The truth about Ben Simmons: The LSU freshman sensation is hard to define but easy to appreciate
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 25, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Certain statistics and sections have been updated to reflect the most recent developments. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The few inarguable facts about Ben Simmons are that he was born in Melbourne, Australia, 19 years and six months ago; he is a 6' 10" freshman at Louisiana State who averages 19.8 points, 12.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game; and he is the player most likely to be picked No. 1 in the 2016 NBA draft. After that, Simmons becomes more difficult to define. Is he a point-forward, a point-center, a giant floor general—or positionless? Is he lefthanded or (given all those righty finishes) ambidextrous? Should he be a primary ballhandler, to capitalize on his court vision and passing skills, or should he play in the paint, to exploit his advantage in athleticism over opposing big men? Is his game more Aussie-influenced or American-influenced, considering that he developed it in both countries and has one parent of each nationality? Can he responsibly be called the second coming of Magic or of King James? And can he be called the best player in the college game when his team is only 13–7?
It's easier, at this stage, to define Ben Simmons by what he is not.
I. Ben Simmons is not always playing the position he wants to at LSU, but he's O.K. with that.
On Dec. 21, Simmons arrives at LSU's practice facility during a heavy rainstorm wearing a sleeveless shirt with BASKETBALL IS MY GIRLFRIEND printed on the front, and he sits down in a room off the lobby to watch film on a laptop. A reporter has prepared an edit of all Simmons's possessions and assists in his first 10 games as a Tiger, and their variety is remarkable. At this point last season the two freshmen in the running for the No. 1 pick, Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns, both 6' 11", operated almost exclusively out of the post. The Tigers have been, according to coach Johnny Jones, "trying to exhaust every option" for using Simmons, and here in the video he leads the break as a ballhandler, plays point in the halfcourt and sets up as a power forward on the elbow, as a post-up center on the blocks and as a pick-and-pop guy on the wing.
Of all the situations in these clips, Simmons is asked, which feels most natural to him?
"Transition, for sure," he says. "Getting the rebound and going, that's probably the most fluid part of my game."
That's when he feels free to ... "just experiment and be creative," he says.
If there were no restrictions, would he want to be a point guard all the time? "Definitely," he replies. "I feel more comfortable running the point, because I know I can lead a team and take control of games."
Simmons leads all major-conference players in rebounding, and he has a clear incentive to do so: Grabbing a defensive board enables him to play point guard. Otherwise he fills that role only at select times, mostly late in games. The reason he doesn't ask Jones if he can play point 100% of the time is that the Tigers have a floor general, 6' 6" junior Tim Quarterman, who is good at his job. "You've got to think of other guys and what they would do," Simmons says. "Tim's really good at setting up the team and running it, so you couldn't just have him standing on the three-point line. That wouldn't work."
II. Ben Simmons is not being honest with defenses.
If Simmons has a signature trait, it's that "he can almost will the defense to do things they don't even realize they're doing," says his father, former college and pro player Dave Simmons. Look, for example, at the film clip of Ben's first college assist, against McNeese State on Nov. 13. He's in the middle lane of a three-on-two fast break, with the ball near half-court. LSU freshman guard Brandon Sampson is running ahead of the play, in the right lane; Quarterman is running behind, on the far left. Simmons begins dribbling at a slight diagonal to the right. "They're going to shift that way," he says of the defenders, and they do, the deeper one moving toward Sampson, the other engaging Simmons. He holds them with his eyes for a beat—"If they're looking at me, they're not paying attention to anyone else," he says—before throwing a righthanded around-the-back pass to Quarterman for a layup.
"That," says Simmons, who prefers to dribble lefty and saw Quarterman only out of the corner of his eye, "came off nicely."
Next on the edit comes a series of what are essentially ambush passes: Simmons, handling the ball on the perimeter, either tries to "act relaxed, like I'm not going to [drive] yet," he says, or creates a distraction by gesturing for teammates to realign and then whips a pass to a three-point shooter who has momentarily been left open. On one play, at Houston on Dec. 13, Simmons dribbles on the left wing so casually that the defender on senior guard Keith Hornsby (LSU's catch-and-shoot option in the left corner) comes out of his stance, takes a step toward the center of the floor, looks at Simmons ... and gets ambushed. "When he's upright and facing me, and Keith's below his vision, that shot is wide open," Simmons says as he watches himself fire a pass so crisp to Hornsby's shooting pocket that Hornsby will describe it as "almost a little distracting"—even though he made the three.
