We’d known his name, watched the highlight tapes, and grown increasingly intrigued from Portland practice reports that showered Ben Simmons with praise. But the best prep basketball player in the country lived up to our sky-high expectations and then some during Saturday’s Nike Hoop Summit nonetheless.
Broadly considered the number one player in the high school class of 2015, Simmons is a 6’10, 239-pound forward who will play college ball at LSU next fall. And barring a shocking turn of events, he’ll be in the Bayou for just one season before shouldering the hopes and dreams of a wayward NBA franchise.
Buzz from Portland leading up to Saturday’s event confirmed the hype of Simmons’ recruiting ranking, and his play in the World Team’s 103-101 win over Team USA only further cemented it. The Australia native came up just short of a triple-double en route to 13 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists, showing off the rare playmaking ability that has draft-niks calling him a potential first overall pick come next June.
What first stands out about Simmons compared to other elite teenagers, though, is his size and athleticism. The 18 year-old is unusually thick for a player at this stage of his career but hardly shows it, possessing a smooth gait and light feet that allow him to move like a player far smaller. If Simmons weren’t such a unique offensive talent, we’d be gushing about his potential on the other end of the floor – this is a guy who should be able to check multiple positions with ease.
But Simmons truly stands out with the ball in his hands. He boasts the court sense and general nuance of a primary playmaker, an all-encompassing attribute combined with his physical tools that make the common “poor man’s LeBron James” description seem very apt. Simmons is a willing and creative passer with a natural understanding of pace and angles normally reserved for point guards.
He frequently fed Kentucky commit and fellow potential number one pick Skal Labissiere for easy baskets in the second half, creasing the paint off ball-screens or a quick first step, drawing the defense, and finding the big man for two. And while it’s the fancy dish below that turned most heads, Simmons had an equally if not more impressive wraparound dish to the big man in the halfcourt just minutes later.
That play reminds of an important part of Simmons’ game: He’s ambidextrous. The future Tiger shoots jumpers left-handed but is perhaps more comfortable around the basket utilizing his right, a la Memphis Grizzlies star Mike Conley. Watching Simmons pass, handle, and shoot near the paint, it really is impossible to tell which is his dominant hand – a trait of which he takes full advantage on all areas of the floor.
But he’s not without weaknesses, of course, the most glaring of which is his lack of confidence from the perimeter. Simmons barely looked at the basket from outside 18 feet and missed his only three-point try on Saturday, too. Unless he develops a consistent jump-shot, the teen will be unable to fully leverage the other gifts that make him such a devastating offensive threat.
A less remarked upon but equally legitimate concern concern for Simmons’ NBA potential is his lack of length. He was measured with an underwhelming 6’11 wingspan and downright vexing 8’7 standing reach this week, casting doubt on his ability to play the role of small-ball power forward. It’s from that role where Simmons’ handling and passing gifts would be most influential, but it’s unknown at this point whether or not he’ll be able to occupy it regularly. Explosiveness and strength help offset that relative weakness, though, and Simmons has both in spades.
Some scouts even believe Simmons has already staked a deep claim to the first pick in 2016’s draft. Via Yahoo’s Marc Spears:
“He can play on any NBA team right now,” the NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “He’s big and sees the game like a point guard. He can guard shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards. That’s real talent. He looks 7-footers in the eye. Just skip him and go on to evaluate the next guy.”
While we’re not quite ready to anoint him a prospect the likes of Anthony Davis, Greg Oden, or James, we agree with the overarching sentiment conveyed above. Simmons really could play in the NBA tomorrow – that’s how valuable a commodity his playmaking gift is in a player blessed with his physical profile.
Whether he ends up at the top of his draft class or not, Simmons’ stellar all-around performance Saturday put us in a first class seat on his bandwagon. And it’s likely to get very, very crowded over the next calendar year.