The Curious Case of Benjamin Simmons

Ben Simmons could be the best player in college basketball and the first pick in next June’s NBA Draft. After his first handful of games here in the States, however, things may not be as rosy as they seem.

Simmons arrived at LSU this fall with great expectations and the hype machine kicked into high gear. This, for example is the FOURTH time I’ve written about Simmons so far this year.

At first glance, the young Aussie has backed up all of that chatter early in the season. To date, he’s averaging 19.9 points, 14.9 rebounds (leads the nation), 6.0 assists. 2.4 steals, and 1.6 blocks.

But over the last several weeks, the tide, while not necessarily having shifted, has at least slowed in Simmons’ favor. Based on those numbers, that would seem absurd. Dig a little deeper and things get a bit murkier.

Simmons’ team, the LSU Tigers, sit at a disappointing 4-3. To date, they’ve played the 298th toughest schedule in Division I (In other words, the 53rd easiest). These struggles have dropped them to 87th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.

Even the groundswell of attention and support from fans and the media seems to be ebbing away from Simmons. When LSU played NC State, certain corners of Basketball Twitter weren’t pleased with ESPN’s online highlights. And they had a point:

The casual fan wants to know how Simmons did. And he had an impressive line (14 rebounds and 10 assists), but you’d think the team who won by 11 in overtime would get a decent portion of the coverage.

Now, even NBA Draft nerds are starting to nitpick Simmons’ flaws.

The other night, Simmons exploded for 43 points, 14 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 steals, and 3 blocks. The defense rests? Not exactly.

Those stats came against lowly North Florida, in a game in which LSU let their opponent do more than hang around. The Ospreys lead by as many as 14 and LSU’s largest lead did not occur until the game’s final minute. That means Simmons was given the luxury of playing 37 meaningful minutes against a team whose largest guy on the court was 6’9, 215 lbs. Reminder: Simmons himself runs about 6-10, 240. Look at Simmons’ shot chart during the game:

IMG_0934

Every single field goal he attempted game from in the paint, where against North Florida, he should be able to score at will. Not to mention, defense didn’t seem to be a priority in Baton Rouge that night. A final score of 119-108 means there were a lot of counting stats to be had.

So where does that leave us? More importantly, where does it leave Simmons? I mean, are we really going to bad mouth a 43-14-7-5-3 game?

He will continue to be the most talented player in college basketball. He will remain atop the draft board of every sane human being, myself included. Seven games in November shouldn’t change his ceiling nor his floor, as a college freshman or as a future professional.

These seven games have changed two things. On the pro side, no longer will the NBA’s artillery division, the tanks located in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Boston (by way of Brooklyn), view the 2015 Draft Lottery as #1 or bust. That would be unfair to Jamal Murray, Kris Dunn, and Dragan Bender.

In the college ranks, unless Simmons can play the way he did against North Florida in SEC competition, we all may need to prepare ourselves for ESPN really, really trying to get us to watch the Bayou Bengals in the NIT.

For now, let’s all take a deep breath and remember that a 19 year old gifted with size, skills, and absurd passing vision, is still a sight to behold and treasure.

In his 4 point game against NC State, he attempted a mere 6 field goals. Against Marquette, he passed twice on the Tigers’ final possession, already earning him the same brand of end of-game-passiveness-shaming that LeBron James heard for years. Naysayers looking for flaws turned to his aggressiveness or even his mental makeup in their never ending quest to find something the matter. Yet maybe, in the long run, a year under the microscope with shoddy coaching and an odd collection of teammates is the perfect training for a player of his caliber. The next several months will not define Ben Simmons’ career, but they will greatly affect how we view it moving forward.

**

Header image via Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports.

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to palestraback@gmail.com.

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