Ben Simmons: A journey from Down Under to top of the Draft
Last night, NBA commissioner Adam Silver took to the stage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York to announce the first pick of the 2016 NBA Draft. In reading out the name of Louisiana State University product Ben Simmons, he realised a prediction made back in 2004 by an aspirational seven-year-old in Newcastle, Australia.
"Since I was seven-years-old," Simmons told ESPN recently in the run-up to the Draft. "I wrote on a piece of paper that I wanted to play in the NBA and it is finally coming up." Today, that ambition has become a reality and the 19-year-old can begin making plans for life as a Philadelphia 76er. As they say, things will never be the same again.
But what happened in the intermitting 12 years that meant Simmons was able to transition from a hopeful kid turning out for the Newcastle Hunters, to the top pick of the 2016 draft class and a man who counts LeBron James - someone he has been compared to on more than one occasion - as his "big brother"?
What happened between putting pen to paper Down Under and signing multi-million dollar sneaker deals before he’s even made an NBA basket?
Like his game on the hardwood, it is a story of contradictions. One that combines circumstances unique to the Melbourne native, with the kind of career landmarks and defining moments that are seen in the resume of many an NBA player that have come before him.
Born in Melbourne in July 1996, Simmons was capable of stealing the limelight right from the outset.
His Australian mother, Julie, actually went into labour right as the opening ceremony for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games was getting underway. His father, Dave, had to be pulled away from watching the ceremony on TV to tend to his wife such is the sports-mad nature of the Simmons family.
But, while the number one draft pick might call Melbourne his home, his links to the U.S., and the game of basketball, have always been strong.
Dave Simmons actually went to high school less than 15 miles away from where Ben was drafted last night, at South Bronx High School. He was a talented player himself, but, having seen his hoops dream stall at Oklahoma City Unversity, Simmons Sr. emigrated to Australia and made his name in the country’s National Basketball League (NBL) where he spent 13 years playing and two years as a coach.
Unlike Andrew Bogut - another Australian to go first overall in the NBA Draft when he was selected in 2005 – Simmons was engulfed by basketball from the get-go. In having a father that lived and breathed the game, his situation is, in some ways, more akin to the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving and Kobe Bryant – all of whom were the offspring of pro players.
And, while it is far too early to put Simmons on the same pedestal as those All-Star regulars, like the Splash Brothers and Kobe, the 19-year-old does credit being immersed in the game from such a young age as having helped equip him with the tools – and the genes – to put him in a position to succeed.
“He’s adopted my dad’s physicality and his mindset of just competing,” Ben’s brother Liam explained earlier this year.
“He’s got that New York kind of creed where you don’t care who’s on the floor and where you came from, he’s going to come at you… And he’s got that Australian savvy where he’s going to make the pass if the guy’s open and he’s going to talk to his teammates and he’s going to be really vocal.”
A combination of nature and nurture saw Simmons stand out as a real talent on the hardwood. Aged seven, he was already turning out for the Newcastle Hunters under-12 development squad and, by the time he was a 15-year-old towering over his fellow pupils at Box Hill Senior Secondary School, he was on a different level:
“You saw there was potential straight away,” his high school coach Kevin Goorjian recalled in an interview with The Australian. “Aside from his height he could run, he could jump, he could pass, he could handle the ball as good as anyone I’ve seen.
“It was the day I ran him through some drills that I’d done with Olympians…I thought, ‘Oh no, he’s already got this’. I called my brother – who was coaching in China at the time – and said, ‘you’ve got to come see this kid’.”
Turning heads and honing his skills in Australia - perfecting what he describes as a “team-first,” European style of play - may have been all well and good, but the fact still remains that, when it comes to basketball, if you want to prove yourself as the best at what you do then the United States is the place to do it.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
That’s why, after visiting the States to attend a number of basketball camps the previous summer, in January 2013 at age 16 Simmons made the decision to leave behind Box Hill and his family, and move almost 10,000 miles to attend Montverde Academy boarding school in Florida.
Mr and Mrs Simmons always had the idea of sending Simmons to the States for his senior year, as they’d done with his older siblings. Such was their child’s prodigious talent, however, that they fast-tracked the decision and sent him half way across the globe two years early.
“You have to play the best in order to see where you're at, so me going over to America and playing at a few camps, that helped me a lot because it kind of showed where I was on the level of being one of the top high-school basketball players," Simmons told the Newcastle Herald back in June 2014.
"...From there I got a few offers from high schools where they wanted me to go. All the top high schools in America wanted me to play for their team.”
Montverde was no accidental choice. The Florida school were the reigning High School National Champions when Simmons arrived and they were coached by one of the most well-respected names in high school ball, Kevin Boyle – a mentor for the likes of recently crowned NBA champion Kyrie Irving.
