Will the Real Ben Simmons Please Stand Up?

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJune 23, 2016

NEW YORK - JUNE 22: NBA Draft Prospect, Ben Simmons speaks to the media during media availability as part of the 2016 NBA Draft on June 22, 2016 at the Grand Hyatt New York in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Dow/Getty Images

It’s July in Los Angeles, and PR flacks are ushering Ben Simmons from station to station. He’s just a teenager, not even 19 years old yet. But here he’s a workingman. He’s in town for the annual Gatorade Awards, which honor the top high school athletes in the country, and now’s the media portion of the evening. There are cameras and notebooks in every corner of this hotel conference room. Finally, Simmons gets to sit down.

“What’s something people would be surprised to learn about you?” he’s asked.

He pauses, considering the question.

“I’m the best PlayStation player you’ll ever see,” he answers. “I’ll play anything. Call of Duty, NBA2K, Grand Theft Auto. Me and Dante [Exum, a current point guard for the Utah Jazz who grew up in Australia with Simmons] used to go to each other’s houses after practice and stay up until, like, 4 in the morning playing video games. Even if we had to wake up at, like, 7 the next day. It was crazy.”

Simmons is asked a series of other questions. About why he chose to go to LSU. About his dream of playing in the NBA. About his crooked jump shot and what it was like to come over to America from Australia while in high school. His responses are short and terse. None trigger the level of enthusiasm he showed when discussing his beloved video games.

This was nearly one year ago; back then Simmons was still just a kid from Australia, one who had yet to enroll at LSU or get a taste for the fame and the business end of big-time college basketball. It would be weeks before SportsCenter would even consider leading off its broadcasts with highlights of Simmons’ exploits and months before the national media and NBA scouts would start flocking to his games. Perhaps more notably, the roller coaster of a season that he’d soon endure, perhaps the strangest individual one we’ve seen in college basketball over the past, oh, 20 years, had yet to tip off.

Simmons finished his freshman year at LSU with averages of 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, all team highs. He handles the ball like a guard but also happens to be 6’10” and 240 pounds. His arms and shoulders would blend in on a Baywatch set.

He was so clearly bigger, stronger and faster than everyone else playing college basketball last year and early on emerged as the favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft. “LSU’s Ben Simmons is the best all-around player I've seen since LeBron James came out of high school straight to the NBA!” Magic Johnson tweeted in January.

He was not the only one who held this view.

Thing is, James never lost as frequently as Simmons did last season. Only once in his 13-year NBA career has a team James led finished with a losing record. James didn’t go to college, but it’s easy to envision him turning a school like LSU into a powerhouse. In basketball, a sport where one person can have a monumental impact, the best players typically do. 

Simmons did not. LSU went just 19-14 last year. The Tigers missed out on the NCAA tournament (since 1970, only seven No. 1 picks in NBA history have come from non-tournament teams, according to the Times-Picayune) and elected to turn down an invite to the NIT.

Stories were written trashing Simmons for being too passive on the court. Many, including Charles Barkley, criticized Simmons for his effort, or lack thereof. NBA executives told Jonathan Givony they thought he had a character problem, a charge only exacerbated by his omission from the list of finalists for the Wooden Award—given annually to the top player in the country—after failing to meet the minimum requirement of a 2.0 GPA.  

The image of Simmons as a self-centered phenom more interested in future dollars than present wins began to take shape. And maybe that description is accurate. Maybe Simmons is a bust-in-the-waiting. Maybe he is, you know, a jerk.

But talk to those who know him best—friends, teammates, family, coaches—and many who’ve watched him closely—scouts, opposing coaches, broadcasters—and a different picture begins to emerge. It’s not that these people think Simmons is this infallible prospect without warts. It’s that to them he’s just a kid. An incredibly talented one, but a kid nonetheless.

Studies have shown that college freshmen often feel an alarmingly high level of stress. Now, imagine your first year on a college campus, but throw in burgeoning fame, ridiculously high expectations and a public microscope—and all this taking place in the social media age. Yeah, you’d probably run into some issues along the way, too. That LSU was incapable and ill-equipped of handling the circus that came along with him didn’t help.

