred from his native Australia to Montverde (Fla.) Academy. He quickly accumulated high-major college interest, but he had no designs on a protracted recruitment. He committed to LSU last fall, prior to his junior season, and in part for that reason has been less celebrated than you might expect given his stature within the class.
The Tigers didn’t have to recruit him from a neutral position, much to their delight. Assistant coach David Patrick is Simmons’ godfather, and the recruitment thus ended before it truly could begin.
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Montverde coach Kevin Boyle always has run a tight ship and demands team-oriented basketball, dating back to his time at Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick. For that reason, then, one may have watched Simmons last season and come away thinking he was good, not great.
That same reaction sometimes greeted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (just Michael Gilchrist at the time) during his junior year at St. Patrick, too, causing people not to realize exactly how productive he could be in other settings.
So it was without extraordinary fanfare that Simmons embarked on the 2014 travel circuit. He toured with Each1Teach1 and competed in 13 total games, making pit stops at events such as the NBPA Top 100 Camp as well.
But it was at the Peach Jam in mid-July where Simmons fully imprinted himself, getting my vote as the country’s top summer performer. He enters his senior year primed to challenge for the top spot in the Class of 2015, and irrespective of that he’s likely to capture numerous awards and invitations to all-star events next spring.
Simmons simply is a fantastic all-around player. Choosing any single aspect of his game to highlight is problematic — and, in truth, he isn’t a highlight sort of player — because he adapts his role to the competitive situation at hand.
I noted above that he’d been sensational at the Peach Jam. Well, the numbers don’t lie. For a loaded team, Simmons averaged 19 points per game on 61 percent shooting, and he combined his scoring with nine rebounds, four assists and two steals per contest.
The guys who carry the most potential frequently showcase both production and efficiency, qualities that rarely appear in tandem at the high school level. Simmons isn’t just a reliable, workhorse producer, either; he possesses a superlative sense of timing for making the right play at the right moment.
Though E1T1 came up short at the Peach Jam, they appeared to be a frontrunner entering the tournament rounds, and Montverde soared to a mythical national title last spring. In the finale of the Dick’s Sporting Goods tournament versus Oak Hill Academy, Simmons poured in 24 points and 12 rebounds.
A southpaw, Simmons gains tremendous advantage from left-handed deception and impulse. He thrives facing the basket, knocking down short- and medium-range jump shots, putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim, making slick passes all over the court, crashing the offensive glass and generally reading defenses like a very tall quarterback.
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He possesses uncommon coordination for a 6-8 athlete, and he utilizes every ounce of that ability to make an impact. He specializes in hard chest passes, the kind that break fingers if caught the wrong way. But he applies touch as needed and whips passes from the high post to perimeter shooters.
Simmons also is aggressive around the rim and has filled out naturally to 220 pounds, making him very effective at drawing contact and forcing foul trouble onto opponents. He’s a good leaper with a running start, and he likes to roam anywhere from the baseline to the elbow for quick jumpers off the catch.
His defense is at worst adequate, and it’s very good on the perimeter if you consider him a power forward. He gets steals and blocks an occasional shot, and he’s plenty mobile to hedge on high screens and maintain contact with a rolling big man.
Simmons’ intangibles are top-notch and his track record for winning speaks for itself.
There’s that whole positional issue to consider. As a caveat, this looms as far less of a concern for college. At LSU, the Tigers will be able to deploy Simmons in any number of roles and get outstanding production.
But thinking ahead, is the 6-8 Simmons athletic enough to be a four-man in the NBA? And if he’s a wing, will he possess the quickness to reside full-time on the perimeter? I suspect he’ll always struggle to defend elite opposing wings, as it takes a special athlete to move his feet that quickly and Simmons is a good, not great athlete.
NBA scouts also may fret that he lacks the shot-creating talents to be more than an opportunistic scorer in the pros. He doesn’t possess vintage NBA burst and isn’t much of a straight-up leaper, nor is he extremely agile.
Meanwhile, he’ll need to improve on his free throw shooting, particularly given how much time he spends on the line. He hovered in the mid-60 percent range for E1T1, definitely a liability. His shooting range requires expansion, too, as he’s both reluctant and ineffective from deep.
People have varying player preferences. This obvious statement applies to everyone: coaches, scouts, fans and whoever else happens to have eyes on a player at a given moment. If your preference is for the less complete, higher ceiling player, Simmons doesn’t match up quite as well in that light as, say, Skal Labissiere.
But if you prefer a nearly sure thing who’s ready to step into the starting lineup on day one — and stay there for a long time — Simmons may be your choice as the top dog in the senior class. What’s not up for (informed) debate is whether he’s an elite prospect, because he clearly is, and along with that essentially no one argues that he’ll be anything less than a long-time pro.
In many respects he reminds of now-retired NBA stalwart Shane Battier. Simmons isn’t as fluid as Battier and doesn’t shoot as well, but he’s a more effective handler and passer. Physically and intangibly, however, the two share a great deal in common.
Simmons’ presence at LSU, however brief it may prove to be, could raise the Tiger program immediately and significantly. Not only are the Tigers likely to improve on the court, they’ll enjoy greater visibility and should receive benefits from having a lottery pick representing the program for many years.