Is there someone else you've seen do this? Simmons is asked.
"LeBron does that a lot," he says.
III. Ben Simmons is not LeBron.
But Simmons is a star of the first generation of players who grew up as LeBron fans—and his allegiance to LeBron transcends teams, from the Cavs to the Heat and back. That makes his older sister and confidante, Olivia, roll her eyes. "I would always get really mad at Ben," says Olivia, a former forward at Arizona State. "I'd ask, 'Who's your team?' and he'd be like, 'I don't have a team: I'm a LeBron fan.' That's not the way it works."
It has worked so well for Ben that he's now perhaps the only college-basketball-playing LeBron fan who also texts with LeBron, having developed enough of a relationship with him at sneaker camps for Simmons to consider the four-time MVP a "big brother." Simmons is also the only player of his generation who could have watched the 2008 documentary about LeBron's high school days, More Than a Game, and had the nondelusional thought, I could take that a step further.
A crew from Maggievision, the company that produces the ESPYs and did the 30 for 30 film Of Miracles and Men, has been following Simmons since his senior year at Montverde (Fla.) Academy in 2014. The project was Ben and his sisters' brainchild. His older sister Emily Bush, who is married to NFL free-agent running back Michael Bush and works for James's marketing firm, LRMR, contacted the producers and made sure the project wouldn't run afoul of the NCAA. (Neither Ben nor any member of his family is involved in the business end of the film.) LSU has given the crew access during this season. "Once this is done," Simmons says, "I'll be the first one to have a documentary that shows you high school, college and then the draft, so you've seen everything that goes on leading up to the NBA."
While he is not LeBron, Simmons's version of life at 19 still involves cameras following him around. And the hardest thing for him was not finding filmmakers interested in the project but rather convincing his parents that it was a good idea.
IV. Ben Simmons is not an off-the-rack sneakers guy.
Dave and Julie Simmons's house in Baton Rouge is a one-story Acadian, part brick, part white siding, with a close-cropped green lawn. The couple have been renting it since late October to be near LSU's Pete Maravich Center. Simmons's mother, Julie, is a retired executive assistant; Dave still works for Impact Basketball, an Australian company that arranges camps and U.S. tours. They put up a tree in their living room, but on Dec. 20, there were no presents under it for Ben. "He'll maybe get a card, if he's lucky," Julie said laughing.
Julie is no Grinch. It's just that the family had to draw a line after allowing Ben, who would not be caught dead playing in LSU's team-issued Nikes, to spend "an exorbitant amount of money on custom shoes," according to Emily. Ben's nine pairs of LeBron XIIIs, seven of them custom-designed on Nike.com, cost more than $2,000. Over his first 12 games at LSU he took the court in nine different styles. He has since given away a white pair he blamed for a loss (at Charleston on Nov. 30). The purple-with-white-bottoms pair he wore while scoring 43 points against North Florida on Dec. 2 is one of his favorites.
Simmons was O.K. with not receiving presents for Christmas. He says he didn't even ask for any.
"There's nothing I really want," he says. "The NBA is what I want. Unless someone can give me the NBA now, then. … "
So he'd have preferred to go to the NBA right away, rather than wait a year?
"I think I could've done it," he says. "Yup."
V. Ben Simmons is not long for amateurism.
Junior walk-on guard Henry Shortess is, true to his name, the shortest Tiger, at 5' 9". It has taken him three seasons to amass eight points, two assists and one rebound—numbers that Simmons often eclipses in the first half of a game. But Shortess, a business-management major who is on track to graduate in three years and aspires to work in an NBA front office, is fluent in hoops economics. After seeing the beginning of the Simmons Phenomenon during LSU's exhibition tour of Australia last summer—sold-out arenas in Melbourne, Sydney and Newcastle, where crowds roared whenever Simmons touched the ball and fans waited at LSU's hotels late into the night in hopes of getting an autograph, a photo or merely a glimpse of the future No. 1 pick—Shortess understands his teammate's long-term value.
"That's Australia, and Ben could eventually get to that level in the United States, so he's probably a very profitable brand," Shortess says. "Next year the salary cap in the NBA is going to explode, and then add endorsements [and] shoe deals, and a Nike, Adidas or Under Armour would want [Ben] as a face. I think he's that type of player and person."
