Ben Simmons will take LSU basketball to another level

Ben Simmons will take LSU basketball to another level

Somewhere between the behind-the-back-dribble driving one-handed dunk and the seeing-eye, full-court outlet pass, it occurred to me as I watched Ben Simmons at the Alario Center on Thursday night:

Two of the 10 best basketball players in the world under the age of 25 will be playing along the I-10 corridor in 2015.

Ben Simmons isn’t in Anthony Davis’ league yet. But he will be soon. The only variable is time.

When Simmons laces his high tops for LSU next season, it’s quite possible that Louisiana will be home to the best college basketball player in the nation and the best pro basketball player in the world. It might be enough to send this football-crazy state into a hoops high.

Ben Simmons is that good.

The future LSU Tiger made his Louisiana debut on Thursday night in the All-State Sugar Bowl National Prep Classic and showed the overflow crowd why he is the best high school basketball player in the country.

He scored 33 points and dished out eight assists in a tour-de-force performance that overwhelmed his gritty opponents from Helen Cox.

It didn’t take long for fans to see why Simmons is considered a once-in-a-generation talent.

He scored the game’s first points by grabbing a rebound, dribbling behind his back, then weaving through traffic the length of the court before finishing the one-man break with a soaring left-handed slam. He produced Monteverde Academy’s second basket with a no-look pass to a streaking teammate in the lane. From there, the rout was on. When he wasn’t raining 3-pointers from the wing, he was dropping dimes to teammates or flushing two-handed dunks in traffic.

“I thought Chris Jackson was the best high school player I’d ever seen, but this kid might be better,” said Jeff Andrews, a longtime prep basketball observer who coached for 18 years in Mississippi and Louisiana.

It was more of the same on Friday, when he scored more than half of his team’s points (27) in a 52-40 win against Edna Karr.

“I was a little nervous because I wanted to show everybody what I will be able to do at LSU,” Simmons said on Thursday night.

Simmons is already a something of a legend in his homeland of Australia. He earned a spot on the Australian National team, known as the Boomers, at the age of 18 and is already being compared favorably to the country’s greatest players: Andrew Gaze; Luc Longley; Andrew Bogut; Joe Ingles; Patty Mills; Matthew Dellavedova; and Dante Exum. Many believe he has the potential to be the country’s best ever.

Simmons is arguably a more important recruit than Leonard Fournette. After all, the Tigers’ football program has been rolling for more than a decade now. Fournette was a landmark signee but the Tigers program would have survived just fine without him.

Simmons, though, figures to impact the LSU basketball program in the same way Shaquille O’Neal did in 1989, when he turned down every basketball power in America to sign with the Tigers and coach Dale Brown. Simmons, too, had his pick of schools, but chose LSU, where his godfather, David Patrick, is an assistant on Johnny Jones’ staff. Simmons has the ability to take the LSU basketball program to another level on the national scene.

“I’m the type of player that wants to compete against the best players,” Simmons said. “At LSU, there’s a bunch of guys that can play the game well and they’re there for one reason and that’s to win. I feel that some guys go to other schools for their personal reasons. I wanted to go somewhere where I could leave a legacy but also play with a great team.”

LSU has signed its share of blue-chip basketball recruits over the years. But most were from the Baton Rouge area or Gulf Coast region. It’s rare for the Tigers to lure a recruit of Simmons’ national stature to Baton Rouge. In that regard, Simmons is a trailblazer, like O’Neal or John Williams in 1984. Maybe that’s why O’Neal felt compelled to call Simmons and congratulate him after he signed with LSU in November.

“They have Shaq, Pistol Pete, Tyrus Thomas, Glen Davis,” Simmons said. “I want to be one of those names when I leave there, but I know it takes time.”

Simmons is already having a Pied Piper Effect on the program. Top 10 shooting guard Antonio Blakeney committed to the Tigers last month and Arizona transfer Craig Victor picked LSU on Friday. LSU is also in the mix for coveted combo guard JaQuan Lyle. If either sophomore big man Jarell Martin or Jordan Mickey elects to return to the program next season, LSU will be a consensus Top 10 team.

Regardless, Simmons alone will be worth the price of admission. His game is so complete and so advanced for a player his age he has few peers. Think of a taller, rangier Scottie Pippen. Or a smaller, more explosive Danny Manning.

“There are no holes in Ben Simmons’ game,” said Jerry Meyer, the national recruiting analyst for 247Sports, told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “That guy — someone taught him how to play. He has such an instinctual feel for playing the game of basketball.”

Simmons’ coach, Kevin Boyle, unapologetically calls Simmons the best non-center prospect since LeBron James.

“LeBron is more powerful but Ben is more fluid,’ Boyle said. “You’ve got a long ways to go to be LeBron James, arguably the best player in the world. But in terms of grace and power and the ability to handle the ball, he (Simmons) is as dominant as we’ve seen for a guy that size.”

Boyle should know. He has worked with USA Basketball for years and developed future NBA first-round draft picks Kyrie Irving, Samuel Dalembert and Al Harrington, while coaching St. Patrick High School in New Jersey.

“That rebound he grabbed and went the length of the court for a layup, there’s only a handful of players in the world that can make that play,” Boyle said.

Off the court, Simmons’ poised demeanor is almost as impressive as his skill level on it.

In many ways, Simmons is the basketball version of LSU football phenom Leonard Fournette. He’s confident, yet humble – and mature beyond his years. Like Fournette, he eschews tattoos and prefers to integrate with and inspire teammates rather than outshine them.

He and Fournette will combine to make 2015 a special year for LSU athletics. In its storied history, LSU has never had two athletes with as much star power on campus together at the same time.

“I can’t wait to get there,” Simmons said.

After his game on Thursday night, Simmons calmly handled all of his media obligations, then was engulfed by a swarm of fans outside the Monteverde locker room. He politely posed for photos, shook hands with fans and signed autographs. At 18, he already is keenly aware of his place in the sports landscape. He also knows exactly where he is going.

For at least next year, he will be going to LSU. My advice to everyone is to enjoy Simmons while you can. The Bayou Boomer won’t be in Baton Rouge for long.

Story courtesy of Jeff Duncan