Back in the conference room, a Gatorade staffer scampers over to Simmons. About seven minutes have passed, and it’s time for the next interview. Simmons picks himself out of his folding chair and makes his way over to a camera in a far corner. His new life beckons.

It had been years since LSU last landed a prospect of Simmons’ caliber. Yes, the school had seen a fair share of talented high school kids—Glen Davis, Anthony Randolph, just to name two examples—come through Baton Rouge. But not since Shaquille O’Neal in 1989 had one of the top players in a class chosen the Tigers over destinations like Kentucky and Duke. That would have remained the case for even longer had Simmons’ godfather, David Patrick, not been one of LSU’s top assistant coaches. 

Shaquille O'Neal was the last and only other LSU player taken No. 1 overall in the NBA draft.
Shaquille O'Neal was the last and only other LSU player taken No. 1 overall in the NBA draft.NBA Photos/Getty Images

There was nothing nefarious about the arrangement, no shady text messages or drop-offs of paper bags stuffed with cash. Both Simmons and Patrick, who played on the Melbourne Tigers with Simmons’ father, Dave, have been upfront about the whole thing from the start. “Because of my godfather, I feel most comfortable going there,” Simmons said during our conversation last summer.

Patrick arrived at LSU along with Johnny Jones in 2012, when the latter was named head coach. Simmons was a sophomore at the time and had just come over from Australia to enroll in Florida’s Montverde Academy to play for Kevin Boyle, one of the top high school coaches in the country.

On the court at Montverde, everything went as planned. Simmons’ skills improved, and the team won in bunches. Simmons soared to the top of his class’ rankings. By his junior year, he was one of the nation’s top recruits.

His family life was a different story. Simmons’ parents had stayed behind in Australia. He had siblings in the United States, but they were all spread out. One brother, Liam, was in Arizona. Another brother, Sean, was living in L.A. Emily was married in Chicago. Olivia, his sister, was back with their parents in Australia.

And then there was Ben, 15 years old and the baby of the family, in Florida all by himself.

“There were a lot of phone calls home that first year or two,” Sean said in a conversation earlier this year. “Being on his own, responsible for himself, adjusting to that new life—it was pretty tough on him.”

Ben, by all accounts a quiet kid, missed everything about Australia, from the presence of his family to having someone do his laundry for him to the ample access to shepherd's pies. Once, he said, he spent nearly a half-hour trying to find a store that sold them near Montverde. He had no luck.

Simmons earned Gatorade National Player of the Year honors at high school hoops powerhouse Montverde Academy.
Simmons earned Gatorade National Player of the Year honors at high school hoops powerhouse Montverde Academy.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

What he did have, though, was a plan. Ben had his eyes set on the NBA.

Any longing that came with it was a small price worth paying.  

“I remember talking to him about a year-and-a-half in and asking him, ‘are you still homesick?’ ” his sister Olivia said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, but you know, this is where I need to be in order to get where I want to go.’”

Ben would have gone directly from high school to the NBA draft last year had there been no rules prohibiting him from doing so. And he might have been the No. 1 overall pick, too. He had the skills and the body to play right away. Instead, he became the latest prominent high school star forced onto a college campus.

To Simmons, college was never anything more than a one-year stopgap. By March, the season would be over and he’d no longer need to worry about attending classes to remain eligible—so why not spend those few months playing for his godfather, who he had known his entire life, instead of a stranger like Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari? Simmons flirted with other programs. He even visited Duke, the school he rooted for growing up. But in the end, the pull of Patrick and the chance to cleanse some of that loneliness he felt while at Montverde was an opportunity too good to pass up.

The problem: There’s a reason schools like North Carolina and Kentucky succeed in recruiting so many high-profile stars. They have a track record in dealing with and developing players like Derrick Rose and John Wall, and they know how to deal with all the pressures, cameras and mayhem that come along for the ride. Teammates often get jealous of all the attention these stars, usually younger, receive. The stars themselves frequently go through their own growing pains as they adjust to playing against better competition. Also, lest we forget that college locker rooms are full of immature kids.

