Ben Simmons hunched uncomfortably behind a table at Madison Square Garden, with a towel over his shoulder and a microphone in front of him. Montverde Academy’s 17-year-old junior forward had just led his team to a second consecutive national high school title, winning MVP honors in the process. Save for the white National Champions hat pulled low over his brow with tag still attached, you wouldn’t have known it.
The Australian-born Simmons listened quietly as his coach, Kevin Boyle fielded questions from media. Boyle discussed not what his star had just accomplished against Oak Hill Academy, but what was left for him to do – the improvements necessary to be a star, not just a contributor in the NBA.
It’s tough to blame Boyle. When you watch a player like Simmons, all you can see is the future, which will begin at the collegiate level in 2015 with the LSU Tigers. At 6-9, he moves unstoppably on the fast break, handling the ball and seeing the floor like a guard. He’s explosive off the floor, strokes left-handed threes and defends the 2, 3 and 4. He’s like the unfairly rated player your little brother created on Xbox.
Then, Boyle was asked about the past. In a narrow win the day before, Simmons took just seven shots. He still made six of them, but seven shots weren’t enough, Boyle said, as he’d reminded his team several times. Ben had to touch the ball more.
Today, everyone listened. Simmons had taken 20 shots and made 11 of them. He had scored 24 points while still finding time to snatch 11 rebounds and dish out 5 assists. Montverde had won comfortably.
For Simmons, learning to maximize his scoring output will be critical at the next levels, where his other gifts -- passing, rebounding, shot-blocking -- will translate, but won’t be enough to make him the superstar Boyle believes he can be.
It’s all part of an ongoing adjustment to the American game, a process that has paid major dividends in just a year and a half.
“The basketball culture is a lot different in Australia,” says Simmons. “It’s more of a team-organized thing, and here it’s a lot of individual play. You have to kind of change your game style. I’m definitely learning I need to be more selfish and take over the game sometimes.”
Ben’s father Dave, a 6-8 bruiser from the Bronx, played professionally overseas for 15 years. While starring for the Melbourne Tigers of Australia’s National Basketball League in the early ‘90s, he met his wife Julie, an Australian native with four children from a previous marriage. Shortly after, their daughter Olivia was born -- but the couple would struggle to conceive another child.
Five years later, they had Ben, who was born in Melbourne during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
“I think it was an omen,” says Julie, “that he was destined for big things. Ben grew up in the gym -- my husband was playing basketball, the kids were playing basketball, so Ben had no choice but to be dragged around from stadium to stadium, from a newborn basically.”
Ben began walking at 10 months and started running shortly after his first birthday. Six months later, he started dribbling the ball with a pacifier in his mouth.
Noticing his son’s quickly improving skills, Dave placed Ben in camps and clinics with much older players. By age 5, he was practicing with 12-year-olds. Basketball came to him easily, but competition didn’t.
“I never wanted to play in the games,” he says. “I was kind of nervous and shy. I used to sit on the bench with my mom. She used to always say, ‘I’ll give you 100 dollars if you go play.’”
Once Ben took the floor for the first time, the nerves disappeared. He surprised even his father by making the local U-12 club as a 7-year-old. Also starring in rugby and Australian rules football, Ben attributes his competitive edge to playing with older boys. And the older he got, the more notoriety he gained -- soon enough, he was considered the top player in his age group within the Australian systems. He’d grown to 6-8 at age 15, using his guard skills to get into the paint and his newfound size to dunk everything.
But the best competition was across the Pacific. In Australia, American high school stars are the standard by which youth players are measured. And when an invitation arrived from the prestigious Pangos All-American camp in 2012, the time had come for Ben, an American dual citizen, to test himself.
“I’m not even sure how I got the invite,” he says. “It said DeAndre Jordan and Brandon Jennings had been to it. I thought it was just a joke. Then my dad called me, and explained they wanted me to come to the camp. That’s when I got really excited.”
The camp was Simmons’ first appearance stateside, and he didn’t disappoint, earning a spot in the all-star game as one of the youngest kids at the camp. Every major recruiting service and countless scouts looked on as Simmons shone alongside future All-Americans Wayne Selden, Stanley Johnson and Cliff Alexander. He left California an elite prospect.
“It was a breakout event for him,” says camp director Dinos Trigonis. “He was a big, very versatile forward that could play inside-outside, didn’t force the issue and let the game come to him. He was a very skilled player, very polished, with a terrific all-around game.”
