The Curious Case of Benjamin Simmons

The first year I closely followed college hoops was the 2010-11 season. Nolan Smith carried the Duke load when Kyrie went down. Jimmer was beyond hyped up. Brandon Knight was actually more complete than people realized. Then it all ended with Kemba Walker night after night after night. 

When that first year of watching college hoops ended, I looked at the film for the incoming hyped up freshman. The class of 2011 was the first time I looked at high school prospects, and I’ve paid attention to every incoming freshman class since (no reason not to, since many of them take the big stage). One interesting thing I’ve noticed is the general progress of the top recruits, more specifically the #1 dude. While it’s way too early to make any guarantees, the 2016 mock drafts are already penciling in the top-2 to be Ben Simmons and Skal Labissiere, in some order. While he’s not aging backwards like Benjamin Button, Benjamin Simmons is certainly intriguing because he is so unique of a prospect that we’ve seen in recent years in terms of play style, especially one that has topped the big board (for you true basketball junkies that will mention Kyle Anderson, I will get to that, I promise).

A Trip down Recent Memory Lane

Let’s take a look at some of the top dogs of each high school class (primarily the guys with the most hype) and how they’ve stacked up with the expectations set in high school. While you may roll your eyes at my willingness to do this, I think it’s important to note that the high expectations and publicity often lead to scrutiny and picking apart of these prospects abilities. I’ll delve into more specifics, but there are many things these guys do in high school (overpowering guys, playing younger players, etc.) that they can’t do in college. Furthermore, fans generally expect so much out of these guys that their games are constantly critiqued and their weaknesses are overemphasized (they are there, but not as bad as they are painted to be often).

Class of 2011: This class was interesting. ESPN and Yahoo didn’t agree on who was #1, but they had a consensus top two. In some order, it was Anthony Davis and… Austin Rivers! To no one’s surprise, they were both one-and-done. That being said, Rivers had his stock plummet and many were surprised to see him go #10 to the then-New Orleans Hornets (ironically, he and Davis were teammates and fellow draftees both taken in the top-10). Anthony Davis everybody knew had a sky-high ceiling, and you saw the dominance without the need for the ball in college. AD and his squad took the national title. In high school, he had a crazy growth spurt, yet maintained many of the guard abilities, therefore making him a versatile and athletic lean big. Scouts knew he wasn’t strong, but they knew he could bulk up and had the potential to become a transcendent player, which he has already shown he likely will be. Ironically, Skal Labissiere, who is also going to Kentucky, has drawn some comparisons to AD and Noel due to his mobility, defensive presence, and the same lack of physical strength (which can always be improved).

Austin Rivers is a little more interesting. He was almost out of the league until his dad decided to coach him. In high school, he was faster and stronger than other guards. He was flashy and could handle the ball with the best of them. What happened? His play style was always more that of a 2-guard, and so he never became a great facilitator. He always reminded me of a great 1-on-1 player: he had handles, speed, nice moves, and the ability to finish. Unfortunately, the isolations and lack of notable playmaking for others made Duke’s offense that year somewhat predictable, and they got upset in the first round by CJ McCollum’s Lehigh team. Rivers and Davis were projected to be future NBA stars, but it seems like only one has reached that.

Class of 2012: Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad. Nerlens, while not the same star as AD because he lacks the offensive smoothness, has shown that he can be a quality NBA big man. He’s mobile, athletic, has good reaction time on his feet, and can defend most guys. He’s a rim protector that doesn’t slow down your offense. I’m not sure about NBA star a la Davis, but he’ll have a long career.

Shabazz Muhammed is a quality NBA player but far from the star that people hyped him up to be in high school. In what turned out to be a kind of weak freshman class, Muhammed garnered player of the year accolades and scouts raved over. A year later, it turns out he lied about his age (or didn’t tell people his accurate age). He also started the season off suspended due to controversy with the NCAA about a recruiting visit he took. That, plus a year of unimpressive defense, lack of playmaking for others, and a first round tournament exit (sound familiar?), Muhammed was picked apart in the pre-draft process, and slid all the way to 14th. Now, he had a solid second year in Minnesota and will have a solid career, but I’m sure he’d rather be the franchise-changing star he was projected to be.