Coaching a team with a high-profile one-and-done is a difficult job, one that, in hindsight, LSU’s head coach Johnny Jones (who LSU’s media relations department made unavailable for an interview) was not ready for. 

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - MARCH 12:  Ben Simmons #25 of the LSU Tigers is watched by head coach Johnny Jones  during a game against the Texas A&M Aggies in an SEC Basketball Tournament Semifinals game at Bridgestone Arena on March 12, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

“I think it’s fair to say LSU kind of butchered this whole thing,” CBS college basketball analyst and radio host Doug Gottlieb told me. “I love Johnny, he’s a great dude, but I think at times and in this case he was too nice.” 

According to Gottlieb, David Patrick once told him that Simmons only gave full effort on defense if he respected the players he was being tasked to guard.

“That’s the kind of thing where you need to sit the kid and tell him that’s not acceptable,” Gottlieb said. “As soon as you don’t do that, the die is cast.”

It’s a November night in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, and 51 NBA scouts and executives are in attendance to watch Simmons in one of his first college games go up against Marquette. Patrick spends a good portion of his pregame time hobnobbing with many of them, no doubt discussing his godson’s future prospects. National papers like the Washington Post have reporters on site. The game is also being televised on ESPN. 

Everyone wants to get a glimpse of Simmons. For the game’s first 39 minutes, 50 seconds, he’s sensational. His 21-point, 20-rebound, seven-assist box score is eye-opening. The highlights are even better.

There was that slick bounce pass from half court to a streaking teammate that led to a dunk. On multiple occasions, Simmons rebounded a Marquette miss, then took the ball coast to coast and finished with an explosive slam. There were baby hooks with both hands and so many LeBron James-like finishes in the paint where he’d just bounce off a Marquette defender and flip in a feather-soft shot over numerous outstretched hands.

But now LSU, 3-0 at the time, trails Marquette 81-80 with just under 10 seconds remaining, and Simmons is dribbling the ball across half court.

As the Barclays Center clock ticks down toward zero, Simmons finds himself in trouble. Marquette has spent the entire evening sagging off Simmons’ teammates to send help toward him.

Simmons, in his purple uniform with No. 25 printed on both sides, reaches the top of the circle, crosses over from right to left and dips his sculpted right shoulder to power himself below the foul line. All five white jerseys surround him. From the corner of his eye he spots teammate Brandon Sampson open along the right sideline and fires a perfect chest pass. Sampson catches the ball with six seconds to go and plenty of room to shoot—but hesitates and gives the ball back to Simmons on the elbow.

Once again surrounded, Simmons zips another pass, this one cross-court to his former high school teammate, Jalyn Patterson. Patterson’s shot clanks off the front rim. The buzzer sounds. LSU is handed its first loss of the season.

"They did a great job on defense of making sure I couldn't get to the rim," Simmons said afterward when asked about his decision to pass the ball. "I got it to Jalyn. I trusted him. It just didn’t fall."

Now, seven months later, most have forgotten this sequence. Thing is, it perfectly summarizes everything that Simmons is and everything that went wrong for him at LSU. Here you had a hyped teenager who had spent his entire life hearing how great he was, yet he was smart enough to recognize what the correct basketball play was and humble enough to follow through.

“We’re taught a team game,” Matthew Dellavedova, an Australian guard for the Cavaliers, told me. “It’s about making sure you share the ball and keep everyone involved and if a guy’s open passing him the ball.” 

Simmons did that here and on so many other occasions.

He was one of just five players 6’9” or taller to average at least five assists per 40 minutes last season, according to Draft Express. Even more noteworthy: 38 percent of Simmons' 157 assists came within the first 10 seconds of an LSU possession, according to Hoop Math (subscription required). It’s a number nearly equal to that posted by Providence’s star point guard Kris Dunn, a player seven inches shorter than Simmons.

The Tigers’ problems centered around the player Simmons was passing to. Keith Hornsby, the team’s second-best player and lone senior in the rotation, dealt with a hernia issue all season and missed 13 games. No one else on the roster shot a respectable rate on three-pointers. Starting point guard Tim Quarterman averaged a lowly 3.6 assists.