After Pangos, Ben started receiving mail from the top American prep schools and the interest was mutual. The closely-knit Simmons family mulled over the options. He had older siblings in the States -- sister Emily working in Chicago, brother Liam an assistant coach at Nicholls State in Louisiana. They’d be around to look out for him. The decision was especially difficult for Julie, letting her last child leave home – to go halfway around the world, at that. But the move had been on Dave’s mind for a long time, as he watched Ben dominate at every Australian youth level.
“It was more or less about Ben continuing to improve,” he says. “We knew to get him to realize his potential, he needed to get over to the States and play with kids similar to him in size and athleticism. We started to wonder what would happen if he stayed here, and if this was going to be the best option for him.”
Ben and his family chose Montverde Academy, a small boarding school outside of Orlando with a considerable amount of international students and strong academic support. The basketball program was nationally prominent, and offered the chance to play for Boyle -- who had developed NBA players including Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist while coaching St. Patrick High School in New Jersey.
Simmons had befriended Montverde stars Kasey Hill and Dakari Johnson at Adidas Nations and the U17 World Championships the previous summer, liked the idea of Florida weather and embraced the challenge of American ball. He decided on the school without ever setting foot on campus. He enrolled at Montverde in January 2013, and quickly won over his new coach.
“I was impressed with the way he carried himself,” says Boyle. “He’s confident, yet humble and respectful. You could feel right away that he would fit in, because it’s important here that the athletes especially don’t think they’re more important than anyone else in the school. If you have that attitude here, you won’t last long. He fit the mold right away.”
Joining the country’s top-ranked high school team, Simmons, coming off a minor knee injury, eased in while the Eagles blazed their way to a national high school championship. Simmons dealt with homesickness, living away from his parents for the first time over those first six months.
Simmons decided to head back to Australia for the summer to train -- and his services were in high demand. He accepted an invitation to play for the Australian men’s national team (known as the Boomers), and became the youngest player ever to appear in a game for the senior side, logging minutes against New Zealand in the Oceania Series.
“The thing that really stood out to me the first time I saw him in our environment was his ability to see the floor, pass and create for others,” says Boomers head coach Andrej Lemanis. “That’s a special skill, and that’s an Australian style. Everybody creates for the good of the team. We believe making the extra pass is a good way to play.”
Simmons fit right in with the senior team alongside childhood friend Dante Exum, an 18-year-old guard and projected lottery selection in June’s NBA draft. Both have American fathers -- Dante’s father Cecil played at North Carolina with Michael Jordan before playing pro in Australia -- and offer elite athleticism that the Boomers have never had.
“In practice, Ben was playing defense and got blown by, which as a coach is frustrating,” remembers Lemanis. “But as the guy was going to the rim, Ben turned, pinned the ball on the backboard, got the ball off the backboard, took two dribbles and led the break down the other way, which ended up in a score. Maybe that was just part of his strategy.”
Before the start of his junior season, Simmons ended his college recruitment, giving a verbal commitment to LSU. After taking an unofficial visit to Baton Rouge, Simmons chose the Tigers over offers from Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and others. LSU had an early in, thanks to assistant coach David Patrick -- Dave’s former teammate, and Ben’s godfather.
“At the time David became his godfather, no one was thinking anything about what was going to happen,” says the elder Simmons, who lived with Patrick during their playing days. “We weren’t thinking, ‘Years down the track, I’ll be recruiting him.’ He’s a great family friend.”
With the World Championships approaching this summer, Lemanis hopes Ben will be able to attend his first training camp in May. With Simmons and Exum in the fold and young players including Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills logging significant NBA minutes, Australian basketball has hit an upswing. Though Ben’s not guaranteed a spot on the roster, he’ll get a long look.
“I think that just speaks to the quality of development we have here in this country,” says Lemanis. “We’re a long way from everyone else, and I think sometimes that gets us overlooked by the rest of the world, but I think the proof is starting to be in the products.”
With the win over Oak Hill, Eagles finished the season 28-0 (their sole loss to Chicago Curie was reversed by forfeit after it was revealed the Condors used ineligible players). He was just named the MaxPreps Junior Player of the Year. Next season, a third consecutive national title will be within reach.
Next week, Simmons will debut on the American AAU circuit for Orlando-based Each 1 Teach 1. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to play in front of scouts and evaluators, with the No. 1 ranking in the 2015 class up for grabs. Given all he’s done to this point, it’s easy to make the case that he should already hold it.
In a year, Simmons will prepare to take on the college game, and in two, he could be the next one-and-done star to make the NBA jump. For a kid who’s always played above his years, the progression is natural.