CHICAGO—Despite David Stern’s best efforts, the NBA is not out of the high school business. Not entirely anyway.
Oh, sure, the one-and-done rule Stern established, that Adam Silver desperately wants to tack another year on to, has made extended trips to sweltering gyms in Central Florida and South Texas largely unnecessary. But high school showcases—like Wednesday’s McDonald’s All-American game—still draw league executives in droves.
Sorry, basketball purists. Can’t help you, amateurism advocates. The NBA is a multi-billion dollar business, and any chance to get an early peek at the next wave of top talent will still override any sentimental sense to let boys be boys. Asking NBA scouts to stay away from the McDonald’s game is like asking a high school kid to stay out of McDonald’s.
To clarify: It’s not the game that attracts the NBA. It’s the practices. The game itself is sloppy. The East topped the West 111-91 on Wednesday in a game highlighted by 30 turnovers and 16.6 percent three-point shooting. It’s a glorified pickup game played by adrenaline-charged teenagers inside an NBA arena in front of the largest crowd most have ever laced up in front of.
So why do the practices offer more value? Away from the cameras, more accurate analysis can be formed. Jaylen Brown, a sturdy small forward, can impress with his advance ball handling skills. Stephen Zimmerman, a 7-foot center, can showcase a balanced inside-out game. Brandon X. Ingram can wow with his three-point range. Ben Simmons can dazzle with, well, everything.
Simmons, a rangy 6’9”, 225-pound forward, was the most tantalizing NBA prospect in Chicago. With power forward size, center length and guard skills, Simmons is a Scottie Pippen-type package. “An absolute stud,” declared one NBA assistant general manager. “All the tools,” added a personnel scout. After watching Simmons work all week, East coach Bruce Kelley called Simmons “our most selfless player.”
“The one thing that stands out when you watch him is that he always makes the right plays,” says a scout. “I really don’t see any weaknesses. You can tell he grew up watching LeBron James because he plays like a kid that wants to be great at all facets of the game.”
He’s right. “I love watching LeBron,” says Simmons. Australian-born, Simmons was introduced to basketball by his father, Dave, a 6’7” forward from New York who played for Abe Lemons at Oklahoma City College. He bounced around the globe for a few years after, playing professionally in Central and South America before moving to Australia, to play for the Melbourne Tigers. He fell in love with the country, then a girl; Australia became his permanent home.
Like most kids, Ben Simmons played rugby. At 14, he decided to quit. “I knew then I could go a lot further in basketball,” says Simmons. Playing against older kids, Simmons dominated. He developed toughness by playing against grown men. “They thought they could push me around because I was younger,” says Simmons. “I pushed back.”
Entering his high school years, Simmons earned invitations to U.S. camps. After performing well there, Simmons elected to leave the Australian system to enroll at a U.S. high school. He settled at Montverde Academy, a boarding school outside Orlando. He sprouted four inches between his sophomore and junior years, adding big man size to his blossoming guard skills.
Naturally unselfish, Simmons says his biggest adjustment to U.S. game was understanding when to take over.
“The main adjustment was scoring the ball more,” says Simmons. “I’m more of a team player. For me, it’s whatever you can do to help the team get a bucket. I’m still struggling with that a little bit.”
It doesn’t show. Simmons averaged 28.4 points last season and was named Gatorade National Player of the Year. Ordinarily a recruit with Simmons's talent would spark a recruiting frenzy. And Simmons fielded calls from Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari, among others. But he took one official visit—to LSU, where his godfather, David Patrick, is an assistant coach. He committed to the Tigers as a junior. It was somewhat a peculiar choice—LSU is hardly a college basketball power-—but Simmons, who will be joined by McDonald’s teammate Antonio Blakeney, sees potential.
“Antonio is a winner,” says Simmons. “We’re going to bring a winning mentality and be the best team we can be.”
Blakeney—who says Simmons's presence at LSU influenced his decision to go there—says the two have bigger goals.
“We want to win the SEC,” says Blakeney. “I think we can do it.”
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Simmons admits he thinks about the NBA. “It’s hard not to,” he says. Simmons is close with Dante Exum, the fellow Aussie who was drafted fifth overall by Utah last year. Simmons could have returned to Australia for a year and, like Exum, prepared for the 2016 draft. College, though, was too enticing.
“I did think about it,” says Simmons. “But I wanted the experience. I never thought about being a McDonald’s All-American. This is all new. The little things are important to me.”
On Wednesday, Simmons didn’t dominate. He scored seven points (on 3-of-8 shooting) in 19 minutes. He pulled down 10 rebounds and handed out three assists. But there were the occasional flashes of brilliance. The fluid, coast-to-coast runner he dropped in early in the first half; the back-to-back offensive rebounds that got him to the free throw line later on. In the second half, Simmons blocked a shot on one end and flipped a nifty no-look pass to finish a transition play on the other.
“He has a feel for the game that exceeds his age,” says Kelley. “He just wants to play right. At practice he would be pissed off at teammates that didn’t play right. And he has this calmness about him. He’s the kind of kid the game needs.”
LSU certainly does. Sooner than later, the NBA will, too.