Ben Simmons: Summer Sixteen

Standing on the roof of a high school in the Bronx, Ben Simmons periodically glances toward Parkchester’s 51-building affordable housing apartment complex—the largest one of its kind in America when it was built in the 1940s—which sits about a block away from his view. It’s the last day of March, and with his pre-Draft workouts less than two weeks away, Simmons seems to be enjoying the change in scenery. 

It’s been a roller-coaster month for the 19-year-old. From his short college career officially coming to an end to coping with all the praise and criticism that came along the way, the 6-10, 240-pound prospect ends the month returning to the same gritty streets that, to a certain extent, started it all. His father David hooped at South Bronx High before playing ball at Oklahoma City University and then enjoying a pro career in Australia, where Ben was born. 

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The trip to dad’s old stomping grounds offered the opportunity to reflect on his journey before beginning to prepare for its next chapter. 

“Real struggles out here,” says Simmons of being in The BX. “It’s my second time. I came here a while ago. Visited with dad. Came down and saw my grandparents. It’s cool to just get back here and see where my dad is from—and the culture and how different it is.

“This is the real first time I’ve been able to just experience it. Other times I’ve come here, I’ve been busy with basketball commitments or whatever it is, so for me it’s just [about] walking around and taking it all in. It’s amazing.”

Although spending time in dad’s old hood offers great perspective and a break from the hoopla surrounding his name, the online chatter about him never seems to stop—certainly not on this particular day. While Simmons walked the streets of the Boogie Down, a report speculating the value of his looming sneaker deal hit the masses. It reported a much lower value range than the numbers circulated by previous stories just weeks earlier.   

For Simmons, though, opinions regarding his potential—both on the court and financially—became all too common this past season with the buzz around his name reaching, arguably, unprecedented levels for a college player. Some of it came from the amazing numbers he was putting up and the rare skill set he already embodies at such a young age, while another contributing factor was simply the ubiquitous 24-hour sports news cycle that we live in today which neither he, nor any other player, can control. 

Nonetheless, with the Draft just weeks away, the summer of ’16 will be the beginning of the end to speculation, paving the way to Ben Simmons’ long-awaited NBA arrival.

The final numbers were 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. That’s what Simmons averaged as a freshman at LSU this past season. Just how rare is this kind of production? He came within decimals from being the first college player, regardless of grade, to average at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists per in the last 20 years. His 23 double-doubles tied Kevin Love for third most in DI history by a freshman.

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Simmons’ 43-point, 14-rebound, 7-assist, 5-steal and 3-block outing against North Florida made him the first major conference player in 20 years to post 40, 10, 5 and 5 in a game. Oh, and he shot 75 percent from the floor that night, hitting 15 of his 20 field-goal attempts.

His 23 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists against Arkansas made him the first major conference player to post 20-10-5 for a fourth time in the same season since Golden State Warriors All-Star Draymond Green did so at Michigan State.  

From reaching scoring totals that the Tigers had not seen since Shaquille O’Neal and Pistol Pete to sweeping National Freshman of the Year accolades, the list of rare numbers the ambidextrous playmaker put up last season seemed to never end.

“Every time I stepped on to the floor, I just tried to win and do everything I could to win,” says Simmons. “I’m not coming out just trying to score points or worry about my stats. At the end of the day, I just want to win. If I finished up with a double-double, it is what it is. But every time I step on the floor, I’m trying to win.”

But with the praise came the microscopic evaluators who looked to nitpick any shortcomings along the way.

From critiquing him for not shooting enough to whether it was Simmons’ fault his Tigers didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, talk picked up steam as the season went on—and opened the door for conversation about whether someone else should also be considered for the top pick in this year’s Draft. In the grand scheme of things, though, the season gave Simmons a lot to take away.

“My time at LSU didn’t go as planned from a winning standpoint—I hate losing,” says Simmons. “But I did learn a lot from my coaches and teammates and just from being in the college environment—all things which will help me in my next step. I learned how to block out distractions and focus on the job at hand.”

It says here that the criticism was mostly unjustified. The way LSU’s roster was composed last season, Simmons was mostly needed in the paint and on the glass and not necessarily throwing up jumpers out on the perimeter. When you add that to the fact that Simmons’ superb playmaking abilities are what make him so unique and that finding an open man for high-percentage shot attempts is the entire purpose of it, critiquing him for not taking enough shots or passing too much is like trying to knock him for being too good at his strengths.

“That’s how you play the game,” says Simmons of his distributing abilities. “It’s not about one-on-one. If you’re doing that, you go to the backyard. If you’re on a team, that’s what a team is. You play together and try to win the game. If everyone is on the same page, it’s a special thing.”

Simmons announced prior to his junior year at Montverde (FL) Academy that he was taking his elite talents to Baton Rouge for college. He could have taken up offers from the likes of Kentucky, Duke and Kansas but instead opted to take on a challenge. A ballsy and admirable decision, he chose loyalty and familiarity.

Going to those other programs could have been a safer option. Sharing the court with a bunch of other All-Americans would have taken away some of the pressure, responsibilities and magnifying glass off of him. It would have been harder to spot something to critique. But with his godfather David Patrick, who hooped with Simmons’ dad in the National Basketball League in Australia and who has known Ben since he was a little kid, serving as an assistant coach at LSU—the southeastern state is where Simmons felt he’d be most comfortable. Alas, with the team’s starting guard, top perimeter shooter and second-leading scorer Keith Hornsby missing the first seven games of the season as well as the last six due to a hernia injury, and some other tough breaks along the way, the Tigers ended the season two games behind first place in the SEC standings and ultimately missed out on the Big Dance.  