Class of 2013: I love Julius Randle (my favorite power forward) and I love Jabari Parker. While they didn’t live up to all the hype, the Harrison twins were two guys I enjoyed watching in college as well. I even showed dap for Aaron Gordon back in 2013. I could say all sorts of positives about those guys, because the Class of 2013 had all sorts of hyped up prospects. However, I’m going to primarily focus on the guy who re-classified and was hyped up to be the “next LeBron.”

Enter, Maple Jordan… I mean Andrew Wiggins. He re-classified to the class of 2013 and only played 3 years of high school basketball. I remember all the Andrew Wiggins criticisms because I was part of the corner that drove those opinions. Julius Randle won 3 State titles in Texas and Jabari Parker won 4 Chicago Championships. Wiggins had played 2 years against really good competition, and for the most part had been playing against people who were physically a year less mature than he was. People said he didn’t have that “it” factor or the killer instinct. That fiery as hell competitive grit that you saw in Julius Randle as he manhandled dudes in Texas. Or that same passion and dedication you saw out of Jabari Parker. People said he was a little too nice, too humble. I still have some doubts over his ability to be a franchise player, but he had a solid year in Minnesota. I also think it’s important to remember though, that he only went #1 because Embiid got hurt. During that entire college season, Wiggins was picked apart and some doubters still bring up that 6-point outing he put up when he lost to Stanford in the NCAA tournament. Whether he’s the next T-Mac or Vince Carter remains to be seen.

Class of 2014: While Karl-Anthony Towns (KAT-Man as I like to call him) didn’t come out of nowhere (he had won Player of the Year, and was a McDonalds All-American), he was not the #1 recruit. In fact, he was ranked #9 in the ESPN 100. For the most part, the Class of 2014 had a consensus #1: Jahlil Okafor. Okafor was said to be the most polished and skilled big (in terms of footwork and finesse) since Tim Duncan. I don’t think that opinion has changed. Despite winning a national title at Duke, people expected so much and watched many of his games, so naturally, the expectations rise and the picky criticism comes. People, including myself (and I’m a Duke and 76ers fan so I think I’m pretty unbiased) question his generally athleticism/mobility and defensive potential. He was not a shot blocker or a rim protector in college. While he’s not slow, he’s not the mobile type of big you see in this day and age. That being said, he has the potential to be an even better Brook Lopez, who is an All-Star and max caliber player when healthy.

Enter Ben Simmons

I think Labissiere will develop will under Coach Cal and worst-case, be talented and versatile enough defensively that he’ll be in the league. Ben Simmons will also certainly be in the league, but the argument for Simmons is certainly more interesting. I’ll be frank; I don’t really know what my opinion on his NBA future is. I will probably start to formulate my projected ceiling for Simmons as I watch him in college. Not every top high school recruit lives up to the hype (refer to section above), so it’s too early to bill Simmons (see what I did there?) as the next big thing in the NBA, but he’s certainly going to be an interesting player this coming year. Let’s take a closer look at who Simmons is as a player and the situation he’s getting into down at LSU.

I’ve heard some people compare the 2016 NBA draft to the 2013 draft. Now, it’s too early to make the call on the strength of a draft. Pundits said before the 2011 Draft that it was weak, but I would say that Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Chandler Parsons and Isaiah Thomas being picked outside of the top-10 makes that draft pretty deep. So this is me telling everybody to calm down and watch college basketball before they make declarations on the draft. It’s interesting and ironic (NOT trying to say history will repeat itself) that the 2016 draft is being compared to the 2013 draft. In both years, the 1-2 made similar decisions. There was one skinny, mobile, defensive monster that committed to Kentucky, while the other top-2 recruit committed to a “dark horse” candidate. In 2012, Shabazz Muhammed chose UCLA alongside Kyle Anderson (I promise I’ll get to him) and Tony Parker to make an impressive 3-man recruiting class just after a year where UCLA missed the tournament and Ben Howland was on the hot seat. Now, Ben Simmons is joined by All-American Point Guard Antonio Blakeney and a top-50 recruit in Brandon Sampson.