Simmons, to his credit, never talks about this stuff among his teammates. But if Shortess ever needs reminding that a celebrity is in his midst, he need not go too far. Every time he drops by his family's home in Baton Rouge, his 12-year-old brother, Eli, brings up his unfulfilled birthday-present request: a signed pair of Simmons's shoes.
VI. Ben Simmons is not the owner of a large, deadly reptile. (Yet.)
When Ben was 13, he told his mother, "If I ever make a lot of money in the NBA, I'm going to have this massive tank, and it's going to have an alligator in it." In the meantime he's making do with economy pets. One of his roommates, Hornsby, provided a helpful chronology of Ben Simmons, College Freshman Pet Owner.
"The first thing he got," Hornsby says, "was the lizards"—three bearded dragons, sort of like tiny gators, in a terrarium. Simmons named the largest one Mutombo (after Dikembe) and the middle one Zeus. The baby one was, tragically, eaten by the other lizards.
Hornsby continues, "Then came the snakes"—two corn snakes. One of them was given away; the other, Hornsby says, "disappeared." That was followed by a less-than-24-hour adventure in owning a shelter dog, which another student fortunately adopted. "The dog was a bad idea," says Hornsby. "The rats, another bad idea." The two rodents, purchased mostly to freak out roommate Darcy Malone, a junior center, have since been given to other owners. "And then the fish," Hornsby adds. Most of those—including a Tiger Oscar and a tiny lobster—are still in the apartment tank, and the three roommates sometimes pull up chairs and engage in extended fish-observation sessions.
Simmons also bought a tabby kitten and named it Tiger, but it was a present for Olivia when she and their parents moved to Baton Rouge. Because her old cat, Tom, who passed away in Australia, was so beloved, Olivia's analysis of the mischievous kitten is akin to a scout's expecting Simmons to be fully mature as a freshman: "He's just not measuring up to my expectations," Olivia says.
VII. Ben Simmons is not one to keep a large circle.
His texting relationship with LeBron is so sacred that he won't share any details with his family, save for revealing a key piece of advice the superstar gave him: Keep your family close. Which is why Ben did not simply tolerate but welcomed his relatives' relocation from Australia, first to be with him for his senior year at Montverde and now to be near LSU. It is also one reason why Ben committed to LSU so early in the recruiting process, on Oct. 14, 2013. The final assistant coach that Jones hired, after taking the job in 2012, was Simmons's godfather, David Patrick.
Patrick moved from Bermuda to Melbourne with his Sri Lanka-born mother, Victoreen, when he was 10. As a young teen, David was in the Melbourne Tigers' junior program while Dave Simmons and fellow import Lanard Copeland, a former Georgia State star, played for the senior club. "I didn't have a father figure, and there weren't many people of color in Melbourne then to relate to," Patrick says. "Those two guys took me under their wing."
In the young Patrick, Dave Simmons saw a "trustworthy kid whose mother cared about education" and encouraged him to further his schooling in the U.S. A 1994 junior-team tour took David through Baton Rouge, where Chapel Trafton took him in as a senior-year exchange student. He later played college ball at Syracuse and Louisiana-Lafayette.
As a rookie with Australia's Canberra Cannons in 1999–2000, Patrick not only played alongside his mentor, the then 36-year-old Dave Simmons, but also lived in Dave and Julie's house with the young Ben and Olivia. Two years later, in a Catholic ceremony in Newcastle, Patrick became Ben's godfather. And in 2014, when Patrick's mother was in the final, fatal months of her battle with breast cancer, she moved into the Simmonses' Melbourne home to be cared for by Julie.
The bond continues in Baton Rouge. On the Sunday before Christmas 2015, while Patrick was off recruiting in Florida, the Simmonses babysat his young daughters, Bailee and Madison. As David and Julie sat together on a living-room couch, the Patrick girls were with Emily in the kitchen, making a brunch of chocolate-chip pancakes and quiche. "When people say we're close," Patrick says of the families, "they usually don't know how close."
VIII. Ben Simmons is not an import.
His takeover of the U.S. college game is more like the closing of a loop. The Simmons family basketball story begins at South Bronx (N.Y.) High in 1980, the dawn of the hip-hop era. Adrian Harris, aka Easy A.D. of the Cold Crush Brothers, one of the hip-hop scene's foundational groups, was South Bronx's point guard. The team had a DJ, nicknamed the Tape Master, playing breakbeats—among them a sped-up version of Cerrone's "Rocket in the Pocket"—from a table near the gym's main doors to keep the crowd hyped. South Bronx's muscle, its designated dunker and rebounder, was a shy 6' 8" kid named Dave Simmons. "Dave didn't have a negative vibration in his body," Easy A.D. told SI in a recent phone interview, "but on the court, he was the toughest."
