There was the off-balance, falling-out-of bounds, one-handed heave of a floater to score his first points of the game. There was the no-look, behind-the-back pass with 8:27 in the first half. There were explosive dunks, two of them, on back to back possessions midway through the second half. There was the monster stat line: 23 points, 16 boards, and three assists.
But perhaps the biggest indication that LSU freshman Ben Simmons is living up to the hype that accompanied him to Baton Rouge this season came eight minutes into last night’s Legends Classic matchup against the South Alabama Jaguars.
Simmons received the ball on left wing, and his Tiger teammates cleared out that whole side for him to go to work. He sized up his defender with a between the legs crossover, hit another crossover to put that same defender on skates, and with a couple of power dribbles bulldozed right past him for an easy layup.
It was a something that you rarely see at the college level; not many players have the size and skill to take a defender from the perimeter to the paint like that, and not many coaches are imagining one-on-one scenarios for 6'10" forwards on the perimeter.
Moments like that isolation play show how quickly the 19-year-old Simmons has adapted to the college game.“It feels a little bit simpler for me, just because I know there’s more space on the floor. High school’s more crammed up,” he told ESPN’s John Saunders following LSU’s 78–66 win over the Jaguars.
On Monday, Simmons will have his first shot at the big stage when he and the Tigers face Marquette in the Legends Classic semifinals at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. It'll be Simmons's first game as a collegiate player in the Big Apple, and it'll be an opportunity to showcase himself against another elite freshman, Henry Ellenson. Ellenson is a back-to-the-basket power forward, and he will be the most talented player Simmons has faced in his young collegiate career—even if they aren't matched up against each other often.
How will Simmons perform against tougher competition? It seems he has all the skills necessary to exploit matchups both for himself and his teammates. He has tremendous court vision, so often finding the open man and making the right play. Writers and broadcasters have not shied away from comparing his unselfish passing gene to distribution luminaries Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and LeBron James.
The scary thing is, those pundits might be on to something. It is hard not to see Magic or LeBron when Simmons snatches a defensive rebound and cruises down the open court, pushing the pace and conducting a fast break. And it’s difficult to ignore when he threads the needle with a laser-like pass as he backs down a defender from the high post, just like Bird used to. Whatever it was that those guys had, it sure looks like Simmons has it, too.
And while his ability to share the rock has been perhaps his defining skill at this point, Simmons has so many other talents. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time, especially offensively. He has a knack for getting wherever he wants on the floor, regardless of how much resistance he encounters. He is a terrific finisher, both when creating his own shot and when he gets some assistance from his teammates. He has the handle of a guard, and he is nearly seven feet tall.
So far Simmons has been everything college basketball fans could have hoped for. Even in his first game, LSU’s season opener against McNeese State, he managed to offset a relatively pedestrian 11 points on seven shots with 13 boards, five assists, and a couple of blocks, just for good measure. So far, through three games he is averaging 18.7 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 4.7 assists all while shooting 63.1% from the field. Granted, McNeese State, Kennesaw State, and South Alabama aren’t exactly Kentucky, Duke, and Maryland, but Simmons is doing exactly what has been expected of him against these lesser opponents: dominating.
LSU still has 90% of their regular season schedule to go, and Simmons will have to face tougher competition, beginning Monday and including potentially two matchups with SI's No. 1 team in the country, Kentucky. But as of right now, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks he can't keep up the pace. There will be even fewer doubters if Simmons showcases his exceptional skills at the arena Jay-Z built.
On Monday, Ben Simmons will officially arrive, but it seems like he's just getting started.