Now, Blakeney and Sampson will be contributors but it’s likely one, if not both, will not start. A few months into the season, LSU will add talented Arizona transfer Victor Craig to their frontcourt. However, one guy that nobody talks about is last year’s starting point guard, Tim Quarterman.

Quarterman is a 6 foot 6 versatile combo guard. He has length and size for his position and is one of those “do a little bit of everything” guys. He’s been pegged as a potential first round pick and sleeper for someone who can rise up to lottery status. When Quarterman started handling the ball more last season, he stuffed the stat sheet with a triple double (18-10-10) against Ole Miss and put up 17-9-7 in the NCAA tournament on 6 of 11 shooting. Quarterman gives LSU a little bit of help for Simmons and a veteran presence Simmons can rely on. Seeing as one of the top-50 recruits won’t start, that’s an indication that Simmons will be playing on a talented team.

One thing I learned the other day was that because he was in Australia as a kid, Simmons is actually a year older than the guys in his grade level. He’s currently 19 (born in 1996), and going to be a freshman in college. Compare that to Devin Booker, who is 18 (turning 19 in late October), and just got drafted after a year in college. While I don’t think this is a huge deal, if Simmons doesn’t come out like game busters, look for media pundits to point at this and use it as a scapegoat for their incorrect projections. For example, similar to Muhammed being a year older than he was supposed to be, some draft analysts closer to the draft may say “Oh, well he was able to punish guys in high school because he was more physically mature.”

LSU, who just lost 2 players to the NBA, now has a notable 3-man recruiting class. They also have the #1 recruit, and that always creates many storylines for a team. They’ll also get to play the talented cohort in Lexington, along with Malik Newman’s Mississippi State squad. Let’s forget about the buzz for a second. Forget about all the media members raving about his game, because in a few months they will hop off that bandwagon if Simmons is underwhelming in any department. Drop the projections. Let’s break down what Simmons is getting into, his game, and who he reminds me of.

Simmons may be a fantastic prospect with tons of upside, but he’s not perfect and the LeBron James comparisons are a little off. I’m not freaking out or panicking: the kid is 19 years old and his game will expand. But for now, I look at his strengths and I find it really hard to equate the majority of his game to a recent and quality NBA prospect/player. He’s mobile and versatile, but not athletic or strong. People often equate him to a point forward, but don’t be quick to compare him to Magic Johnson.

There are five forwards I see a little bit of in Ben Simmons. I’ve heard three commonly used: Tracy McGrady, Boris Diaw, and Kyle Anderson. I can see bits and pieces of each in his game, but I’ll quickly break down which aspects are fair comparisons and which skills are not. I see some of the T-Mac versatility, but not the explosiveness and potent scoring ability. People mention Boris Diaw and Kyle Anderson, which I do think are solid comparisons, but he is faster than those guys. While he may be a team-oriented and smart passing forward like those two, Simmons can run. He loves to push it up the floor and run the break. People also forget that Kyle Anderson averaged 15-9-7 in his sophomore year, and was a true triple-double threat. Simmons may be a smart passer, but he’s more like Diaw in the sense that he makes the RIGHT plays and passes. He’s not necessarily going to get you 8 assists. That’s where I think he can be compared to Lamar Odom and Blake Griffin. While he’s not the athlete Blake is, or the shooter Odom was (at times), he certainly can handle the ball like a guard, run the break, and make the right plays.

As you watch the son of Bill Simmons (actually but not actually) play basketball, please don’t place premature judgement, hype or criticism. Thus far, I haven’t dubbed him a future bust, superstar, all-star, or 6th man. I know what I’ve seen in the tape, but I also know that college is a time where players develop. Ben Simmons is a unique prospect not only because of his background (Australia for the win) or his path to the #1 spot and basketball pedigree, but also because of his unique skillset that is being taken to a school that is not a traditional powerhouse. He’ll have plenty of chances to showcase what he’s got, and I’m sure it will be a curious and entertaining experience to watch, hopefully in a positive way.

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