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“What makes Ben unique is he’s a family first guy,” says Patrick, who this spring accepted an assistant head coach position at TCU. “For me, knowing why he came to LSU—he wanted a chance to beat the Kentuckys and the Dukes. I think when we beat Kentucky here at home, and with the second half he had, to see him being able to do that with all the cameras on him was a great moment for me as a coach and his godfather.”

As impressive as what Simmons was doing on the hardwood was how he embraced everything away from it. As Patrick puts it, there wasn’t much else he could do. “He’s the only college kid I think that has ever had to have security with him on the road because of the media, autographs and the people trying to get to him,” Patrick says. “He couldn’t have handled it any better.”     

The average NBA fan’s know-ledge of Simmons so far will likely start and end at LSU. While ex-pected, it falls short of getting the full scope of just how rare of a talent he’s been. After relocating from Australia to Florida in January 2013 to pursue his basketball dream amidst the better comp offered by Montverde, Simmons went to work. In two-and-a-half seasons there, he led the Golden Eagles to a 62-1 record and three straight titles at DICK’S High School Nationals, the closest thing to a national champion that you can get in prep hoops these days. So when Simmons says only winning matters to him, he has that record to back it up.   

“He’s one of the most dominant high school players ever,” says his coach at Montverde, Kevin Boyle. “When you look at that record, playing in that schedule, playing more than half the games against top-25 teams—it’s incredible.”

And that’s saying a lot coming from Boyle, who has coached some pretty good prospects over the last couple of decades during his tenure at St. Patrick HS in Elizabeth, NJ, and now at Montverde since 2011. After this year’s Draft, Simmons will become the fifth player that Boyle has coached in the last six years to be selected in the top-three picks of the NBA Draft. He coached Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid and Los Angeles Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell. Other players Boyle coached in high school include ex-NBAers Al Harrington and Samuel Dalembert.

“I think the most unique thing about Ben is that he truly has guard skills,” says Boyle, whom Simmons got a chance to spend time with while in New York as Montverde looked to four-peat in the DICK’s tourney. “You’re talking about a guy that’s 6-10, that’s pushing the ball up the court like a guard and then distributing all over the place. Essentially, he has one of the best abilities to throw a chest pass from one side to the other—60-70 feet on the money. Not a lot of guys can do that at any level.

“And there’s no question in my mind that he will end up becoming a good shooter in the NBA. Especially when that’s your whole job and you’re getting at least 500 shots up every day. I’m not worried about him not being a good shooter at the NBA level at all.”

That point-forward skill set, along with an NBA-ready physique, helped contribute to the array of comparisons to some of the League’s all-time greats. The comparisons place an abundance of weight on an incoming rookie that will already have enough to prove. Simmons’ talent is as intriguing as any prospect in recent memory, though. He brings that international flavor, which he’s mixed with an American tinge since his arrival to the States in 2013. That unselfish style of play derives from having been raised around that team-first, European way of ball. But since arriving in America at the age of 16, he says he’s also learned how to utilize his physical abilities, such as his agility and quickness.     

“I think my game, it’s just a lot different,” says Simmons, “the way I’ve grown up playing. Having my dad play pro in Australia, I just learned a lot from him, and the way to win games and play as a team player. But I think I’ve picked up a lot of things out here, which has kind of created my own type of game—I think [like] using my athleticism.

“I think just my IQ is a lot different from most people because I’ve played on different levels—whether it was with guys who were already on the Australian team or with guys just in America. Playing the European style and then playing the American, and then kind of building it into one.”

Combining the best of both worlds has given Simmons a fresh perspective on the game, especially when studying closely the way some of the League’s players contribute in their respective ways. “I watch everybody,” Simmons says. “Not everyone is the same.”  

When asked which players he’s found himself enjoying to watch, his first answer is one that you won’t hear too common unless, well, you really are watching everybody.

“The guard from L.A., from Brazil [Marcelo Huertas—Ed.],” he says. “I like watching him. He knows how to play the game. He’s a team player.”

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It’s the little things like paying attention to a 32-year-old, off-the-bench international rookie with limited duties that can very well explain what separates Simmons from the rest. While the stats have indeed been impressive, along with the terrific court vision, his coast-to-coast game on the open floor and the physical tools he possesses that make some things look easier than they are, his awareness and understanding of the different factors and roles that go into winning offer another kind of edge.   

Simmons, who signed with LeBron James’ long-time friend Rich Paul and his Cleveland-based Klutch Sports Group for representation (which aside from James also reps Tristan Thompson, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe), has been conducting his pre-draft workouts in the Rock and Roll Capital of the World. He’s been able to sit courtside at Cavaliers’ home games while experiencing the intense Playoff action in April. Can’t get any closer than that to the level of play that ultimately awaits him. 

“I think I’ve had a pretty good run so far,” says Simmons. “But now it’s time to take my game to the next level and I’m looking forward to just trying to be the best player I can be and stepping on to the NBA floor and competing with the best players in the world.       

“I don’t want to come in slacking. I want to be the hardest worker. I want to be one of the guys that people look at as soon as he comes off the floor and say, He’s one of the hardest workers every time he’s on the floor. For me to do that would be huge. I’m looking forward to it.”

Franklyn Calle is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @FrankieC7.

Portraits by Tom Medvedich