Over the subsequent two years, Simmons would go from finding his feet as a sophomore to gaining MVP honours in the 2014 High School National Championship game courtesy of a 24 point, 12 rebound performance at Madison Square Garden.
His six-foot 10-inch frame and uncanny eye for a pass even had Boyle comparing the youngster to one of the all-time greats, Magic Johnson.
Having also made his debut for the Australian National team after arriving in the U.S. – he was one month past his 17th birthday when he played against New Zealand in August 2013 - there’s no doubt the basketball world was sitting up and taking notice of ‘that Aussie kid down in Florida’.
Playing alongside current Los Angeles Lakers star D’Angelo Russell at Montverde, Simmons had emerged as a true all-around talent, and he and D-Loading led the team to a perfect 28-0 season in his junior year.
“I knew he’d be a pro right away. He’s so versatile. He was a guy you couldn’t put into a box. He did everything.” – D’Angelo Russell on Ben Simmons, February 2016.
HIS OWN PATH
While life in the pressure-cooker that is U.S. basketball began at the nation’s top high school program surrounded by other stars of the game at that level, Simmons’ college decision saw him veer away from the more well-trodden path.
Coming off the back of a campaign in which he was named the nation's top high school junior, the college basketball world really was Simmons’ oyster as he prepared for his senior year.
Yet, this chapter of his career can be firmly filed under unorthodox.
The consensus number one recruit in the nation, the forward with a guard-like skill set had his pick of NCAA Division I schools. In November 2014, he duly signed a letter of intent with Louisiana State University - a school that has three national titles…in college football.
Despite boasting the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Pete Maravich as former alumni, the Tigers haven’t been a force in college basketball for some time. Opting to head to Baton Rouge over traditional powerhouse programs like Duke, Kansas or Kentucky was an unusual step for the nation’s top recruit.
Following up his decision with a senior year that saw averages of 28 points, 11 rebounds and four assists as well as Naismith Prep Player of the Year and National Player of the Year honours, the big programs must have looked on with envy.
According to his brother Liam, though, the idea of playing for an unfancied school is something that excited Ben:
“He would rather line up against Kentucky and play against them than play with them…It’s an unbelievable program – but that’s just the way he’s wired. He loves that competition. He loves the challenge.”
Long destined to be a one-and-done collegiate athlete, there were high expectations about Simmons' ability to rise to that challenge and dominate his only NCAA season, using his famed skill set to raise the game of his LSU teammates in the process. In some ways, that is what happened.
From a statistical point of view, his 2015-16 college campaign was almost unprecedented. The 6'10" star had more assists per game (4.8) than any other freshman forward or center in college hoops since the turn of the millennium.
He averaged a 19.2 point, 11.8 rebound double-double through his 33 games for LSU and became a consensus first-team All-American. Games like his 43/10/5/5 stat line against North Florida and his 36 point, 14 rebound outing against Vanderbilt had basketball royalty salivating.
Magic Johnson tweeted after LSU saw off Kentucky back in January:
“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.”
The Hall of Famer's praise appears well founded when you look at what Simmons achieved statistically speaking in college compared to some established NBA names. He averaged more points than John Wall, more rebounds than Kevin Love and more assists than two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry.
However, his time at LSU also fuelled some of the criticism and concerns that, up until Wednesday, had seen doubts emerge about his viability as the number one overall draft pick.
As one NBA scout speaking on the condition of anonymity said recently:
“There were a lot of things going on with his teammates at LSU. There’s no denying he has a big sense of self-entitlement.
“He’s got an aloofness to him that is concerning. The LSU thing was just a s**t-show. There was too much allowed to happen.”
It is this aloofness that, somewhat confusingly, has been interpreted as both a superiority complex and a sign he doesn’t possess the alpha-male characteristics often seen in true NBA stars.
On the first point, the likes of multi-time All-Star Tracy McGrady recently lamented Simmons for failing to acknowledge anyone else in the box from which he watched Game Four of the NBA Finals. To him, his persona was standoffish or even disrespectful.
His decision not to work out for the 76ers until Tuesday of this week ruffled a few feathers, too. On the surface, it does look like Simmons isn’t the type to go out of his way to ingratiate himself with people.
In reality, though, the number one pick is simply a man comfortable within his own inner circle. Perhaps inevitable as a rising star in the social media era, he even has rules when it comes to talking to girls he meets:
“I have to talk to the person first. If I’m going to talk to the person and date that person, I’ll have to go up to them,” he told ESPN. “I’ll have to go up to them.”
An extra cautious approach and a laid back attitude born of an Australian childhood has, in some people's eyes, come off as blasé. Especially when compared to American athletes brought up as media-savvy.
There have been other gripes beyond his persona, however, that focus more on its impact on the court.
The likes of former Charlotte Hornets GM Rod Higgins have questioned whether he has the arrogance that was so crucial to the success of “the Kobe's, the MJ's, the Magic’s and the Bird’s and the Isaiah’s”.
