First in a series.
Ben Simmons's Twitter avatar is a picture of a black sweatshirt with the words "Just a Kid From Melbourne" emblazoned across the front. While that phrase is technically true, it also horribly undersells the talents of the reigning Gatorade National Player of the Year.
There aren't many kids from Melbourne who - at two inches shy of seven feet - can run the break as effortlessly as a point guard. And, despite the recent influx of Australian-born players into the NBA, there are very few people from Oz who can defend multiple positions with the ease that Simmons can.
Depending on who you listen to, Ben Simmons is either the best or the second-best prospect in the 2016 NBA Draft class. Regardless of who you listen to, Ben Simmons is an extraordinary basketball player who has the potential to be a superstar at the NBA level.
There has been no shortage of accolades from the basketball community for Simmons, who is only five years removed from what appeared to be a promising career playing Australian rules football. ESPN's Fran Fraschilla is already on record saying that Simmons will be a "positionless star" when he suits up for LSU this fall, and Seth Davis of CBS Sports and SI.com says that the 6'10", 239-pound power/point forward is "the best passing big man to enter the college game since Kevin Love arrived at UCLA in 2007."
"If you understand the game of basketball, I don't know how you can watch him and not see a special, special basketball player," said an unnamed NBA GM in a conversation with ESPN's Chad Ford earlier this year (Insider only). "I'd take him over anyone in the 2015 NBA draft. He's just scratching the surface of what he could be."
Since moving to the States two and a half years ago, Simmons helped guide Florida's Montverde Academy to three consecutive National High School Invitational championships. Simmons had a limited role in Montverde's first title run in 2013, but he was the star of the 2014 NHSI championship game, scoring 24 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and handing out five assists in his team's 71-62 victory over Oak Hill Academy. Los Angeles Lakers' guard D'Angelo Russell was Simmons' teammate for two seasons, and the former Ohio State star has nothing but praise for a player who only lost a single game while wearing a Montverde uniform.
"His upside, his skill, his demeanor... everything he does, the way he carries himself has 'professional' written all over it," said Russell, when asked about Simmons this past April in an interview with The Basketball Diary. "I mean, he definitely has a lot of things to work on, but he's a gym rat, and I feel like he'll get it done if he just puts his mind to it."
Ben Simmons's gym rat mentality likely comes from his father, Dave, who played 11 seasons in Australia's National Basketball League. The elder Simmons - who spent a couple of years as an assistant coach for the now-defunct Hunter Pirates in the NBL - is probably also the reason why Ben is one of the most fundamentally sound prospects in the 2016 draft class. Simmons's court vision and playmaking ability are uncommon for a player his size and age, yet he's also not afraid to mix it up in the paint, if necessary.
Back in November, Simmons signed a National Letter of Intent with an LSU basketball program that hasn't been relevant since the days of Chris Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal. The Tigers have qualified for the NCAA Tournament just twice since 2006, but thanks to a fortuitous edge on the competition - LSU assistant head coach David Patrick is Simmons's godfather - Baton Rouge (and not Lexington) will be home to the SEC's most-heralded freshman this season.
Long before Simmons's first collegiate game, the LSU hype train has reached Japanese maglev speeds. The Tigers are set to begin a five-game exhibition tour of Australia later this month, and Simmons has already been the focus of multiple (albeit, controversial) LSU marketing campaigns in an effort to sell season tickets.
In the midst of the adulation, it's almost easy to forget that Simmons is only a handful of days removed from his 19th birthday. The 2015 Naismith Player of the Year spent the latter part of June holding his own against James Harden and Anthony Davis at the Nike Basketball Academy, mere weeks after skipping his prom after noting that the milestone event in the lives of many high school seniors is "kind of overrated."
Watched LSU's Ben Simmons for 3 straight days at the Nike Basketball Academy. He's ridiculous. Simmons has versatile talent rarely seen.— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) June 30, 2015
Regardless of how the next twelve months play out, Simmons's path to the NBA will be different than that of another "kid from Melbourne" - Utah Jazz point guard Dante Exum - who decided to go forego college altogether. Exum and Simmons are long-time friends who used to have sleepovers during their younger days, but the latter has chosen to test his game against the best at the collegiate level before making the jump to the pros.
"I knew the best competition was here and so that's why I came," said Simmons in an interview last year with SLAM Magazine. "Me going to LSU was a decision where I never wanted to go to a team that's already stacked, but to a team where we'd need to work and play hard in order to win."
The chances are good that Simmons will face similar adversity with whatever team he winds up with following the draft next June. Fortunately for his future employer, the kid from Melbourne seems to be up for the challenge.