Did Ben Simmons place his game on cruise control at LSU only to go full throttle in the NBA?
Throughout the 2015-16 college basketball season, LSU Tigers freshman forward Ben Simmons served out mouth-watering appetizers from his smorgasbord of talents. Even in the delight of watching the 6’10” phenom’s array of skills, we’re left wondering why the more-than-likely first pick in June’s NBA Draft didn’t force feed more of his showmanship upon us.
The Ben Simmons Experiment at LSU is complete and overall reviews have been somewhat mixed at best. Simmons’ potential to be a transcendent talent at the NBA level is undeniable. It’s the way his one and done season in Baton Rouge played out which has many outside of the NBA GM loop worried. Academic trouble, little to no chemistry with teammates, questionable coaching, limited improvement and what seemed to be a total lack of interest as the season spiraled out of control has many wondering what can be expected at the next level.
Simmons’ 33-game collegiate career had its share of shining moments, lending credence to the hype. The night he went off for 43/14/ 7 and 5 steals against North Florida in just his 7th game. Then there was his 14 point (5 for 5 FGs), 10 rebound effort in his first meeting against Kentucky. Although his numbers that night weren’t earth-shattering, his effort was confirmation of him holding his own against top-tier talent.
Then there were head-scratchers like the January 30th meeting against No.2 ranked Oklahoma. Sooners senior guard Buddy Hield led a furious second half charge on his way to a game high 32 points, including 8 three pointers in a 77-75 comeback victory in Baton Rouge. The game’s final ten minutes should’ve featured a memorable duel between college basketball’s best senior in Hield against its most anticipated newcomer in Simmons. To our disappointment, Simmons faded miserably against the Sooners surge.
The stage was set for the talented freshman to take matters into his own hands and put the contest on ice. Instead, Simmons seemed overwhelmed, deferring to his teammates and shying away from the moment at both ends of the floor. Other than a baseline reverse dunk in the second half, the highlights for Simmons were scarce in a 14 point, 9 rebound and 5 assist effort.
LSU stumbled to a 6-6 record after the Oklahoma loss and finishing a disappointing 19-14. They were eliminated in the second round of the SEC Tournament by eventual conference runner-up Texas A&M. With only the NIT and Vegas 16 tournaments to look forward to, head basketball coach Johnny Jones decided to shut down any possibility of post-season play for the Tigers.
Prior to the start of the SEC Tournament, Simmons — who at the time was a leading candidate for the John R. Wooden Award (won by Hield) — was ruled ineligible to receive the honor due to poor academic grades, a (2.0 minimum GPA is required). Simmons was removed from the starting lineup two weeks earlier against Tennessee for academic reasons.
In light of the Wooden Award controversy, rumors began to circulate about Simmons and the goings on at LSU. Several fingers were pointed at head coach Johnny Jones, who came across as too laid back and not much of an authoritarian. The Tigers never developed a jelled as a team, earning no more than a three-game winning streak during the season.
The lack of cohesiveness between Simmons, junior guard Tim Quarterman and senior guard Keith Hornsby was clear. Word surfaced about the divide between Simmons and his teammates. Was it because Simmons led the team in points, rebounds and assists (21 double-doubles) and was the undisputed star attraction on the roster? Maybe because Simmons’ godfather David Patrick was on the LSU coaching staff?
With the NBA Draft more than two months away, NBA coaches and GMs aren’t bothered by Simmons the student athlete, but more concerned about the player who faded down the stretch of the season while his team was still in the running for post-season play.
Simmons bubble-wrapped his brief collegiate career for the sole purpose of making it to the NBA unscathed. Although this plan of action may not sit high on the board of moral compass monitors, can you really look at Ben Simmons with 100% disdain. NCAA athletics is a multi-billion dollar business and if Simmons and others aren’t getting a percentage of the pie why risk future earnings? The NBA doesn’t allow players to enter the league before the age of 19 and why should a player of his talents sell himself cheap by going overseas for one season, earning substantially less.
There was an unprecedented level of comfort Simmons at LSU — a place barely on the college basketball radar — there was no pressure to turn the program around. Throw in a friendly face in the huddle and it was the perfect storm for who many NBA franchises see as the perfect player.
The true test comes for Simmons in early February as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers or Philadelphia 76ers, the team is in a five-game slide and four games in the next six nights are against playoff teams. Veteran players on his team are frustrated and the fans are asking where is this so-called savior. There’s no familiar face in the huddle and no countdown to semesters end and although his pockets are fatter than we could ever imagine, the victories are slim. Will his competitive nature push him to another level or will we be talking about the player who faded against Oklahoma?
That’s when we’ll see the real Ben Simmons.