Ben Simmons is LeBron James' successor as next generational talent
Ben Simmons, wearing the white and purple colours of Louisiana State, was playing defence underneath the basket midway through last season, on the way to a 43-point game against North Florida in his one and only college campaign. He secured good position inside and swatted away an attempt, barely leaving the floor as he stretched out his 6 foot 10 frame. Recovering the ball in stride, he motioned down court with both hands and after a brief pause to throw off his opponent, drove into the lane for a lay-up between two defenders.
The crushing defensive play, speed in transition, stutter-step and finish. It was a play reminiscent of LeBron James. If you bought the book and read the introduction, Simmons is the heir apparent.
The box score from the North Florida game read 43 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and three blocks. The ability to create a deep stat line is half the battle. James’ NBA box score reads three-time NBA champion, three-time Finals MVP, four-time MVP and 12-time All-Star.
Yet the man 11 years his junior, born in Melbourne, has been eerily similar in nearly every facet other than physical strength. What’s worrying is no one dare ask the following: Is there a danger in putting Ben Simmons on a pedestal, far too early and so matter-of-factly?
The 20-year- old Australian hasn’t played a single game as a professional, yet the hype is uncontrollable. The old-fashioned eye test bears witness to his size, versatility, ball handling skills and vision. It gets even more poetic; his jump shot is wretched, and in March he entered the NBA’s version of the circle of trust, Klutch Sports Group, founded by Rich Paul who through this agency represents James.
“Mini-LeBron”, quipped Chicago Bulls rookie Denzel Valentine amidst a summer league in which Simmons averaged 12.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists. It was also a summer league where coaches implored him to shoot. Not to shoot more. Just to shoot.
The comparison isn’t what you’d call mini, more mind-blowing, expecting and insisting that a man who has lived in the United States for barely three years to follow James, rookie of the year himself in 2004 and someone who has played in and started 199 postseason games.
But that’s where we stand.
James was drafted out of high school, 18-years- old at the time. Simmons, meanwhile, utilised the one-and-done college rule better than the rule makers who initiated it. His college team, LSU, didn’t even qualify for the 68-team NCAA tournament – almost impossible to miss nowadays - gut-punched by the announcement from head coach Johnny Jones that they wouldn’t take part in the National Invitation Tournament.
It was the apathy to college Simmons bestowed that created one of the bigger concerns for some scouts and executives, which ultimately led LSU to a dire 19-14 record. The team who drafted him number one overall in June, the Philadelphia 76ers, have gone 47-199 over the last three seasons, and while they couldn’t possibly pass up such a talent, when it comes to competitive fire, physicality and tough defence, Simmons rarely showed it at the collegiate level. He rejected Duke and Kentucky during the recruiting process, unrelenting in his wish not to accept the traditional routes that lead to a big school, instead choosing LSU in large part because his godfather, David Patrick, was the associate head coach and persuaded him to come.
Why not a big school? Why not show heart in every big game? Did Simmons think he could avoid going 100% with the Tigers over Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils? The Aussie plays with a calmness and touch reminiscent of a smooth surfer on the shores of his home country, and he’s able to finish with both hands. On the surface, however, there is no fire, and some scouts concluded that he padded his stats down the stretch of games and only passed the ball when an assist was sitting on a plate. This argument might be as dangerous as comparing him to James, as not many players of his height can drive through three defenders and launch a pass behind their head to the corner for a wide open three. The instinctive Simmons doesn’t have time to choose such moments.
Every player from the 2015-16 LSU team has re-hashed the numerous injuries they suffered last season, but it’s telling when you hear this and then see the player Simmons is being compared to dragging the Cleveland Cavaliers to two wins in the 2015 finals without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love, and then overcoming a 3-1 finals deficit this year to win it all. However, if you talk to people in Melbourne, they will tell you that Simmons was brought up by his parents in a loving, encouraging and disciplined environment.
Simmons has had a taste of winning, first pushing his parents to send him to the States having studied his potential opponents on YouTube, subsequently enrolling at Montverde Academy in Florida and winning three straight high school national championships.
But the records can’t be ignored. From 2001 to last season, 87% of top-five prospects made the NCAA tournament according to FiveThirtyEight. For a number one pick to miss the bracket entirely is astounding. Next season, Simmons will play 49 more regular season games than his output last year, and in each of them, the Sixers will have to work extremely hard to finish with more points than their opponents. Can Simmons find the hunger to win? More importantly, is he willing?
The puzzling notion is that Simmons idolises James and wants to reach that type of play – who doesn’t? – but is in turn being nurtured by James. The defending champion has called Simmons his ‘little brother’ and spent a good amount of time with the family over the previous two years. We must, however, take this with a pinch of salt. James has always been in defence of the Klutch Sports posse, highlighted when he persuaded David Griffin and Dan Gilbert of the Cavaliers to spend $82m over five years on Tristan Thompson.