Easy A.D.'s Cold Crush Brothers went on to become hip-hop pioneers; Dave went to junior college in Oklahoma and then moved on to star for Oklahoma City University, an NAIA school, as a sixth-year senior in 1986–87, when the Chiefs went 34–1. Before Dave and other seniors were introduced at a postseason Rotary Club awards luncheon, OCU's coach, Abe Lemons, delivered a punch line containing too much cruel truth: "This will be the last time anybody ever knows who you are."
Things were looking that way after Dave's anonymous stints in pro ball in Venezuela, Colombia and Costa Rica. But his life changed on Nov. 14, 1988, when a barnstorming foreign pro team visited for an exhibition at the University of Oklahoma. Dave's agent told him they were Austrians and were interested in trying him out; it was only when he met the coach, Lindsay Gaze, in the lobby of the team's hotel that Dave discovered they were Australians. He suited up that evening for a team billed as the Victoria All-Stars, which committed 45 turnovers and lost to the Sooners by 55 points. Victoria's lone bright spot was Dave, who scored 20 points; afterward Gaze told The Oklahoman, "We'll be having a talk [with Simmons] to find out what his ambitions are regarding the prospects of playing in Australia."
Dave soon signed a one-year deal to play for Gaze's team, the Tigers, in Melbourne, the major city farthest on the entire planet from New York. Simmons's intention was the same as at his South American stops: "Stay a year," he says, "and get out" to a better deal. But the money was good; he and another import, former Dayton star Dave Colbert, became fan favorites nicknamed the Double Ds, and another thing happened: "Simmo fell in love, which I think may have helped the cause of keeping him in our program," says his former teammate Andrew Gaze, the coach's son and the lone Australian-born player in the FIBA Hall of Fame. Dave Simmons began dating Julie Blake, one of the Lady Tigers dancers and an aerobics instructor. He was unfazed by the fact that she already had four children. "I don't know what you were thinking," Julie says to him now, smiling. "You must not have been on your A game."
They eventually got married. Meanwhile Dave kept signing new contracts and developed a brand in the Aussie pro league. "He became a Charles Oakley-type enforcer," says Copeland. "If you came into the paint, Dave would put you on your butt." A T-shirt was sold in Melbourne in the early 1990s with DAVID SIMMONS SAYS NO printed on the front, and his stepchildren used it as a punch line. Dave was so overprotective that they would ask, Can we go out tonight? and then refer to the shirt and proclaim, David Simmons says ... nooooo.
Dave and Julie had two kids of their own, Olivia and Ben, and they were given immense freedom—at least to develop all-around basketball skills rather than rely on their height. "Kids need to be allowed to experiment and be creative," Dave says. When she was 11, Olivia (who would grow to six feet) countered a coach who wanted her in the post by telling him, "My dad says I can dribble the ball, and I'm going to dribble the ball."
Ben was encouraged to dribble lefty and righty and to finish with both hands. His mind was expanded by the (purists, hold your groans) And1 Mixtape Tour's stop in Sydney when he was seven. That was when he says the concept of "creating moves" dawned on him. Ben now sets up passes or finishes drives with moves that Dave believes are not emulation but rather "stuff that only Ben has inside his head." The American stage of his development—spending his final 2½ years of high school at Montverde and playing this season at LSU—has been about complementing his instincts with the physicality, speed and swagger of the U.S. game. Now he is a rare hybrid, mixing elements of guard and forward, fundamentals and flash, Down Under and Stateside.
Easy A.D. has gotten glimpses of the son of his South Bronx teammate this season, including when LSU played two games at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. It was no surprise that an M.C. had little trouble epigrammatically defining what Ben Simmons is. Easy A.D. did not, like a certain sportswriter, have to resort to negation.
"I saw Ben play, and I'm like, where did he get those skills?" Easy A.D. said. "They're incredible! He's very polished. His dad obviously helped him—Ben can dunk and own the boards—but he can also dribble, he can pass, he can shoot. He is, as we would say in the hip-hop world, the truth."