Simmons’ pass-first style despite his obvious advantage over opponents has fuelled that side of the argument, as has a perceived reluctance to take over games and make them his own.
On the court, his decision to link up with LSU also threw up some difficulties as Simmons and LSU had to watch March Madness from their sofas after compiling a lacklustre 19-14 record. The school’s failure to reach the season-ending tournament actually means Simmons is the first No.1 pick from college never to have played in the NCAA Tournament.
On the flip side, not taking the so-called easy route via Kentucky or Duke could be seen as character building. Something Simmons himself certainly seems to agree with:
“It was a rollercoaster, up and down. But I think I learned a lot just from being at a school like LSU. I didn’t take the normal Duke, Kentucky route so, for me, I think it was a lot different, a lot harder for me.”
Unfortunately, the fact the Aussie hasn’t played a competitive game since March 12 left a vacuum that was inevitably filled. His striking play has been overshadowed in some quarters by negative stories.
Look beyond the hot takes and disappointment of a solo LSU season, however, and what is left are the comparisons to some of the best players to ever grace the NBA. So, can Ben Simmons really match up to the likes of LeBron James?
In the words of the four-time NBA champion himself:
“I think he is a great young talent. I think what he displays on the basketball court, we all notice. He has all the tools, and it’s up to him.”
LeBron isn’t just paying lip service to the Australian either. The pair first met at a Nike camp back in 2013 where, in Simmons’ words, “I was going at him and he was going at me the whole time.”
Since then, their relationship has developed to a point where Simmons often texts the Cavaliers star for advice and LeBron is on first name terms with Simmons' family. The 19-year-old also recently signed with Klutch Sports Group, for whom James is the standout client.
There are certainly similarities between the pair. Like James, Simmons is a monster on the defensive boards and looks almost effortless in transition when his huge frame reaches top speed. Watching the young star fire off passes with pinpoint accuracy is almost like watching LeBron highlights from his rookie NBA campaign. They're both freak athletes.
They have the exact same wingspan and even Simmons’ perceived weakness, his inability or reluctance to shoot the ball from deep, has been a criticism aimed towards James over the years. The LSU product only took three three-point shots in his one-and-done campaign, making one.
Whether Simmons will follow in James’ footsteps and fulfil a power forward role in the NBA, remains to be seen. As the Magic comparison offered by his high school coach alludes to, the Aussie is versatile enough to recreate the 'power-point' play first mastered by the Lakers star.
At Philadelphia, he could slot in as the team's key distributor at point guard just as the franchise welcome back Joel Embiid onto the floor, or he could thrive as a forward under the guidance of Brett Brown, a former coach of his father, who will look to develop the youngster's potential as a scorer:
“I’m a big guy, but I play with a guard mentality,” Simmons told MSN.com. “I think my game will really translate to the NBA level.”
Philadelphia, a team that has tanked at a near professional level for several seasons now, will certainly be hoping that transition can be made quickly.
THE TIME HAS COME
Now a member of the Association, the time for talking has all but come to an end. Sooner rather than later, we will know exactly what 'Ben Simmons the NBA player' will look like.
As a teenager, Simmons has had his path chosen for him thanks to family traits and family support, but also hasn’t been afraid of making bold choices or sticking to his guns when others urged him to change.
His actions could be seen as arrogant by some, or they could be seen as the decisions of a man destined for glory. The fact of the matter is that only a minuscule fraction of the world’s population can identify with the life Simmons has led since writing that note as a seven-year-old.
He’s had to battle homesickness as a teenager as he swapped Australian home life for American boarding school. He’s faced potentially crippling expectations as the top-ranked player in the nation and navigated the scrutiny that came with his first ever season on an underperforming team.
During all that time he has also continued to inspire members of the media to wax lyrical about his on-court talent and has remained focussed on the ultimate prize. He’s dealt with Hall of Famer comparisons, but insists he wants to forge his own way in the league:
“There’s only one Magic, one LeBron, hopefully one Ben Simmons,” he told GiveMeSport on Wednesday.
“Everyone is going to try and compare players to each other but at the end of the day, one day, I want people to say ‘he plays like Ben Simmons'.”
The fact, too, that he can boast both of those men as paid up members of the Ben Simmons fan club should alleviate any lingering concerns Sixers fans may have.
As an athlete, he is a frighteningly talented prospect whose skill set continues to confound those looking to put players in neat boxes. As a person, his character has also split opinion but, as his “big brother” probably tells him often in their text conversations, there will always be people out there looking to put you down.
Simmons’ Australian roots have helped hone a game few others possess at his age, whilst simultaneously making up the foundation of a personality that continues to dumbfound some.
Only time will tell if the man from Down Under will live up to the expectations that follow every number one pick, but he has all the tools at his disposal to prove his critics wrong, and his supporters very right.