REPORT FILED TO the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Scouting Department after watching LSU freshman forward Ben Simmons, the potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, over two days in Brooklyn at the Legends Classic:
This is an article from the Dec. 7, 2015 issue
The Tigers' losses to Marquette (81--80, Nov. 23) and N.C. State (83--72, Nov. 24)
WHAT BEN SIMMONS DID
VS. MARQUETTE (40 MINUTES): 21 points, 20 rebounds, 7 assists
VS. N.C. STATE (40 MINUTES): 4 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks
WHO IS BEN SIMMONS?
At this stage of his career, there are at least four definitions for the 19-year-old 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 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 LeBron-like display of calling for a high ball screen, 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 ball screen even arrives. (He did this twice in Brooklyn and each time took great pleasure in the outcome: an assisted three-pointer.)
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 Simmons is as tantalizing as he is talented. On consecutive nights in just the fourth and fifth games of his career, he flirted with triple doubles against high major opponents, and the feeling I was left with was not awe, but rather that those stats seemed like only 75% of his potential output. I wanted him to be surrounded by better finishers and shotmakers, so he wasn't leaving four or five assists on the table each game. I also wanted him to force the issue at least that many 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 against N.C. State until the 2:29 mark of the first half. That Simmons is taking only 20.8% of LSU's shots when he's on the floor thus far—a lower rate than guards Antonio Blakeney, Josh Gray, Tim Quarterman and Brandon Sampson—seems like a suboptimal distribution.
3 To LSU Simmons is a multitude of things. In small lineups he has to serve as its primary rebounder and rim-protector, but he's a work in progress as an interior defender. The Tigers' best offensive play is a Simmons defensive rebound, after which no outlet pass is needed. He becomes a point forward or a point center and starts a fast break; his teammates, said Gray, know to "just run lanes" once Simmons grabs a board. If he goes coast-to-coast he'll throw deft bounce passes near the basket—or, as Golden Eagles center Luke Fischer found out, merely take two long strides after crossing the three-point line, and make a backpedaling defender the victim of a Vine-worthy dunk. Through five games, 31.4% of the possessions Simmons either ended or assisted on were in transition, and LSU was scoring 1.70 ppp—an excellent rate of efficiency—in those situations. In the half-court the Tigers have had more trouble getting him involved. They're still in the experimentation stage, trying to figure out if it's best to isolate Simmons, or to involve him in more pick-and-rolls or to 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 half-court settings, his defender tends to guard him with at least one foot in the paint. Marquette's game plan, says freshman forward Henry Ellenson, was to "play off him and pack the paint." N.C. State's game plan, says coach Mark Gottfried, was to "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 nonexistent is no exaggeration. Simmons has yet to even try a three-pointer this season. He has attempted seven two-point jumpers and missed all of them. The one he tried against N.C. State was an uncontested, baseline fadeaway off an out-of-bounds play—and it resulted in an air ball. Simmons's lack of a jumper has led to supersagged defenses and less-than-ideal pick-and-roll coverages. When he set screens and popped against Marquette, defenders pretty much ignored him and focused on swarming the ballhandler. When LSU ran pick-and-rolls with Simmons as the ballhandler and a nonshooting 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 before the start of the N.C. 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 midrange jumpers and free throws lefthanded. He prefers to dribble lefthanded in transition, and he likes 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 the Wolfpack. Simmons feels that when he does attack, he draws more fouls (including 11 free throw attempts, of which he made nine, 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 ON NOV. 24 THOUGHT OF SIMMONS
Said Scott Pollack, an LSU fan from Hoboken, N.J., during the second half against N.C. State: "I think [Simmons's] upside is there, but he's being a little too unselfish at this point.... I just think he's looking to make the players around him better before he makes himself better." (Regarding a hypothetical Simmons vs. Maravich duel, Pollack said, "Maravich would take him all day.")
TWO MEASURES OF SIMMONS'S POTENTIAL STAR POWER
1 There were 51 NBA scouts or executives on the list to attend Simmons's appearances at the Barclays Center. (Not surprising: 76ers general manager/tank-architect Sam Hinkie was one of them.)
2 Chris Meyer and John Aiello, both 15, were sitting in the first row behind N.C. State's bench, wearing shirts that said Montverde Academy—the prep school in Florida where Simmons played for 2½ seasons before heading to LSU. I asked them if they by any chance went to school with Simmons.
They said no. They're students at Manhasset High School on 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's name and high school number, 20. I have not seen fans wearing high school gear of a big-time prospect since Kevin Durant's Montrose Christian throwback and LeBron James's St. Vincent--St. Mary jersey.
WHAT COMES NEXT
David Patrick, LSU's Australian-raised assistant coach, who's also Simmons's godfather, said we're witnessing an early-season progression. The first thing Simmons did was establish his brilliant passing ability. And although he grabbed 13, nine and 16 rebounds, respectively, in the Tigers' first three games of the season, LSU's coaches were disappointed in his effort on the glass, so they had him study film of it—and Simmons responded by grabbing 20 boards against Marquette and 14 against N.C. State. What coaches asked him to do after the Marquette loss was think more about rim protection; he responded with three blocks against the Wolfpack.
"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 what is likely to be 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 have only one more opportunity (vs. Oklahoma on Jan. 30) to pick up a quality nonconference win. I'm willing to cover an NCAA tournament that lacks Ben Simmons, but I won't be happy about it.±
Faces in the Crowd
The Case for
Simmons's scoring and rebounding averages through LSU's first five games
Percentage of LSU's shots Simmons has taken while he's on the floor, fifth on the team