But Simmons never changed his style. Patrick and Hornsby both admit that many of Simmons’ teammates often grumbled about all the shine he was getting. “Some people couldn’t handle that Ben was always the one getting credit,” Hornsby said. “It wasn’t Ben’s fault; it was just hard with all the media attention.”

“Everywhere we went he was the main attraction,” Patrick added. “If another player had 40 points in a game, the first highlight of the game was still going to be about Ben. I think that was tough for some of his teammates.”

Maybe Simmons heard all that noise. Maybe that’s the reason he sometimes seemed so passive.

“It was very obvious that he made getting his teammates involved a major point of emphasis,” Bobby Marks, a former NBA executive and current analyst at The Vertical, said. And none of these teammates were coming through. Yet Simmons kept going back to them, again and again and again.

It’s not that he didn’t like winning. He grew up in a household where everything devolved into a competition. One brother came home with an A in science—the other would remind him that he had gotten his ass kicked in basketball the night before, you know, just to keep the hierarchy entrenched. If one of Dave Simmons’ kids beat him at Mario Kart, another would find him at 3 in the morning later that night on a beanbag chair, N64 controller in hand.

So, yeah, the urge to win flows through Ben Simmons’ blood. It’s just that he’d always been taught that the way to do so was by sharing the ball. In college, this belief betrayed him. In the NBA, it could help him thrive.

Simmons spent the past month doing magazine photo shoots, negotiating sneaker deals and taking in Cavaliers playoff games as a guest of LeBron James. And, of course, training for the draft. But clearly he’s already moved on. So, for that matter, has Patrick, who in April took an assistant coaching job at TCU.

If not for his erratic and broken jumper, Simmons would have been the obvious No. 1 pick from the start of last season. A report from Cleveland.com’s Chris Haynes earlier this week states the Sixers, who own the top pick after winning last month’s lottery, will elect to draft him. If not, the Lakers will swoop him up at No. 2 and parade him around as their new, shiny star.

But what about all those reported character issues? Those low grades? The loafing around on the court? That can’t all be a result of the need for #HotTakes to fill our gigantic news hole and our society’s perpetual mission to tear every gifted and anointed kid down, can it?

Yes and no. The key is to avoid lumping everything together.

“I mean, nothing’s ever fair,” Simmons said during a predraft media event. “But I put myself in this position. If I wasn’t any good, I probably wouldn’t be here.

“A lot comes with being in the spotlight.”

When it comes to the grades, for example, it should be remembered that Simmons didn’t go to LSU to attend classes. Some might not like to hear it, but that doesn’t make it any less the case. He was there to play in the NBA’s billion-dollar minor league. That is all. Had there been no age minimum, he never would have enrolled at LSU.

“I don’t really care if a kid like that misses classes,” Marks said. “I don’t think most teams care about that either.”

As for Simmons’ effort, or periodic lack thereof, Hornsby, who lived with him last year, said he never noticed that or had any issues with his roommate. “He doesn’t show much emotion, and I think people misread that for indifference,” he said.

Gottlieb differs and said he often saw Simmons taking possessions off, especially on defense. But he also pointed out that, physically, it’s impossible to play full-throttle for an entire game. “The key is learning when it’s the right time to give yourself a break,” Gottlieb added. “Especially when you have to carry so much of the load on offense.”

But today, everything is magnified. Take one play off, and the camera might catch you surrendering a layup. Get caught on camera surrendering a layup, and someone, somewhere will post the Vine on Twitter—and once that happens the whole world, full of people who have never watched you play for more than five minutes, is bound to get a glimpse of that context-less, six-second clip of you getting burned. From there, opinions are formed, narratives are constructed, impressions are created.

Ben Simmons is a lazy, self-centered jerk who couldn’t even get his college team to the NCAA tournament.

Perhaps. Or he’s just a kid who could have benefited from some more coaching and better teammates and had the bad luck of being a star in the social media age.

Follow Yaron Weitzman on Twitter at @YaronWeitzman.


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