The Curious Case of Top NBA Prospect Ben Simmons and the Middling LSU Tigers

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterJanuary 5, 2016

LSU's Ben Simmons walks down the court late in the second half while the College of Charleston secures the win during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at TD Arena, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. The College of Charleston went on to win 70-58.  (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
Mic Smith/Associated Press

The biggest head-scratcher of the college basketball season is how a team that includes Ben Simmons, the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft and the most talented player in the country, seems destined to miss the NCAA tournament. 

If the Tigers miss out on March Madness and Simmons goes No. 1, he'd be the first top pick since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985 to attend college and not play in an NCAA tournament. 

Ben Simmons By the Numbers
PPGRPGAPGSPG
2015-1620.513.15.42.1
LSU Athletics

Simmons has put up outstanding numbers (see chart) and has talented pieces around him, but LSU has myriad issues that have some pointing at coach Johnny Jones for getting handed a filet mignon and turning it into spam.

The Tigers, now 8-5 after Saturday's win at Vanderbilt, didn't have one impressive nonconference win, and they struggled against a mediocre schedule. LSU's nonconference strength of schedule is 315th nationally, according to KenPom.com's numbers. 

The improved SEC will give the Tigers a chance to put together a tournament resume. That starts Tuesday, when LSU hosts No. 9 Kentucky—which features its own pair of projected freshmen lottery picks in point guard Jamal Murray and big man Skal Labissiere—but the chances of an NCAA tournament with Simmons included still look bleak.

Simmons is a unique talent, and the NBA hasn't seen a skill set like his since Lamar Odom. He lacks a jump shot, but at 6'10" with the vision and handle of a point guard, Simmons is the type of playmaking power forward the new-age NBA covets. He's also borderline unguardable at the college level, which makes LSU's record all the more dumbfounding. 

I reached out to three NBA scouts to get their opinions on why the Tigers have struggled and how that influences their opinions of Simmons.

Despite having the nation's best player, why has LSU struggled?

Scout One: "I think the first thing you have is the fact that they lost a very good assistant coach. Eric Musselman is a guy who is respected throughout basketball. If you look at the success they had last year while he was there and the success he's having at Nevada now, that goes to show how valuable he is." 

(Writer's note: Nevada went 9-22 last season, and Musselman has the team out to a 9-5 start in 2015-16. In Musselman's only year on Jones' staff last season, the Tigers made the NCAA tournament for the first time during Jones' tenure and finished 22-11.)

BATON ROUGE, LA - DECEMBER 22:  Ben Simmons #25 of the LSU Tigers dunks against the American University Eagles during the first half of a game at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on December 22, 2015 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Get
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

"They also lost two very good upperclassmen in Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey," the scout continued. "Those guys aren't as flashy or as good as players as Simmons, but they were very good players in the SEC and gave them an advantage on the interior night in and night out.

"They were a big part of the identity and the way they played. That's a big adjustment, not just for the coaching staff, but also for the players to get used to that changing personnel. They really have to totally change the way they play. 

"They also didn't have [Keith] Hornsby at the beginning of the year. Hornsby is a really, really good player, and he's not going to set the NBA on fire, but you lose a guy like that at the beginning of the year, a senior, a guy who makes shots, he's a big part of what they do, and they hadn't had him."

(Writer's note: Hornsby, the team's leading returning scorer from last year, missed the first seven games with an injury. The Tigers were also without Arizona transfer Craig Victor for the first eight games. Victor wasn't eligible until the 2015 fall semester, and he's the team's best post player. The Tigers are 4-1 with both Victor and Hornsby in the lineup.) 

"I think [Tim] Quarterman was really great for them with the ball in his hands, and now that Simmons is there, he doesn't have the ball in his hands as much, so it doesn't play to his strengths. 

"Those things lead to struggles. It doesn't mean they can't turn it around, but they've got a lot of things going on. The headline is they add Ben Simmons, but there's other stuff going on there, too. Those are things that they have to adjust to as a team and figure out." 