If Simmons tugs at LeBron’s belt too often or hides beside the stature of an all-time great, he may stray away from what he needs to do to grow personally. Each journey is different and the road Simmons can’t take is signposted ‘LeBron James’ physical talents’, for he is the most gifted athlete the NBA has ever seen, an unstoppable force however big the barrier. Simmons needs to learn how to work out like James, eat the right foods as James does, but distance might be as important as cuddling up to the main man. They are competitors, and while James has complimented Simmons – “I think he's a great young talent and the way he displays on the basketball court, we all notice” – his priority won’t lie with the Sixers during Eastern Conference play.
“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 continued: “Whatever team selects Ben Simmons, will be getting a player that will have an immediate impact on their squad.”
That is high praise indeed. During Johnson’s rookie year in 1980, the Hall of Fame point guard stood in at center for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabaar in game six of the Finals, recording 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists on his way to the Finals MVP award.
A player oozing versatility and endorsing Simmons? This is relevant because the Sixers have chosen to play him at the ‘point forward’ position, the new and improved ‘PF’ in the basketball line-up.
Simmons will see a lot of the ball, as head coach Brett Brown has already relayed to his young star, and it seems his success will be predicated as much on who he is surrounded by as his own output.
Without three-point shooters and solid transition teammates, Simmons’ stats won’t mirror those in college. Defending him in the half-court is said to be a popular tactic by opposing teams, dropping behind the three-point line in an attempt to reduce his creativity window. He is a player who thrives on transition, yet still needs to learn how to look up and run when his team rebound defensively.
Conversely, James is one of the quickest up-court, regularly slamming home passes off the backboard from teammates as if it’s another day at the office. Alongside Simmons on the depth chart at this point are Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid – if he returns from injury – Gerald Henderson and T.J. McConnell.
In 2004, LeBron James joined Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Eric Snow, Anderson Varejao and a host of other mid-to- low-level players. Three years later, with a very similar team, James led the Cavs to the NBA Finals, swept aside by the San Antonio Spurs but still known as one of the worst teams to make the Finals.
The Sixers, if they want Simmons to be their cornerstone for the next 10 to 15 years, need to decide what to do with one of either Okafor, Noel or Embiid, and start acquiring some experienced veterans who know what it takes to win. James was a grown man and born leader at 18. Perhaps Simmons can be that too, but the Sixers know he needs help and it better not be another ball-handler, because you cannot pair his skillset with that. The advertisement is up in the City of Brotherly Love: ‘Shooters required’.
Despite an undersized wingspan for his height - 6-foot-11 - Simmons’ best talent besides court vision and change of speed is his anticipation for rebounds. He knows where to get to and how to get there. But the crucial factor missing in this list is jump shooting. LeBron James just had his worst season from the three-point line since his rookie year, .309% just pipping his rookie rate of .290. In the playoffs this year, teams backed off of James, creating space for him to shoot from deep while happily engaging in the act of going under screens when James had the ball. The Cavs countered by attacking lesser defenders and having James receive the ball down low, and in the end, his brute strength and ability to finish at the rim ended that ploy. The Sixers, as pointed out already, have an abundance of big men, so that could complicate things.
If you watch highlights of Simmons and are waiting to tally up three-pointers or even mid-range jumpers on a notepad, you don’t have to worry about your pen running out of ink. Simmons attempted just three three’s in 33 games for LSU, nailing one as the NBA turns into a three-point contest over 48 minutes. During summer league, Sixers coaches implored him to shoot more, even from mid-range. Too often he stands alone beyond the arc, deciding to put the ball on the floor or pass it up instead of shooting. When he and Brandon Ingram faced off in Vegas this summer, pulling in a 16,000-strong crowd, the number one pick produced eight points and seven turnovers.
There needs to be more fury, more speed, and above all else, a shooting programme to build shooting confidence. James still fades away on his jumper after 13 NBA seasons; Simmons has time to work on his shot, and the best news might be that his form is technically sound, albeit for a slight fade himself. Again, distance from the James tapes might be a good thing here. Old habits die hard.
Ben Simmons is Philadelphia’s first number one overall pick since Allen Iverson in 1996 and, like LeBron, he won Rookie of the Year and led a mediocre team to the Finals in 2001.
‘The Answer’ had a swagger about him, a thirst for competition and a fiery temperament which he was able to utilise it in order to embarrass opponents. LeBron, the self-proclaimed ‘King James’, has the physical ability and all-around skills to catapult any team he plays on to the highest level.
Simmons, who we don’t have a nickname for yet, best not choose it himself. To have something about him that’s different to LeBron James might just be the best thing for him as he goes about building his own legacy in the NBA, which as a number one pick will either meet expectations or fail wildly.
When you put it like that, perhaps matching James is a good thing after all.