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?