The draw for this week’s Legends Classic at Barclays Center in Brooklyn was undoubtedly ultra-talented LSU freshman Ben Simmons. Simmons’ LSU squad came in as the tournament’s only nationally ranked team – based almost solely on the justified hype of Simmons – but after two straight losses, the Tigers likely won’t sniff the Top 25 for some time.
Of course, with great talent comes great pressure, expectation and criticism, so it’s not surprising that despite absolutely stuffing the stat sheet, Simmons had his game picked apart by fans and media alike.
In Monday night’s loss to Marquette, Simmons tallied a ridiculous 21 points, 20 rebounds and 7 assists. Those are [I would name a superstar but can’t think of one befitting] numbers.
However, the storyline of that game, along with the numbers, was the fact that Simmons made two passes on the final/potential winning possession, rather than taking the shot himself or attacking the basket and drawing a foul. This is not unfair criticism, particularly the latter, but it comes from a basic misunderstanding of what Simmons is right now: a 6’10 pure point guard.
That’s right, he’s a point guard who just happens to be 6’10. He thinks like a point guard, his coach views him as a point guard and his teammates look at him as their point guard.
“I came down and looked to the paint and saw a defender to my left and right, so they did a great job on defense to make sure I couldn’t get to the rim,” Simmons explained in response to a question about why he didn’t take the last shot in the Marquette game. “I saw Brandon [Sampson] open, threw it to him, I thought he was going to take the shot, he didn’t, he gave it back to me, I threw it to Jalyn [Patterson], I trust him a lot.”
Last night in another loss, this time to NC State, Simmons posted an even more 6’10 point guard-like box score: 10 assists, 14 rebounds, 3 blocks, but only 4 points on 1-6 shooting.
NC State packed their defense in the lane and dared Simmons to shoot. He didn’t. He took what the defense gave him, found passing lanes and tried to get his teammates good looks.
“I think what people probably have to learn to appreciate about Ben is that he has the ability to impact the game in a lot of different ways,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said after their 83-72 overtime loss to the Wolfpack. “Ben has a really high basketball IQ. I think he played the game the way it’s supposed to be played. He’s always very aggressive, he looks for opportunities for his teammates.”
Simmons’ teammates have had a far more seamless adjustment to his game than fans and media so far.
“When Ben has the ball in his hands, it’s just about being locked in because he’s a real unselfish player,” LSU freshman Brandon Sampson said. “I’m always looking forward to him passing the ball because that’s what he likes to do, he likes to pass before scoring.”
Of course, winning would help deflect even unfair criticism, so Simmons must accomplish that in order to be truly appreciated. He is a work in progress and his shooting will undoubtedly improve, based on his solid form and touch from the free throw line.
However, what he possesses right now is unbelievable athleticism and timing, tremendous vision and passing ability, very good ball handling skills, and speed with the ball perhaps never seen from a player his size. All of that puts enormous pressure on any defense.
So, there is nothing currently wrong with Simmons’ game. He is the most unique of talents and fans and media must broaden our horizons and appreciate what we are seeing at the moment: a 6’10 pure point guard, that is sure to be the first pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
Marquette (3-2) took home the Legends Classic Championship last night by beating Arizona State in overtime, 78-73. Freshman sensation Henry Ellenson led the Golden Eagles with 18 points and 11 rebounds, taking home the tournament MVP award. Marquette has come a long way from their blowout loss to Iowa last week. Their two wins this week will give them much confidence moving forward, but also two quality wins for the Selection Committee to mull over.
LSU’s two losses could be bigger than they look at the moment. The Tigers (3-2) don’t have much beef left on their non-conference schedule. They will likely have to perform very well within the SEC to feel at all safe on Selection Sunday.
North Carolina bounced back after their upset loss at Northern Iowa over the weekend to beat Kansas State 80-70 in Kansas City. The Tar Heels (5-1) were led by emergent star Justin Jackson’s 22 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists. They have a marquee game with Maryland next on December 1st.
Speaking of Maryland (4-0), they survived a tough game versus Illinois State in Mexico, winning 77-66, behind 18 points from Rasheed Sulaimon and 15 points and 7 assists from Melo Trimble. Nothing has been easy so far for the Terps, as they have had to grind out their last three wins.
Follow Jamal Murphy on Twitter: @Blacketologist