Evaluating budding star Ben Simmons through first five collegiate games
Report filed to the Sports Illustrated Scouting Department after watching potential 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons over two days in Brooklyn, N.Y., at the Legends Classic:
What Ben Simmons did
vs. Marquette (40 minutes): 21 points, 20 rebounds, 7 assists
vs. NC State (40 minutes): 4 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks, one kiss blown to a guy who yelled, “Sit down, Ben!” after Simmons fouled out in overtime.
What is a Ben Simmons?
At this stage of his career, there are at least four definitions for the phenom out of Melbourne, Australia:
1. To Ben Simmons, Ben Simmons is a pass-first point guard, with incredible court vision, in a 6’10” body. Rarely does he attack with the intention of scoring or getting fouled. He drives with the goal of collapsing defenses and setting up teammates; he loves to get to the free-throw line area (or just below it) off the bounce, then throw a diagonal skip-pass to a shooter in either corner. He’ll go to elaborate lengths to set up passes, including making a big display of calling for a high ballscreen, waving off the oncoming screener, then calling for it again, drawing wing defenders’ eyes and feet toward the developing situation—and then whipping a pass to a momentarily open wing shooter before the ballscreen even arrives. (He did this twice in Brooklyn and each time, took great pleasure in the outcome: an assisted three.)
Simmons’s offensive checklist is read, react, create—or if he absolutely has to, score. “Ben is going to play to what the defense dictates,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “If that’s making an extra pass, that’s how he’s going to play, because he very seldom is going to force the issue.”
2. To neutral observers, this makes Simmons as tantalizing as he is talented. This sentence seems more absurd when typed, as opposed to thought, but I watched a 19-year-old freshman flirt with triple-doubles on back-to-back days against major-conference opponents, and the feeling I was left with was not awe, but rather that those stats seem like only 65-75% of his potential output. I wanted him to be surrounded by better finishers and shot-makers, so he wasn’t leaving 4 to 5 assists on the table each game. I wanted him to force the issue at least 4 or 5 more times on offense. He passed up two opportunities to drive for game-winning points against Marquette, and he didn’t even attempt his first field goal until the 2:29 mark of the first half against NC State. That Simmons is only taking 20.8% of LSU’s shots thus far—a lower rate than guards Antonio Blakeney, Brandon Sampson, Tim Quarterman and Josh Gray—seems like a sub-optimal distribution.
3. To LSU, Simmons is a multitude of things. In small lineups, he has to serve as their primary rebounder and rim-protector, and he’s a work in progress as an interior defender. The Tigers’ best offensive play is a Simmons defensive rebound, after which no outlet is needed. He becomes a point forward or a point center and starts a fast break; his teammates, said point guard Josh Gray, know to “just run lanes” once Simmons grabs a board. Through four games, 31.0% of possessions Simmons either ended or assisted on were in transition, and LSU was scoring 1.67 PPP—an excellent rate of efficiency—in those situations. In the halfcourt, the Tigers have had more trouble getting him involved. They’re still in the experimentation stage, trying to figure out if (and where) it’s best to isolate Simmons, or involve him in more pick-and-rolls, or have him go to work in the post.
4. To opponents, Simmons is regarded as a Sag (rather than stretch) Four: when he has the ball on the perimeter in halfcourt settings, his defender tends to guard him with at least one foot in the paint. Marquette’s game plan, via freshman Henry Ellenson, was, “play off him and pack the paint.” NC State’s game plan, via coach Mark Gottfried, was, “to really kind of crowd the lane, flood the lane, put everybody to sink and clog it up, and not let [Simmons] get going with his penetration.” The reason defenses do this is because Simmons has everything in his arsenal except a jump shot.
About that jumper
To call it non-existent is no exaggeration. Simmons has yet to try a three-pointer this season. He has attempted seven two-point jumpers and missed all of them. The one he tried against NC State on Tuesday was an uncontested, baseline fade-away off of an out-of-bounds play—and it resulted in an airball. Simmons’s lack of a jumper has led to super-sagged defenses and less-than-ideal pick-and-roll coverages. When he set screens and popped against Marquette, its defenders pretty much ignored him and focused on swarming the ball-handler. When LSU ran pick-and-rolls with Simmons as the ball-handler and a non-shooting big man as the screener, both defenders just stepped back and walled off penetration.