BILL FEIG/Associated Press

Scout Two: "The No. 1 problem with LSU is they have a terrible coach. Another piece of it is Ben is kind of a unique and flawed player who needs to be used by a smart coach to be most effective. That's the offensive piece of it. 

"But their biggest issue is defensively. They're just undisciplined. They don't get back in transition. They're not well-organized, well-coached, well-drilled on the defensive end, and that's how you give up 110 points to North Florida." 

(Writer's note: To be fair, it was only 108 points. But the defensive numbers are not flattering. Against opponents ranked in the top 150 by KenPom.com, the Tigers are giving up 86.6 points per game and 1.08 points per possession.) 

"Their defensive effort, including Ben's, has not been good enough," the scout continued. "I see a lot of plays Ben makes that are great anticipation plays defensively, but there are also plays when he doesn't put a hand up, doesn't come over to challenge a shot at the rim, where that's just acceptable.

"If you do that at Kansas or West Virginia, any place where guys are well-coached, you're coming out and you're sitting on the bench." 

Scout Three: "It definitely seems like Ben has had the opportunity to take over, and he doesn't. He's almost too unselfish and too good of a teammate, working to get everyone involved. I don't know if he's trying to please [Antonio] Blakeney, Quarterman and some of the other guys or whether that's coach's instructions. I think Ben is definitely capable of more. 

"Talking to people around the league, everyone likes his unselfishness, but it's a little bit frustrating when you know he's capable of doing more, especially when the team is getting L's. It's almost like he's not competitive to a certain point. When you're that good and you need to get a win, you're going to make sure that your team gets the win, if it takes you taking 30 shots. We've seen that with LeBron [James] at different stages of time with Cleveland and Miami."

Do LSU's struggles hurt Simmons' draft stock?

Scout One: "There's certain players where the NCAA tournament really helps them. For a guy like Ben Simmons, who has been scouted at the Hoops Summit and other various Nike events for years and is so defined by his work and his talent, it's really not going to affect him at all.

"He's going to be the top pick and no amount of problems for LSU can change that. The only thing that can stop him from being the top pick is if [Skal] Labissiere comes on, if Dragan Bender comes on, if Brandon Ingram comes on in such a way that they're too tough to pass up. He's not a consensus; he's close. I'd be willing to bet a lot of money that he'll drop no farther than two, and he'll probably be No. 1 no matter what happens."

Nov 24, 2015; Brooklyn , NY, USA;  LSU Tigers forward Ben Simmons (25) drives past North Carolina State Wolfpack guard Anthony Barber (12) during the second half in the consolation game of the Legends Classic at Barclays Center. North Carolina State Wolfp
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Scout Two: "Ben is a pretty coachable guy—good guy. He's not really been an issue. Now I also was pretty aware coming in that he's not that good of a scorer and not a good shooter at all. When they don't play defense and they need to go down to score in these close games, those deficiencies get a little bit magnified. He's not well-suited to take over a game down the stretch in the absence of good coaching because he's just not a natural scorer. It's not who he is. 

"I'd be surprised if he doesn't [go No. 1], but Brandon Ingram is very talented also, and Jaylen Brown has actually shown some signs of life the last couple games. Dragan Bender is doing quite well lately overseas, so depending on the particular preferences of the team that gets the No. 1 pick, it's possible Ben won't go No. 1, but I think he will. 

"The odd thing is people have made him out to be this generational prospect. He's a very good player, no question. A very good college player and a very good prospect, but I don't see him as head and shoulders the top guy not even in the discussion with other players. To me, last year Karl Towns separated himself from the pack more than Ben has done this year."

Scout Three: "I think he goes No. 1 regardless, especially in this draft. I think if there was more competition up top, you'd get worried. But with the lack of competition as far as elite talent in this draft, I don't see that hurting him."

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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