Ben Simmons’ college career presents a dilemma

LSU's Ben Simmons watches from the bench with minutes left in an NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, in Fayetteville, Ark. Arkansas won 85-65. (AP Photo/Samantha Baker)
LSU's Ben Simmons watches from the bench with minutes left in an NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, in Fayetteville, Ark. Arkansas won 85-65. (AP Photo/Samantha Baker)

Credit: Samantha Baker

Credit: Samantha Baker

Ben Simmons blends in, or seems to. Is the prospective No. 1 pick in the NBA draft supposed to do that? Is he supposed to float like a leaf along the river of Southeastern Conference basketball?

Simmons, the point guard/power forward from Louisiana State, has been regarded as the St. Edward’s Crown of this draft for more than a year. And the 76ers have less than a month to decide whether these and other questions about him are merely the nitpicking that’s expected in a second-by-second news cycle or if they’re something more.

Watch an hour of Simmons’ tape, and it’s obvious how easily so much of the game comes to him. It comes so easily that you have to remind yourself of the work he had to have put in to refine those gifts. He is left-handed but has no hesitation or difficulty in shooting small hook shots, runners in the lane, or short pull-up jumpers with his right hand. He is more than a willing passer; he is a generous and exceptional one. He makes the appropriate pass for the appropriate situation: a bounce pass into the low block here, a fundamentally perfect chest pass to the open perimeter shooter there. At 6-foot-10 and 225 pounds, he might bring the ball up the court, get LSU organized in its offense, then settle into the lane, posting up a player of similar size.

On Feb. 10, against South Carolina, he made eight of his 12 shots from the field, scored 20 points, and had six rebounds and six assists. Yet Frank Martin, South Carolina’s head coach, said that it would be impossible to appreciate Simmons’ skills just by finding ESPNU on your channel grid and settling on the couch.

“You don’t gauge strength by watching film,” Martin said in a recent phone interview. “He plays extremely strong. He’s strong with the ball and without the ball. He’s as NBA-ready as anyone I’ve been around, either as an opponent or as someone I’ve coached. I think he’s got the athleticism and know-how to guard on the perimeter. Did he do that on a full-time basis? Probably not, but it’s not what his team needed. Watching him, there’s no doubt he can defend on the perimeter.”

That sounds marvelous for the Sixers, and an assistant coach for a team that played against LSU last season offered a similar assessment. “A couple of our post players felt like he was as strong as anyone we played against this year, pound for pound,” said the coach, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could provide a more honest evaluation of Simmons.

Funny, though: As impressed as Martin was by Simmons, South Carolina had little trouble overcoming him. The Gamecocks beat LSU, 94-83, and that result cuts to the core of the Simmons contradiction: Armed with a player who has been called the best pro prospect since LeBron James, LSU saw its season fall apart. The Tigers finished 19-14, lost their final game by 33 points, failed to make the NCAA tournament, declined to participate in the NIT, and were generally regarded as the biggest disappointment in college basketball — this, after going 22-11 without Simmons the season before.

So how much blame does Simmons deserve for that failure, and what does it portend, if anything, about his pro career? It’s a tricky question, because just by taking LSU’s win-loss record into consideration, you can end up sounding like an old-time scout or a cranky talk-radio caller, judging every player’s potential and ability by whether he’s a “winner or by whether he “has what it takes or by any number of cliches that express what you feel in your gut or what your eyes want to see.

Was Simmons incapable of taking over a game? Was he not inclined to? And how much validity do these doubts have? After all, not every great college player played for a great college team. Simmons averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 2.0 steals a game. He shot 56 percent from the field (though he took just three three-pointers all season, making one). Those are gobsmacking numbers for a freshman, and it is possible, perhaps even likely, that Simmons was a rose growing in a swamp.

“I thought he was zero percent of the problem,” the assistant coach said. “I told a few NBA scouts the same thing. I felt like they had some guys on their team who were jealous of him, who wouldn’t take a backseat to him, who wanted to shine themselves. I thought that was their biggest issue. … I think he’s phenomenal. I love him.”

Still, the assistant offered one anecdote that framed the relative difficulty of the Sixers’ decision: After facing Simmons and LSU, the assistant and his fellow coaches gathered in a tunnel inside the arena. One of them remarked how well they had done in keeping Simmons in check. Then they glanced at the box score. Simmons had scored more than 20 points and grabbed more than 10 rebounds. Their team had won, yet they hadn’t even noticed Simmons’ full impact on the game.

Was that a sign of the facile greatness of a franchise-changing player, or was it empty production from someone who, in the NBA, might turn out to be nothing more than a tease?