I was curious—as were a few of the NBA scouts who showed up early each day to watch LSU’s warmups—if Simmons was merely keeping his long-range shot under wraps. Then I charted his unguarded three-point attempts in warmups prior to the NC State game, and the results were not promising. He was 5-of-27 from deep, and two of those makes were of the casual, non-game-form variety—a one-footer and a flat-footer.
About Simmons’s handedness
I’ve seen Simmons called ambidextrous, but a more accurate way to put it is that there’s a division of responsibilities between each hand. He shoots long- and mid-range jumpers and free-throws left-handed. He prefers to dribble left-handed in transition, and prefers to drive left in isolation. But he reflexively finishes with his right hand on layups or dunks, and even shot one lean-back floater righty against NC State. Simmons feels that, when he does attack, he draws more fouls (including 11 free throws against Marquette) by going left and then twisting back to finish right. “It’s easier for [defenders] to hit you in the hand if you take it like that,” he said.
What a fan wearing a throwback LSU Pete Maravich jersey, with no shirt underneath, on Nov. 24, thought of Simmons
Said Scott Pollack of Hoboken, N.J., during the second half against NC State: “I think [Simmons’s] upside is there, but he’s being a little too unselfish at this point. But in the annals of great LSU basketball players, even though he’ll probably only be here for a year, I think he could blossom into an extremely strong player. ... I just think he’s looking to make the players around him better before he makes himself better, maybe putting the cart before the horse.”
On a hypothetical Maravich vs. Simmons duel, Pollack said: “Maravich would take him all day. Maravich would shoot 40-foot jump shots and Simmons wouldn’t even know what to do. Simmons throwing that around-the-back pass one time [in his debut against McNeese State] is what Maravich could do in his sleep.”
A key measure of Simmons’s status as a prospect
Chris Meyer and John Aiello, both 15, were sitting in the first row behind NC State’s bench, wearing shirts that said Montverde Academy—the prep school in Florida where Simmons played for two seasons before heading to LSU. I asked them if they had attended school with Simmons.
They said no. They were students at Manhasset High School in Long Island. “We ordered these online a month ago,” Meyer said of the shirts, “and had them customized.” On the backs, they each had Simmons’ name and high-school number, 20. They were already big fans. They follow Simmons on Snapchat and Instagram. “He got compared to LeBron James already,” Aiello said. “That was pretty sick.” I have not seen fans wearing high-school gear of a big-time prospect since either Kevin Durant’s Montrose Christian throwback, or LeBron James’s St. Vincent-St. Mary’s jersey.
What comes next
David Patrick, LSU’s Australian assistant coach who’s also Simmons’ godfather, said we’re witnessing an early-season progression. The first thing Simmons did was establish his brilliant passing ability. LSU’s coaches were disappointed in his rebounding in the first few games, so they showed him film of his effort level on that front—and Simmons responded by grabbing 20 boards against Marquette and 14 against NC State. What coaches asked him to do after the Marquette loss was think more about rim-protection; he responded with three blocks against NC State.
“The next thing,” Patrick said, “is maybe scoring and taking over some when we need him to. We’ll show him film; he needs to see how guys are playing him, and I think he’s smart enough and adaptable enough to make adjustments and score.”
I’ll make my own adjustments to appreciate Simmons properly—as a playmaker and only occasional scorer—while still yearning for a few 30-point, 20-rebound, 12-assist triple-doubles before his one college season comes to an end. It would be a travesty if that happens in the NIT, which is a real possibility for LSU. The Tigers are 3–2, have a weak schedule, and only one more opportunity (vs. Oklahoma on Jan. 30) to pick up a quality non-conference win. I’m willing to cover an NCAA tournament that lacks Ben Simmons, but I won’t be happy about it.