NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. – When 18-year-old Australian point guard Dante Exum was selected with the fifth pick of the 2014 NBA draft, his childhood chum, Ben Simmons, watched on TV with his family in Melbourne, some 10,000 miles and ten time zones away. Exum and Simmons had exchanged text messages about 15 minutes before Dante’s name was called, and when they finally spoke on the phone the next day, Simmons sensed his friend was much more excited than he let on. “Knowing Dante, he sounded calm, but that’s because it was hard for him to go crazy with a lot of people around,” Simmons says. “Dante is kind of chill.”
Simmons and Exum may be taking different paths, but they are likely to arrive at the same destination. A left-handed, 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward who has committed to LSU, Simmons has been the breakout star of college basketball’s annual summer recruiting circuit. Last week, he averaged 18 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists while leading his Florida-based AAU team, Each 1 Teach 1, to a 5-1 record at Nike’s EYBL Peach Jam. That followed his stellar play at the NBA Players Association’s Top 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Va., where Simmons was named the camp’s MVP, as well as his head-turning performances at Nike’s LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas. Last spring, Simmons led his high school, Montverde Academy, to the championship of the Dick’s Sporting Goods High School National Tournament at Madison Square Garden, where he was named MVP after tallying 24 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in the final against Oak Hill Academy.
Coming into the summer, there was no consensus among recruiting experts on the nation’s top senior, but Simmons has emphatically ended the debate. Just a few years ago, it didn't occur to Simmons that he could be a lottery pick before his 19th birthday. He was just hoping an NCAA Division I team would recruit him. That’s why he enrolled in an American high school, which subjected him to the NBA’s 19-year-old age minimum as outlined in the league’s collective bargaining agreement. “This wasn’t some kind of grand plan,” Simmons’ father, Dave, said at the team’s hotel during the Peach Jam last week. “There’s no way I expected all of this, but you know, we’re managing it.”
Indeed, there is very little about Simmons’ story, or his game, that could be considered conventional. Though he is listed as a power forward, he could best be described as a point center, and he will likely be the best passing big man to enter the college game since Kevin Love arrived at UCLA in 2007. At the Peach Jam, Simmons repeatedly brought the ball upcourt, initiated his team’s half-court offense, deftly led fast breaks and fired pinpoint passes in transition. Simmons is not a video-game athlete, nor does he have much range on his jump shot. (He did not make a single basket outside the paint at the Peach Jam.) Rather, he excels by making good decisions, taking smart shots, and keeping things simple (a little weak). When Ben’s father describes their native city of Melbourne as having “a very good pace – it’s not too fast and it’s not too slow,” he could just as easily be talking about his son’s style of play.
Simmons’ college choice likewise deviates from the norm. Even though several of the sport’s most prominent programs offered him scholarships, Simmons committed to LSU in October without visiting any other schools. The reason: Tigers assistant David Patrick is Ben’s godfather. Also unlike so many top prospects, Simmons did not string out his recruitment so he could artificially build intrigue before announcing his choice on national television. He simply made up his mind and moved on. And even though LSU has not qualified for the NCAA tournament since 2009, Simmons is confident he will be playing meaningful games in March as a freshman. “Wherever I go, I plan on winning,” he says with a grin. “I don’t like to lose.”
Not surprisingly, Simmons’ biggest basketball influence has been his father, a former 6-7 forward from the Bronx who played for the legendary Abe Lemons at Oklahoma City College, an NAIA school. Dave later played professionally for a few teams in Central and South America. He was living in the States in the fall of 1989 when he was invited to join an Australian team that was playing exhibition games against American colleges. Dave eventually agreed to move to Australia to join the club, the Melbourne Tigers, on a full-time basis. He thought it would be a brief stay, but he played for eight years, married an Australian girl, and never left.
One of his teammates with the Tigers was a 6-6 forward named Cecil Exum, who had played for North Carolina from 1980-84. Their sons, Dante and Ben, became fast friends. “If we happened to be in the stadium, once the kids saw each other, they went straight onto the court and played,” Dave says. Adds Ben, “Dante’s like my brother. We used to have sleepovers every weekend.”
Meanwhile, Dave was also striking up a close friendship with Patrick, at the time a local teenage basketball player who worked out with the Tigers and played for the Australian junior national team. The son of an Australian mother and British father, Patrick left for America when he was 17. Patrick played his final year of high school ball in Baton Rouge where then-LSU assistant, and current LSU coach, Johnny Jones recruited him. Patrick went on to play at Syracuse and, later, Louisiana-Lafayette.
Like most boys growing up in Australia, Simmons played rugby as well as Australian rules football, but by the time he was 14, he decided to focus on basketball. He wasn’t freakishly tall, but he was big for his age, so he grew up playing against boys who were two and three years older. As Ben moved into his high school years, his dad realized that it was only a matter of time before he would be unable to keep doing that. Dave still had a few basketball contacts back in the States, so he worked the phones and got Ben invited to a couple of high-level camps in California the summer before his freshman year of high school. Dave knew his son was good, but it wasn’t until he watched Ben square off against older Americans that he realized he might have a real future in the game.
Dave and Ben decided he should finish his high school career in the U.S. Dave found him a place at Montverde Academy, a small boarding school outside of Orlando whose coach Kevin Boyle had previously worked in New Jersey at St. Patrick’s High School, one of the nation’s preeminent basketball programs. Ben arrived midway through his sophomore year and had a terrific season, but he only participated in one major camp the next summer. Instead of bouncing around the AAU circuit like many American rising stars were doing, Ben returned to Melbourne, worked out on his own (as well as with the Australian national team), and rested.
That decision helps explain why Ben has flown under the radar until now. It also helps explain why he is such a mature, fundamentally sound player. “I’m listening to some of these kids saying after they leave here they’re going to all these places, and I’m thinking isn’t that a lot of basketball? A lot of traveling?” Dave says. “I think summer should be that time to have a break and work on things. Sometimes as a kid you need to just go play with your friends.”
When Ben was growing up, Dave coached his teams, but Dave was not the kind of pent-up sports dad who only sought to feature his son. “I always tried to fair with everyone so Ben wasn’t the kid who took all the shots,” Dave says. “I coached him the way I like to see the game played. If someone is open, just pass the ball.” That was of a piece with the broader basketball culture in Australia, which is more influenced by the pass-first European style of play than the American way. If anything, Ben can be too eager to share the ball. During a tournament in Dallas this past spring, Ben’s AAU coach, Steven Rece, told Ben that if he didn’t shoot more, he was going to sit the rest of the game. Ben started firing and ended up with 35 points. “It’s kind of weird realizing nobody can guard you,” Ben says. “You start scoring, you get rhythm. Players start playing up on you and you pass the ball. Then you start winning. So it’s fun.”
Perhaps the biggest factor in Ben’s emergence was the growth spurt that gave him four inches during his sophomore and junior years. Like many players who sprouted late, Ben benefited from having a larger frame without losing the guard skills he honed while playing against older kids. “The thing I like about Ben’s game is that his progression has been very steady,” Dave says. “It’s not like he was great when he was 12. He did some good things, but as he’s gotten older, he’s putting it all together. It’s all sort of just happening.”
Though schools like Duke, Kansas and Kentucky made token efforts to recruit Simmons, there was little doubt that he would end up at LSU with Patrick, who has previously worked as an assistant at Saint Mary’s as well as a personnel scout with the Houston Rockets. Though Simmons is quiet and polite off the court, he exudes confidence between the lines that occasionally spills over to swagger. During one game at the Peach Jam, as Simmons was racking up 21 points and seven assists in a rout over Team CP3, he looked into the stands at the team’s namesake, Chris Paul, and barked, “Too easy!” As the old saw goes, it ain’t bragging if it’s true. “At home, I play against older guys, so it’s different for me to come here and play guys who are younger than me,” Simmons says. “I kind of feel like I should be doing this well.”
Now that the Peach Jam is over, Simmons plans to fly home and join the training camp for the Australian national team in hopes of playing in the FIBA World Cup later this summer in Spain. He still has his senior year at Montverde to look forward to, followed by his freshman year at LSU, after which he expects that he will hear his name called as an NBA lottery pick, just like his best friend. Then there’s the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where Simmons hopes he and Exum will represent their native country. That’s a lot to manage in a short time, but Simmons is content to move at his own pace.